Listening or more precisely, active listening, is one of the most important skills you can develop as a leader. The importance of listening as it pertains to leadership is summed up in that quote, "Good leaders listen first and speak second."

Why? Because great team leaders understand their team members really well. They know what it takes to motivate them, they understand each individual's strengths and weaknesses. They've invested the time in connecting mentally and emotionally with each member of the team.

When team leaders better understand their team members' needs, they can offer the right support, guidance, motivation, and feedback to help the entire team succeed. Team members notice this and respond equally. When a person feels like you've invested in them, they will be more motivated to go the extra mile.

Being a great listener isn't a destination. You don't travel and one day reach it and then you're there. There are always ways to improve your listening skills -- there's no cap on how good you can get. Here are a few tips for being a better listener:

Prepare and focus before the conversation

If you know about the conversation ahead of time, there are various steps you can take to clear your mind and set you up to actively listen. A Wall Street Journal article recommends the following steps before you sit down to listen:

  • Do a "brain dump" to clear your mind of distractions -- make notes or task lists you can easily pick up later
  • Make a list of questions or topics you want to cover during the conversation
  • Prepare to limit the time you spend talking to 20 percent or 25 percent
  • Remove beeps and buzzes -- put down, ignore or turn off phones and other distracting devices

Be aware of your assumptions

We all make assumptions -- it's part of how we're wired and how we navigate the world. "Your brain is primed to accept only information that agrees with your preconceived notions," an article in Scientific American explains. "Yet if you can cultivate a sense of genuine interest about where the other person is coming from and what he or she might say, you create an environment in which whoever you're talking to feels heard and you can actually hear." So ask questions to help clarify things, this will engage you as you listen and absorb.

Repeat what the other person said

In most conversations, you're listening, but also thinking about how you'll respond. This takes away from how intently you're listening. Also in conversation, we tend to be in doing mode, which can be diametrically opposed to listening.

"Often, colleagues come to you with a problem, and so your initial reaction is to prepare yourself to solve the problem. However, the problem that people come to talk to you about is not always the real problem that needs to be solved," Art Markman, a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, writes in Fast Company.

Markman suggests repeating back what the other person has said to you to improve your listening skills. "You have to listen carefully to what other people have said in order to be able to repeat it back," he explains. "When you accurately state what other people have said, they feel like you have taken in what they had to say. As a result, they trust your response more than if they don't feel they were heard. By repeating it back, you also ensure that you really understood it."

Listening is tricky because theoretically we all do it all the time, but it's rare to be a truly great listener. Take it from one of the greats, Richard Branson, who says leaders that listen well get great results. "Great listeners are often terrific at uncovering and putting in place strategies and plans that have a big impact," he once said. For additional resources on listening, take a look at these TED talks.