Billionaire entrepreneurs Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Richard Branson have gone on record to say that communication is the most important skill you need. Yet most people think of communication in the speaking sense of the word.

Branson expands further on his own Virgin blog:

"Communication makes the world go round. It facilitates human connections, and allows us to learn, grow, and progress. It's not just about speaking or reading, but understanding what is being said -- and in some cases what is not being said. Communication is the most important skill any leader can possess." [emphasis mine]

Did you catch it? "Understanding what is being said" is the essence of powerful listening -- the other side of the communication equation. And without it, you cannot be a good leader.

The awful truth about good leadership? Three words:

Listen before speaking.

Specifically, you must actively listen to the people you lead -- with your whole head and heart -- to gain influence and build trust with others.

And I do mean listen with your ears. See, the digital era is causing a slow degeneration in our ability to verbally communicate. Specifically, the part of verbal communication that doesn't require words.

Being connected 24/7 to mobile apps, texting, email, and communicating in 140 characters or less is certainly convenient, but we need to guard against diminishing our own ability to verbally engage and listen to colleagues and clients when necessary.

The Mistake Most Managers Make

An informal poll I recently conducted on LinkedIn revealed the need for more active listening in the workplace. I set out to find what managers are doing wrong by asking the question "What is the one mistake leaders make more frequently than others?"

I received hundreds of responses, which I ranked and published as the "8 Mistakes Managers Make, According to Their Employees." Mistake No. 3 is plain and simple -- they don't listen. The lack of two-way communication -- sending without receiving -- was a clear regret for many employees.

The majority of people listen selectively. We're hearing someone's words come out, but in our heads we're thinking, "When is Joe going to stop talking so I can tell him that I have another point of view and I'm right?"

That's why I strongly feel that active listening should be taught in business schools. It is one of the least taught skills in leadership, yet it's the most utilized. As studies point out, we spend 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours in some form of communication, and of that time, 45 percent is spent listening.

And while many leaders assume they're good listeners, studies confirm that most of us are poor and inefficient listeners. When you talk to your boss, co-workers, or customers for 10 minutes, studies say we pay attention to less than half of the conversation. Within 48 hours, whatever information we've retained decreases to 25 percent. In other words, we often comprehend and retain only one fourth of what we hear!

4 Ways to Develop Your Listening Skills

As a leader, building up your active listening skills is crucial for solving problems, building trust, and winning the hearts and minds of people. Here are four difference makers for the way you listen.

1. Listen to understand first.

Peter Drucker once said, "The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said." It's important to be able to know what's going on with the other person by reflecting back what you heard to clarify ("What I hear you saying is ... "), and ask questions to probe the other person's feelings or opinions on the topic of conversation. Probing can be as simple as "Tell me how you feel about this."

2. Listen by putting people at ease.

Emotionally intelligent people are great listeners, especially with those they have just met. That's because they know human nature--most people love to talk about themselves, and people with high emotional intelligence will let them. They'll make new acquaintances feel welcome and appreciated with their listening presence, rather than impatiently jumping in with a sales pitch or elevator speech. Most of us can't wait to assert ourselves with potential clients or a new connection, but in our hastiness we miss the bigger opportunity to listen and take in more information that will make us look good later. And sometimes, it gets worse when we're nervous. That's when we look unprofessional and lose out.

3. Listen with the other person's interest in mind.

Had a recent conflict? Is the team not on the same page? If you really want to reconnect with those who have distanced themselves from you, listen for meaning and understanding with the other person's needs in mind. The listening has one modis operandi: How can I help this other person? In his classic essay, The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf said that "only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first." This will give you the edge to build trust. In the work setting, you benefit from this style of listening because the more receptive you are to helping the others, the safer you make it for them to be open enough to give you great input, great ideas, great contributions.

4. Listen with empathy

Empathic listening is the skill of extending yourself for others by really seeing things as they see it, and feeling things as they feel them. This means parking your thoughts and emptying yourself out completely from the noise and chatter in your own head. It means becoming fully present and mindful to the other person. It means refraining from making or preparing to make a response. When you park your thoughts and are present to the other person, you're not distracted by the need to explain, defend, or fix. Yeah, it's hard work, but I know this to be one of the best ways to build trust with another person.