What is so Hard About Listening and How Can Leaders Get Better at it?

Sculpture Listening

Leadership Skills That Inspire Incredible results author Fred Halstead explores the barriers to listening leaders face.

Today’s post is by Fred Halstead, author of Leadership Skills Inspire Incredible Results (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

Strange, isn’t it—how we can listen to some people and not so much to most people. My job is dependent upon listening, not only to the words that are said, but to the meaning of what is said. My clients would comment favorably on my listening skills. Yet, apart from my coaching, it is easy for my listening skills to slip, sometimes sharply.  When listening to someone who you respect or is important to you, listening is easier. But what can we do to more consistently listen when it is challenging?

What will motivate you?

Setting the foundation of active, focused listening is essential. The first element in making any difficult change is to understand what will motivate us. Motivation that will drive significant change goes deeper than the surface. It’s not casual, easy to push off. It reflects who we are and who we want to be. What will motivate you to become a consistently better listener? For me it is a strong drive to respect others, independent of whether I believe they deserve it. That motivation is resolute in both my mind and heart. What will it be for you? It will pay great dividends if you know what motivation resonates in your gut, your mind, and your heart. Ultimately, you are the one who will figure that out.

Recognizing and overcoming listening inhibitors

After you have determined what will motivate you to muster the focus and discipline to be a consistently great listener, it is worthwhile to reflect on what the barriers might be.  Having been an executive search consultant for many years and then an executive coach for the past 15 years, I have been an active observer of what gets in the way of leaders being active and  focused listeners.  A critical part of becoming a better listener is to understand and then overcome our inhibitors to listening. Here are some of the most frequent barriers to truly listening:

A conscious or subconscious lack of respect for others.

The fact is when you listen to another person you are respecting them. When you do not truly listen, you are disrespecting that person. Our disrespect may not even be intentional, but it is disrespect nevertheless. Just recognizing that may be a tremendous way to inspire ourselves to be in the present and truly listen. What would be the implications for you and for others if you regularly respected everyone, regardless of how challenging that can be?

The natural desire to talk.

If you decide to work hard to be a better listener, please be honest with yourself. For just about everyone, it is far more natural to talk than to listen. We want to tell others what we think, what we did, what we know, rather than listen to them. Therefore, give yourself a break, but understand that focused and active listening requires discipline. Which brings you back to the rock-solid motivation needed to muster the discipline to recognize and discard the barriers to great listening. While listening is not natural, as you get better at it, you will come to realize there is joy associated with it. The joy of respecting that person, of being disciplined, and of overcoming all the things that get in the way of listening.

Judging others.

A leader is called to assess people, their talents, their capabilities, and their performance. That is an essential part of the job. When assessing turns into judging them or anyone as a person, it becomes harder to really hear them or gain any benefit from what they are saying.  What could motivate you to reduce or eliminate the temptation to judge others while listening to them?

Preconceptions and biases.

Here is another inhibitor that can get in the way of truly listening. “Every time I talk with him, he always has the same point of view.” “I just know he is not very smart, so it is so hard to listen to him. What will I get out of it?” She is from another part of the company, so what could she possible know about this?” “She only wants to focus on…., so what is the point of listening to her?” But you will learn something new when you leave your bias and sprinkle in some thoughtful questions and a dose of curiosity.  What will you gain if abandon your bias when listening?


We all have a need to appear to be smart. Maybe even to “be the smartest one in the room.” My observation is that, the less we worry about appearing smart and the more we listen and ask great questions, the smarter we will appear to be. And others will have an even greater respect for us. Another observation is that those who are known for their big ego are often the ones who have the deepest doubts about themselves. If you are a great listener it is hard to also be known as the person with the big ego.


When I give the program ‘Skills That Inspire Incredible Results’ to leadership teams this always garners a strong response. I hear comments like: “I have so much to do I have to multi-task.” Our ability to think comes from our prefrontal cortex lobe. Information is processed serially, meaning each piece of new information is processed individually. Our brains cannot take in multiple bits of information simultaneously. Most of us can process information very rapidly, but not simultaneously. Meaning we are most effective when put all our focus on one thing at a time. This may sound like it could not possibly work for you. Try for one week to turn from the computer or whatever might distract you and just listen to person who is talking to you. You will be amazed by the outcome.

Leadership Skills that Inspire Incredible Results

Fred Halstead is the founder and principal of Halstead Executive Coaching and author of Leadership Skills That Inspire Incredible Results (CLICK HERE to get your copy). As an executive search consultant for three decades, Halstead has developed an understanding of the traits of high performing leaders and how those traits can be adapted to unique cultural environments.

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