#1 Barrier to Leadership – Not Listening

By Dr. Mary Kay

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

In a previous article, I introduced an upcoming article series titled the Top 10 Barriers to Leadership. This first installment is about Listening Strategies.

By minimizing and/or eliminating the most common barriers to leadership, we can easily accelerate the growth of our personal and professional leadership skills and leadership qualities.

With this goal in mind, here is the purpose of this series:

  • To be aware of leadership frustrations
  • To uncover our blind spots
  • To develop new habits.
  • To become better leaders with everyone
  • To make a difference with those we lead

The Top Frustrations

I’ve found that people can really help us become great leaders if we work on their recommendations and suggestions for fine-tuning our leadership qualities.

The Top 10 Barriers to Leadership is not something I made up – it is a list of 10 leadership barriers that are repeated to me over and over from business owners, managers, employees, parents, customers, strangers, neighbors, friends, co-workers, teachers, preachers, and people I meet on the airplane.

These barriers to leadership are ongoing trends of the top frustrations people have with other people that are leading them in some aspect of their life.

Barrier #1

“They just don’t listen, hear me, or understand!” “I don’t know why they bother to ask my opinion because they don’t listen to what I have to say!”

Have you had this same feeling? It is frustrating when we don’t feel heard. When I don’t feel heard, I don’t feel respected.

Are you guilty of not listening?

Be honest. How recently have you:

  • Interrupted someone while he or she is talking?
  • Interjected your words of wisdom?
  • Increased the pace and tone of your message?
  • Thought about something else? Why is someone talking?
  • Looked out the window or start texting?
  • Thought you have already figured out what the person is saying before they finish their first sentence?

I know I’m guilty sometimes because it takes a lot of energy to listen!

It is like going to the gym and working out. Do I really have to listen now? Sometimes it even hurts to listen. To be a great listener, you must exercise focus, patience, body language, and attitude. Yes, to really listen takes discipline, and it can be very fatiguing!

Wow! If we aren’t genuinely listening to others, how do we build trust? Get results? Be effective leaders? Listening truly is a topic to reflect upon.

Listening Strategy

Listening Strategies

Because we have so many things going on in our heads and we operate at our pace, and within our time frame, the following reminders will help all of us become better listeners.

Take a minute and review this list, and share these listening skills and strategies with others.

Look Interested

No multitasking. Stop what you are doing and give great eye contact, relax your jaw, and look approachable.

Even if you are an auditory learner, you must face the person that is talking to you. Also, texting and looking at your phone while people are talking is very rude – even in group meetings.

Be Silent

Zip it! Refrain from talking while people are trying to tell you what is on their minds. Silence is golden in order to understand the content and intent of the message.

When we interrupt or start to talk, we come across as defensive. Yes, I know this is very hard to do, but we all need to work at not defending ourselves when we need to be listening.

Stay Focused

Pay attention! Refrain from analyzing the message or making judgments about the message or the messenger. If you start to veer off and get distracted, quickly get back on track with the conversation. Tune in.

Ask Clarifying Questions

Clarifying questions are “tell me more” questions. Formulate questions that start with “what,” not “why.”

Why do questions come across as an interrogation that stops the flow of communication? Why questions are great for solving technical problems but do not serve us well when our goal is to listen.


Be sincere. Listening is not about being nice! When we sincerely listen, we are respectful to others.

By finding out what is between the right and left ears of the messenger, we personally gain a lot. We build relationships, influence, and gather important information.

Get in Rhythm

Have a 50/50 dialogue. The true measure of a great listener is a person that participates in the conversation. A great listener talks (asks questions/acknowledges) 50% of the time, and the messenger talks 50% of the time.

A fantastic dialogue has a rhythm to it – a flow. Both parties are in sync with the conversation without awkward moments. This works even if it is a topic that is unpopular.

Set a Goal

WIIFM? Right up front, ask yourself, “What Is In It For Me to listen to this person?” This sounds very selfish, but it is common knowledge that we will only become better listeners if we have a reason or motive to listen.

If your answer is to help yourself become a better leader, you will succeed. If you don’t have a reason to listen, you really won’t do anything different.

What Did You Learn?

I hope you have gained some insight into becoming a genuine listener from these listening strategies.

Practice, practice, practice. Discuss this article with people at home and at work. Have them tell you how you are doing (remember to listen). The more you practice, the easier it gets!

How Can Leaders Improve Their Listening Skills?

If you have ideas about not listening to what might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Dr. Mary Kay on FacebookDr. Mary Kay on Twitter
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and co-founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained over 30,000 leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Masterclass helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders.
  • Khaled Shaheen says:

    #1 Barrier is very common among leaders and managers, it may become barrier between his/her staff.
    The reason they always give ‘I’m busy’!

    The answwr of your question above ‘What will you do today to be a better listener? is simply To Listen!

  • Sonya DeBurr says:

    Good Stuff! I use the same messaging in my leadership sessions. Another point that I make is that when you LISTEN you should be SILENT. The point is emphasized that if you allow people to speak and you truly listen, you will learn things you would have never thought to ask. You will learn much more about a person’s heart and motivation if you allow them to just speak, uninterrupted. Once you know what’s in their minds and hearts you can make a better connection, establish trust, and lead with a geniunely caring agenda. I’ve witnessed some amazing metamorphosis in people and their relationships just by changing that ONE thing. Not easy, but worth it. My two cents. 🙂

  • Sonya DeBurr says:

    Sorry… the importance of re-mentioning the reference to silence in your post was to show the anagram. It always gets a chuckle and helps people to remember. 🙂 I’ll be silent now.

  • Khaled Shaheen says:

    Sonya DeBurr is correct, can we call it ACTIVE Listening!

