As a leader, I have found that there is nothing more valuable than the ability to listen effectively.

It is the one thing that enables us to connect with others on an individual level and motivate them to follow us. What surprises me, however, is how little training is out there on effective listening.

We certainly weren’t taught it in grammar school, it was an afterthought in college, and I have yet to see it show up in any “on the job training” regimen.

Why is it then, in spite of this, every exceptional leader figures out the secret to effective listening? I’ll tell you why, it’s because:

It is impossible to become exceptional at leading others without first being exceptional at listening to others.

There are two ways that exceptional leaders get there: they learn the hard way as they bumble through years of mistakes, or they learn the fast way by being mentored by someone who has bumbled through years of mistakes. Either way, learning how to listen effectively takes time and practice.

A Roadmap to Effective Listening

Most people don’t know this but there are actually three levels of listening. The following roadmap will walk you through how to become an exceptional listener and save you years of blunders.

Level 1: Listen to Speak

Most of us start here and remain here unless we are intentional about becoming better listeners. At this level, we are mostly just thinking about the next thing we want to say while the other person is talking. This is the lowest level of listening and pretty much just comes naturally. Listening to speak has the most potential to create misunderstandings and often causes us to miss key information in conversations.

Level 2: Listen to Hear

Most of us can get here in select situations if we are motivated. At this level we are actively paying attention to what the other person is saying. We are not thinking about what we want to say next or distracted by other things, we are totally focused on the other person. A good example of listening to hear that most of us can relate to is when we are on a first date with a love interest; we tend to listen intently to their every word. The reason why we are able to do this in some situations but not in all is because our motivation to listen waxes and wanes depending on who we are with. If we truly want to become great listeners — and it will serve us well to do so — we have to motivate ourselves to listen intently to every person, not just some.

Level 3: Listen to Understand

This is the highest level of listening and few of us can get here without intentional practice. At this level we are not only paying attention to what others are saying, but also what they mean. People say things all the time but often fail to convey the underlying feelings or thoughts behind their words.

To give you an example, when you come home from work late and your spouse asks “Will you be at Susie’s music class tomorrow?” you respond “I will try but I have been swamped in the office and traffic is terrible.” your spouse says “This is Susie’s last class before her recital, how can you not make it?” (Things pretty much just continue in a downward spiral from there).

What went wrong? When your spouse asked if you will be at Susie’s music class, they were not asking simply for the sake of the class, they were trying to convey a deeper feeling. In this scenario, they were trying to tell you that they did not feel like you consider them a priority because you often come home late from work and miss important events. The music class was not the issue, it was merely the tipping point. When we pick up on the subtle queues and context of what others say it enables us to get at the main thing.


Whether it is in our personal or professional life, effective listening matters. If you want to be an exceptional leader, then you must become an exceptional listener. There is simply no way around it. Effective listening is the only way that leaders can connect with people and motivate them on an individual level. If we are intentional, we can develop into Level 3 listeners which will give us an edge at just about anything we want to do in life.

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