While leaders may do their fair share of talking -- delivering feedback, communicating goals, and managing crises -- a critical attribute of good leadership is listening. Listening well can help you understand other people's attitudes and motivations, which is essential in building cooperative and productive relationships, as well as discerning which relationships you'd be better off avoiding.

Some leaders are naturally good listeners. When others speak, they eliminate surrounding noise and distractions and engage fully with the person talking. For everyone else, there's hope: Like most skills, listening is a learned behavior that can be practiced and improved. 

To become more attuned to your team, start with these attention-boosting techniques that help you truly know what others need -- and what you can do to help.

Don't ask questions with hidden agendas.  

Rule number one: Stop listening to the sound of your own voice. Some questions are posed under false pretenses.They conceal a hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing, or correcting others. When your questions begin with "Wouldn't you agree...?" or "Don't you think ...?" and end with some variation of "Am I right?" you're probably trying to get others to see your point of view rather than undertand theirs. 

Well-crafted questions give others room to elaborate but keep them on point. Instead of asking if someone is happy at work -- a linear question likely to eliciit a truncated response -- choose a conversation-starting question like "How are things going for you at work?" As information rolls in, check your understanding. Asking a clarifying question -- "It sounds like you're saying X--did I get that right?" -- conveys genuine interest and keeps the conversation going.  

Be a reflective listener, not a reflexive listener. 

When we receive information we don't want to hear, there's a tendency to react with quick, reflexive solutions. But this fire-fighting approach often overlooks the underlying causes of the problems leaders are trying to solve. 

Ask yourself the following questions to reflect more deeply on what's being said:

  • What hope, fear or concern is this person trying to communicate?
  • What assumptions is this person making?
  • What reasoning is this person offering?

Before responding, allow yourself some wait time -- a few moments of reflection to truly consider what others are saying. By shifting from a reflexive to reflective approach, you'll not only provide others with more space to share, but will likely reach a more complete understanding about how you can address their unspoken needs. 

Pay attention to body language and nonverbal cues.

What we show matters more than what we say. Body language and other nonverbal cues reveal our true feelings. Attentive listeners can collect additional insights simply by watching for the body's tell-tale signs:

  • Crackling or hushed voice
  • Slumped or shifty posture
  • Lack of eye contact, narrowing of eyebrows
  • Tightening of cheeks and lips

For leaders, paying attention pays off: Researchers have found that people volunteer less information and speak less articulately when talking to inattentive listeners, whereas attentive listeners -- as measured by their awareness of nonverbal cues -- receive more relevant and detailed information even without having to ask for it. If you aren't observing, you aren't learning. 

Leading is listening. If you want to increase your leadership presence, demonstrate greater empathy and show others they matter, then take stock of how you're seeking and receiving information from your team. You might be surprised by what you hear.