  • Sonya DeBurr says:

    Yes, Khaled, WE can. But many times when you use the term ACTIVE listening folks think that means doing stuff while listening. :)I’m so so serious! I started a class asking what it meant and that was one of the answers. Cracked me up! I work with a LOT of entry and mid level managers… kids with iPhones, lol. Okay, now I’ll really be silent!

  • Dennis Frey says:

    Fantastic article on a important leadership topic! It is interesting that we have two ears and only one mouth.

  • Khaled Shaheen says:

    So it’s only Listening (without Active :), I see many people in business ignore this simple skill, it need no effort but really show respect.

    And 2 eyes to look while listening!

    You can open the link in the article to “10 Leadership Skills” nice

  • David McCuistion says:

    I’ve never heard the 50/50 dialogue strategy. That is a great method that compliments asking clarifying questions.

    I always ask my self as I am listening and have something to say, “Is what I have to say really important to the conversation?” That keep me from interrupting and injecting my point, which doesn’t always say what I really intended for it to mean.

    Thanks for the strategies. I Appreicate it.

  • Amr Gaber Ahmed says:

    I like the valuable advices at your Article and I will apply it in a daily basis , Thanks .

  • Nathan Slauson says:

    I think a certification in listening should be mandatory for all project managers.

  • Rick Willauer says:

    I read first chapter of book. Is it available on Barnes & Noble in e-book?

  • Angel Aguilar says:

    Great article!! the powerful part is when asks to assess oneself behaviour and realising, regardless what we may think about ourselves, our listening skills are biased.

  • Hi Rick, Thanks for reading Chapter 1. The e-book version we have available is on Amazon.com. Sorry, we don’t have a Barnes & Noble e-book version.

  • Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker says:

    Wow! I really like the excellent suggestions and comments that have been posted to this discussion. Thanks everyone!

  • Robert Coursen says:

    Good information. I think the most important thing that leadership needs is ability to hear. I work with my sales team constantly on listening and hearing skills. When we leave a customers office I always ask, what did you hear them say? They rarely get it right and then I tell them what I heard. They always say ” oh yeah” then I show them how the conversation opened upa nd our real opportunities were created. They are getting better. So many people listen and do not hear because they have already shut their mind out to anything they did not have on their agenda today. We listen, but we don’t truly hear what they are saying.

  • Robert L. Kehoe says:

    This is an outstanding article to get people thinking about listening. The goal setting section was specifically interesting to me because it tells the would be listener to get prepared to listen effectively. Another part of the goal to be a better listener might include identifying what kind of listening situation we find ourselves in. Is it a therapeutic listening situation where we need to have empathy and understanding in our responses? Or perhaps it is a listening situation where we need to be a critical listener listening for deception. A good reference for the different kinds of listening situations and the necessary skills to get through them effectively is the textbook “Listening” by Andrew Wolvin and Carol Gwynn Coakley 1996.

  • Craig Johnson says:

    First let me say I agree, without listening, leadership falters. Any reasonable person would say it helps relationships grow and trust build. It is in every leadership training, book, or blog. So why do we feel so passionate to even say it is in the “top 10 essentials?” There seems to be a tug of war between leadership and followers that is missing a key ingredient to enhanced communication and that is filling in the WHY? In my opinion most individuals seldom do anything without understanding the “why” of anything that needs to be done. So I ask you, has any leader or follower ever done anything without knowing the “Why?” And if you have what is the 1st word that comes into your mind as you are doing the task? My guess is the word is WHY! If we take the time to answer the why we may just see the first brick in the bridge of trust laid.

  • Ed Peterson says:

    Listening was a hard skill for me to learn. I have been guilty of reading email or other tasks and I justified it by convincing myself that I was being efficient by multitasking. Once I stopped multitasking, then I had to learn to keep my mouth shut while other people talked. By staying quiet, I observed that by letting them talk I allowed them to unload themselves. They were then ready to listen to my reply and the issue was quickly resolved. If I interrupted them, it became a competition to determine who was right.
    When listening, let the other person fully “unload their burden” or “vent” completely. Don’t be defensive and don’t interrupt. Only after they unload can you have a conversation that really addresses the issue.

  • Buck Fambrough says:

    Excellent article and valuable comments – perhaps we could call it Attentive Listening.

  • Sue Sabol says:

    This is an excellent article. As a staffing manager, this is a very important skill to have. I especially liked the suggestion to ask “what” instead of “why” when participating in a dialogue with the speaker. I’m looking forward to trying it!

  • Scott Patchin says:

    I love this topic and the checklist. The only thing I would add is based on Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model that I have spent a fair amount of time facilitating. One of the core pieces in it helps frame the conversation for you as a leader so you know what the person you are interacting with needs. Do this by building a habit up front with them to have them tell you this topic is a: 1) FYI 2)I need your input 3) I need your permission 4) HELP! I am just stuck.

    By teaching your people that this is something you need so that the speed of your business and some of your conversations do not frustrate them because you are not helping them in an effective way – it gives you the exact information you need to be empathetic and effective.

  • Hello Everyone – Keep the discussion going as all of the About Leaders’ community is telling me they are learning so much from everyone’s additional ideas and comments.

    Additionally, the ideas you have brought forth would be so valuable to the About Leaders LinkedIn Group.

  • Briggette Lawrence says:

    I found this article very thought provoking. Having the ability to listen can be helpful in every aspect of a person’s life: Home when your spouse, children, friends or co-worker feels the need to vent and you are engrossed in something else. The ability to stop and give your undivided attention, zip it and be quiet is certainly something I’m still working on.

  • Great steps to improve communication and trust.

  • Paul Kofi Annan says:

    I’m being blessed all the time. God bless you and increase your wisdom.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
    Brilliant Leadership Logo

    Improve Yourself & Your Team

    Get The Training Proven By 40,000+ Leaders