An effective leader employs many skills and tools to inspire and motivate. One of the most important of these may be the skill to listen, rather than merely hear – or tell. While the ability to listen well is not ingrained, the good news is that it can definitely be learned. As with anything else, education, training and practice can be employed to help you become a better listener – and a better leader.

Unlike hearing, which is passive, listening is an active process that requires a conscious decision be made; a choice to listen to and understand the message of the speaker, without judgement or rebuttal. Instead, the active listener is committed to hearing and feeling the speaker’s entire message before forming an opinion or “taking sides”. This of course requires patience, but it also requires respect for the speaker, allowing him or her to fully develop the thoughts and ideas that are being communicated – without premature, negative feedback.

What is active listening?

As explained at the Holden Leadership Center website, active listening “is the active pursuit of understanding what the other person is saying and feeling. In active listening, the receiver tries to understand what the sender is feeling and what the message means. The listener puts his/her understanding into his/her own words and feeds it back to the speaker for verification. It is important to feed back only what the listener feels the speaker’s message meant, nothing more, nothing less.”

In other words, active listening requires that you take what the speaker has to say at face value and, only after you’ve shown that you fully understand the message, should you begin to respond with your own thoughts. This type of consideration for the speaker illustrates your respect for the opinions of others – and for them as individuals – and will go a long way toward building loyalty among your team.

After all, while you may be the type of leader who provides direction and vision, you can’t be expected to “have all the answers in every situation”, which makes the free flow of ideas vital to the success of the entire team. By using active listening, you will reinforce your belief in your team members, letting them know they are, indeed, important to you, as well as to each other.