A female boss listening with all attention to her subordinate in the meeting

Listening may be one of the most underappreciated activities and skills, not only for leaders, but for everyone. It is central to all our relationships, and yet it generally receives surprisingly little attention.

In many of the trainings I’ve led, regardless of the industry, position, or culture of the participants, I find that people are stunned to discover the power of listening. And they are surprised to discover how rarely they truly listen — listen without interrupting, without planning the “right” or any response, just being fully present, without any agenda.

Listening to another person can take us out of the narrow, self-centered world that we often unknowingly create and open us to another person’s experience. This can shift our experience of ourselves and foster a connection with another person that fulfills the empathic ape’s need and longing for trust and openness.

Here are four different ways to listen:

  1. Distracted listening — a very common form of listening. Instead of really listening, we are thinking of what we are going to say or how someone ’s words are impacting us.
  2. Listening for facts — listening to the content of what is being said.
  3. Empathic listening — listening for feelings. Not only paying attention to content but noticing what feelings are being expressed. We can grow in empathy when we try to get better at listening to others and to our own inner, subtle voices so this is a skill that is easily enhanced as we practice it.
  4. Generative listening — listening with curiosity and openness. Listening underneath and in between the words and feelings for clues as to what the speaker may be implying or moving toward. This form of listening sometimes arises as a feeling, image, or intuition. It is a way of helping another person see more clearly; it is not advice giving or problem solving.


Experiment with these four levels of listening:

  • Notice when you are not listening and when listening for facts.
  • Experiment with empathic listening. How do you know what someone else is feeling? With a close friend or partner, you might explore asking what they are feeling as they are speaking.
  • Explore generative listening. Coaches, consultants, and medical professionals do this regularly. Open yourself to listening between the lines, using your intuition. After voicing a feeling, image, or opening that you see, explore how this resonates with the person you are listening to.

Listening with your full attention, both to words and feelings, creates an environment of learning and going deeper, while building the connective tissue of trust and understanding.

We practice methods to listen empathically, generatively, and wholeheartedly in the workplace and in our relationships in my Seven Practices of a Mindful leader online course: a four-week deep dive into how mindfulness can make you a better, happier, more compassionate and more effective manager/entrepreneur/friend/parent/human being. You can learn more about this training here.