Iesha Small

speaker, writer, communications professional

Helping working class and introverted professionals thrive.

How to listen better as a leader

Leadership can be viewed as how to communicate your own ideas and vision so that others will act. Listening is a key part of communication that can be forgotten. Read on to find out how to listen better.

In response to an earlier blog post about how to hold meetings people thank you for a reader said they wanted to learn to listen better so I’ve written this post to help.

I have one main tip for becoming a better listener. If you want to become a better listener you need to improve the quality of the questions that you ask. Good listening is really about curiosity. We listen when we want to find out more.

In my professional life I’ve definitely improved my listening skills over the past few years via:

  • Interviewing for podcasts
  • Interviewing school leaders who don’t fit the leadership mould for my forthcoming book “The Unexpected Leader
  • Interviewing focus groups and academic experts and chairing roundtables for research
  • Teaching
  • Coaching

I’ll share some of my own learning about becoming a more effective listener in professional situations.

Don’t ask questions to catch staff out

Why bother to ask a team member if they have marked their class books when you already know they haven’t? It’s a trap. They know and so do you. When they give answer you aren’t really listening because you are just waiting for them to confirm what you already know. I’ve done this before as a new leader and, to be honest, upon reflection it was pointless and created a bad atmosphere. With time I’ve found that honesty is preferable. How about “Look, I know you haven’t done x. What will help you to get it done in a reasonable time scale?” The real point is to find a solution not to catch people out.

Don’t ask questions where the answer is of no real use or won’t change anything

Sometimes we ask questions that we think we want to know the answer to but that actually won’t change anything. Then our minds wander as we get a response because we don’t really care about the answer. In schools often these questions are “Why?” questions that we are asking when there is some kind of non-compliance.

Imagine a child is running in the corridor. Early in my teaching career I may have asked, “why are you running?” but most of the time I don’t really care. Usually I don’t especially want to hear the story of how Finn’s friend farted and then it stunk so much in the classroom that Monique had to run away down the corridor because, although it’s entertaining, I have a to be somewhere. The truth is that I just want them to stop running. So before I ask questions of staff and students these days I internally think

  • Do I need to know the answer to this?
  • Do I care about the answer to this?
  • Will knowing the answer to this change anything?

If the answer is no, I don’t ask the question and think of a better one.

Curiosity helps us to listen

I’ve interviewed many interesting people, school leaders, researchers, artists, people who have worked in prisons, CEOs, people who have overcome difficult life experiences.  By far my best interviews, the ones where I’ve listened the most, are those with people outside of my field or had an expertise or interest that went beyond my own because I was aware that I wasn’t an expert in their area and I wanted to learn. To translate this into school where you may be a subject expert or leader who is expected to be more knowledgeable than others, find a way to ask questions so that you are in a genuine position of having to learn. If you are curious you will listen.

Having opinions stops us listening

Often we can’t listen properly because we are too busy thinking about our response. Try a conversation where you only ask questions. I’ve done this in lessons, during line management meetings and coaching sessions. It really forces you to listen to people’s answers. Let the person you are trying it with know in advance though.

Try a silent meeting

Once during an SLT strategy weekend we had a silent meeting. A question was posed and nobody was allowed to speak but we were able to write responses and ask follow up questions on sheets of paper. This forced us to read one another’s words and respond accordingly- it was listening but in writing. Interestingly, striping away the ability to speak forced us to listen better.

What next?

Listening is much easier if you develop your curiosity and ask better quality questions that you don’t know the answer to. I’d recommend Leading with questions and  Power Questions as good books to start with. What helps you to be a better listener? Leave a comment below, tweet or email me.

Enjoyed reading this blog post? Subscribe for future ones  you’ll also get a free copy of my ‘9 Lessons for unexpected leaders’ pdf.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

How to listen better as a leader