The Art of Leading a Department: Listening to Those Above and Below

Never miss a good chance to shut up.

Will Rogers

If you’ve missed any of the series so far, click here for all of the previous parts of this series.

Listening is different from hearing. Listening is an act. Hearing is a physiological process. Listening means taking what you hear, and deciphering it to create meaning.

My name is Amir, and I’m a terrible listener. I’ll hold my hands up, I’m awful at it, as I’ve explained before. But there are ways that I deal with this issue, but let’s start with why we need to listen to those above and below our station as leaders.


It’s plain obvious that we need to listen to our superiors. They, after all, are calling the shots. It’s remarkable how much of our time as leaders is spent in the company of those who lead us, and as such there has to be constructive dialogue. In my early years as a leader, I was a very defensive listener. I’d listen to what my superiors said from the viewpoint of someone being judged. Consequently, a much of my contribution to a discussion would have a significant emotive element, even when most of the time all I had to do was just take on board what’s being said and deal with it.

My problem is that I have a view on everything, despite much of the time not needing to share it. It comes from my inquisitive nature, and it’s well meant, but often not appropriate. By placing everything in an emotional context I actually distracted from the content of the message being relayed, ultimately meaning I didn’t take anything on board.

Instead, these days I simply play things coldly. Listen, ask questions where appropriate and follow-up later if further clarification is required. That’s all. There’s nothing wrong with emotion and personal views, but not every time one meets with your boss. All it screams out is clouded judgement. If the occasion allows, then fine; otherwise, just get on with it…


I’ve talked in the past about the need for a leader to show situational awareness. Nothing can be more important in this context than listening to your staff. Stephen Covey’s “5th Habit” is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. I’ll place emphasis on the first point, because I’ve talked about the latter before. 

Basically, seeking to understand in this context is making sure that the person you’re listening to has full opportunity to completely make their point. The idea is that once they’ve done so – and you’ve checked that they’ve done so – you can build from that. This is often a good tactic in conflict resolution, but it’s also a method that works quite well when someone wants to bring a proposal to the table.

Ultimately, if you listen properly, you’re valuing the person speaking. goes into more detail about listening well to people. One of the overarching themes of the piece is that basically, to listen well, you’ve got to put the speaker centre-stage. This means eye contact, not taking over, making notes – all of those things that show that you’re involved in the conversation. Again, placing someone centre-stage shows you value them, and from a leader to employee point of view that’s highly important.

Tools to help

1. Take notes. I always try to take notes in important meetings or conversations. We also tend to remember what we write much better than if we just listen. Again, by taking a record of what’s being said, it adds an air of importance to the conversation.

2. Ask questions. Clarify, clarify, clarify. Get a sense of the real message that someone is trying to convey. There’s nothing worse than giving someone an instruction or telling someone something, only for them to come back to you 3 or 4 times because a) they didn’t really listen properly in the first place or b) they weren’t quite sure what you were asking them to do. How do I know this? Because I’ve been (am) one of those people! Hence why I write everything down, and ask lots of questions!

3. Summarise. The words “So what you’re saying, is…” can sound quite short but at the same time it gives you chance to get to the essence of the matter. It’s also another chance to clarify.

4. Follow up. Especially in important conversations, it’s worth following up what’s been said a day or two after. There might have been some heat in what’s been said, or a lot of information thrown your way. But follow up adds further clarity to what’s been said originally, but also it might be a chance to pre-empt any changes.

In person

I try, as much as possible, to talk with people face to face. It’s striking how non-verbal cues and body language make a difference in conversation, and you don’t get that via e-mail or phone conversations. I use e-mail an awful lot, but that’s purely as part of a communication toolkit. Often I will go and converse face-to-face with people, even if an e-mail would have done, simply because I know they’ll get their message across better. Plus it builds relationships, and as I say time and time again, fostering positive relationships is incredibly important, if not the most important activity that a leader can pursue.

In essence

Listening is an act that great leaders execute well. Listening to superiors needs clarity of thought and a removal of emotion. Listening to those who report to you means putting them centre-stage and a demonstration of value in what’s being said. Wherever possible take notes, ask questions to clarify and summarise what you’re listening to, and if the meeting was important, follow up. Finally, it’s amazing how much more impact face-to-face conversation has over the use of e-mail or phone. Listening well results in positive relationships with superiors and your staff, which is the ultimate goal of being a leader.

Finally, I really recommend these TED Talks on listening. Some are funny, some are straight-laced, but all of them are packed full of advice to develop one’s listening skills.


About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
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