Developing the Art of Active Listening for Inclusive Leadership

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” 

Stephen. R. Covey, The 7 habits of Highly Effective People.  


We are all guilty of keeping one eye (or ear) on a colleague and the other on our phones when in a meeting or continuing to draft an email as a colleague steps over to our desk with a question. Even in researching around this topic I am ashamed to admit that I continued to peruse articles while a colleague asked me a question – which I then needed to return to 30 minutes later to clarify as I had not retained any of what she said. It turns out I am not alone: according to research from the University of Missouri, we are on the whole, poor and inefficient listeners. In fact, the average person retains between 25% and 50% of what they hear! Clearly, passive or distracted listening is bad for productivity but it is also bad for workplace morale – a team that feels unheard or undervalued will not work cohesively and it falls to the responsible leader to pave the way for creating an inclusive workplace where all employees feel they are (and actually are) heard.  


What is Active Listening? 

Active listening is just that: it’s active, it is a deliberate act. It is not distracted or judgemental, nor is it pre-emptive or interrupting. It is mindful and it is empathetic of your conversational partner. It is also an act that we are generally not very accomplished at. A skill that takes time to develop and master, focused listening is sadly lost or de-prioritised the higher we climb in our careers. Nevertheless, active listening in the workplace can positively impact the overall communication of your workforce. Empathetic dialogue breeds honesty which in turn can lead people to suspend judgement and increase their understanding of the opposite party. This can be vital in resolving workplace disputes or misunderstandings.   


Women in the Workplace and the Perils of the “Manterruption”  

It is important to recognise the gendered element to active listening, and the additional roadblocks that women can face when making their voices and opinions heard. Research shows that men are almost three times more likely to interrupt women as they are other men. And women, because of the negative stereotypes associated with being over-assertive or “bossy”, often allow this to happen unchallenged. To combat this, male leaders should reflect on their own actions and ensure that their female workforce is afforded the same platform to divulge their opinions – and the same captive audience that their male counterpart would experience. Female leaders too should call out this behaviour when it happens in meetings, and return to the woman who was interrupted, ensuring she has finished contributing, before moving onto the next point. It is the role of the responsible leader to be an active ally as well as an active listener when it comes to amplifying female voices and experiences in the workplace. If needed, an app has even been developed that tracks the number of times women are interrupted by men in a meeting. 


Tips to Improve Active Listening at the Individual and Organisational Level  

Individuals Can:  

  • Leave your devices behind. Ensure you give your full attention to the conversation. Passive listening occurs when you are multi-tasking or distracted.  

  • Stop yourself from interrupting. Learn to still the voice within – even past your usual tolerance level.  

  • Visualise the other person’s viewpoint. Consider the feelings of the person you are conversing with – try to put yourself in their shoes. Engage with their thoughts and feelings, not just their words.  

  • Look, act and be interested. Pay attention to body language and facial expressions.  

  • Be open to influence. Try not to enter the conversation with a pre-determined outcome in mind.  

  • Speak only affirmatively when answering. Do not evaluate or offer critical comments unless prompted.  

  • Periodically and when appropriate, rephrase key points in the conversation. 


Organisations Can:  

  • Develop engaging and relatable methods of receiving feedback from staff. These can include:  

  • 360 Reviews – an opportunity for all colleagues to feedback on teammates, not just line managers.  

  • Virtual Focus Groups – real-time, facilitated chatrooms where participants take part anonymously in a structured session.  

  • Peer-to-Peer Sharing – interactive groups share their challenges and offer feedback as a group.  

  • Millennial Boards – young, diverse professionals brought together to tackle the same issues facing their board of directors.  

  • Reverse Mentoring – junior team members paired with someone more senior to share topics and knowledge of strategic and cultural importance.  

  • Create an atmosphere of trust by ensuring feedback is followed up upon with a visible response and clear communication of next steps.  

  • Follow up on feedback to understand why the organisational culture has developed in the way it has.  


Why Active Listening is Important to Ensure Inclusion  

Active listening fuels inclusion. When people develop real connections with each other they feel they can bring their whole selves to work which in turn can see an increase in productivity and emotional wellbeing among staff. It is especially important in multicultural work environments. On the emotional level it is important to engage with people who have different lived experiences from your own and ensure you are taking the time to learn from them; on the productivity level it is vital to improve communication between teams and reduce conflict or misunderstanding. A relatively small gesture such as investing in really listening can mean a lot to an employee who feels isolated. Connecting on the personal level will open the door to honest communication and can break down the barriers that some employees feel hold them back from sharing their true feelings and opinions. A workforce that feels comfortable expressing themselves in the office environment is more likely to engage fully, reducing presenteeism and increasing innovation.  


About the Author: Emily Moss, Head of Marketing & Communications at Community Business