Why Listen? How Listening Skills Can Improve Your Board

Published: November 21, 2018

Read Time: 5 minutes


When people talk about communication skills for the C-suite or the boardroom, many think of speaking or presenting. Communication is seen as how we share our ideas, our knowledge, our opinions, our hopes, fears and aspirations with others. We communicate to influence others, to tell them what to do or think, to warn them, to advise them, to challenge or confront them. We use our words to achieve many goals.

Yet if everyone is talking, how does anything change? If I am simply waiting my turn to speak and am more interested in getting my point across, how can I understand your point of view? If I think I know it all already, how can I learn? How can I take feedback on board if I do not listen?

As a director or as an executive, we need to listen to the multiple perspectives not only of our fellow board members or executives, but of all our stakeholders. Listening gives us early warning signs if there are problems, whether those problems are with our organisation’s culture or its products or services. It is important to listen directly to customers and to front-line employees. Otherwise we risk only hearing a filtered version of reality, and the filter may intentionally or unintentionally mask some critical truths. To do this, some directors go back to the shop floor or take a turn answering customer service calls on a regular basis.

Not listening is the equivalent of willful blindness. We are not living up to our responsibilities if we do not listen to what we are being told. While we may not often encounter whistle-blowers in our role as directors or executives, we have or need to create ongoing opportunities to listen to satisfy ourselves that things are as they should be.

Listening has multiple benefits. It improves our understanding of our organisations and the communities we serve. It helps people clarify their thinking and makes people feel valued because we make time to listen to them. This encourages people to bring forward ideas because their ideas will be heard. Inviting members of staff to present their projects directly to the board or inviting students to meet the board of directors of a school demonstrates that the board thinks these people and projects are important.

Sometimes directors of not-for-profits worry that no one understands the role of the board. One way to change perceptions is to increase the interactions people have with the board, not only having the board make presentations, but having others present to the board. In a culture where people feel listened to, they are more engaged and contribute both to the development and implementation of the organisation’s strategy.

How to Listen

  • Do not be afraid of silence. Sometimes people need time to process or to articulate their thoughts. Do not rush to fill a silence. In this busy world, allowing time for silence is a gift.

  • Do not speak while another person is speaking.

  • Pay attention with your body language. Show you are listening – look at the speaker. Do not fidget or look at your emails or play with your phone. Listening is not just waiting for your turn to speak.

  • Repeat what the other person says. While this may initially seem artificial, when we repeat the other person’s words back to them, they know they have been heard and this is often important to them. They may have a moment of clarity when they hear their own words being spoken out loud by you. This clarity may lead to an insight. Or they may want to develop their idea further.

  • Paraphrase what the other person has said. If you have not understood them correctly, they will let you know. When they hear your paraphrasing, they may realise that what they said was not in fact what they meant and this will help them clarify their thinking. Paraphrase fairly – do not twist their words.

  • Adopt the language the other person uses. If they use a metaphor like climbing a mountain as a way of describing a challenge they face, use that metaphor in exploring the challenge further. People will feel they are listened to when they hear you pick up on their words, even if they do not consciously register your choice of words.

  • Build on their ideas. Again this shows you have really been listening. It validates their ideas. Often something more interesting will emerge than any one individual thinks of by themselves.

  • When listening to feedback, even if you do not like what you hear, maintain a friendly expression. Do not argue with the feedback. Even if what is said is inaccurate, it demonstrates a perception that is important for you to be aware of. Thank the feedback giver and take the feedback away to reflect upon. If you react negatively you risk not being given feedback again – and feedback helps all of us learn and grow. Show you are open to feedback and act on it and you will find people are more willing to give you feedback in the future.

Your Challenge

Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to consciously try to be a better listener. Set yourself a task to improve one of the steps above. For example, if you’re usually the first person to speak in a meeting, wait until at least three others have spoken. When you do speak, refer to what previous speakers have said, showing that you have actually been listening and not just waiting to speak. Do a self-assessment and see how your self-assessment compares with how others see you.

Being honest with ourselves is the first step towards personal and professional development. Ask a friend or colleague to tell you how well you do that chosen step at the moment. And ask them again in 3 months’ time. And if you do improve, celebrate and then decide what you are going to tackle next. Happy listening!

This article was originally published in the Better Boards Conference Magazine 2018.


Dean of Sydney Business School
University of Wollongong

Associate Professor Grace McCarthy is Dean of Sydney Business School, University of Wollongong, and at the time of writing, on the Board and Governance and Nominations Committee of St. Mary Star of the Sea College, Wollongong. Grace has published a book and several articles on coaching and mentoring. She has run coaching workshops for leadership workshops and developed the Master of Business Coaching at the University of Wollongong. Grace has been awarded an Australian Government Office of Learning and Teaching citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning for using a coaching approach to inspire a love of learning among students and colleagues.

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