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Listening: The Greatest Communication Skill

I coach executives to be top-notch communicators. I teach them how to communicate effectively. I also teach them about the flip side: the most influential leaders are frequently the ones who speak the least. When you listen, you learn. You formulate valuable content, and you communicate it at the right time. This takes practice. It also takes getting comfortable with silence.

What You’ll Learn

  • Why executive communication skills are important

  • That listening is a critical communication skill

  • How to get comfortable with silence

  • The most powerful person in the room is the one who says the least


I recently coached a CTO who wanted to learn why she was being “manterrupted.” I shadowed her during internal and external meetings and quickly realized that her challenge wasn’t what she thought it was. Spending time with her revealed that she needed to significantly improve her executive communications skills. She was not an effective communicator. Just as urgently, she was not an effective listener. She didn’t know how to wrap up her time at the podium during meetings. And she interjected frequently during other people’s time to speak.

I gently broke it to her that what she was experiencing wasn’t manterrupting. It was senior leadership getting her back on track when she couldn’t wrap up her thoughts and trying to stop her when she interrupted other people. I told her I’d have done the same thing if she had worked for me at one of my companies. That wouldn’t have been manterrupting. I would have been interjecting to manage time efficiently and run effective meetings.

When I pointed this out and gave her specific examples, she realized she was blaming gender dynamics for her subpar communications skills. We worked together to improve her skills: formulating her thoughts before she spoke, speaking succinctly, and learning when and how to interject politely when she felt it was necessary. She now speaks regularly at conferences and is not interrupted.

Communication Skills are A Key Leadership Tool

Being an effective communicator is a key leadership skill. I teach executives how to communicate effectively, with power, confidence and poise. There are many techniques you can learn to become articulate and well spoken. You can learn to use your voice as a tool for leadership.

But an equally – if not more critical – tool is learning when not to speak. I’ve founded and run companies and been in thousands of hours of meetings with senior executives from some of the world’s largest companies. I’ve had an opportunity to observe an incredibly wide range of communications styles.

The most powerful, influential person in the room is often the one who says the least.

Why? Because they listen. They absorb information and understand the dynamics of the situation. They learn what drives and motivates individuals and the key players.

In order to speak articulately and to deliver relevant content, you have to know what the most relevant information is. You can only do that if spend sufficient time listening.

Silence Can Be Uncomfortable

It’s a human tendency to want to speak and fill silence. Much of our interpersonal communication is based on momentum. You’re asked a question, and immediately rush to reply. I frequently coach and speak about the importance of pausing before responding. This gives you time to formulate your reply and gives your listener time to absorb your answer.

I also coach leaders to feel comfortable with silence. When I explore why people are uncomfortable with silence, there is consistency in their answers. “I want to prove my credibility, my seniority, and my intelligence. I want to make sure senior management sees that I’m contributing.” Does that resonate with you?

It is hard not to fill spaces with words. But with practice, you can do it.

It is tempting to rush into a space or silence with something. In meetings, many people fill silence with bland observations or by reiterating what they’ve already said. Take that time instead to continue listening. Understand the context of the meeting. Gather your thoughts and make them coherent and relevant before you speak. The less you speak, the more people will listen.

Have You Been Told to “Speak Up”?

When I speak on this topic at workshops or conferences, I frequently hear a legitimate observation. Quiet personalities, women, or more junior employees are counseled to speak up. They’re told it’s important to be seen as contributors and leaders.

This is an important point. I would never advocate total silence. It is important that your voice be heard.

I encourage you not to speak too much, without value, and without relevance. If your voice constantly fills silence, you will gain a reputation for mediocrity. When you listen deeply, you will develop a reputation for thoughtfulness. You earn credibility and become an effective leader when what you say matters.

Communicate Leadership Without Speaking

Verbal communication is a subset of how we communicate. Gestures, facial expressions, and body language are equally loud. You can communicate a lot by learning to communicate credibility and leadership without words. Be engaged and participate in meetings without speaking. Nod, lean in, and actively show that you are participating and listening.

My clients have far more success – better performance reviews, promotions, acing job interviews – when they practice these communications techniques and learn to listen. You increase your executive presence and credibility when everything you say is relevant and articulate.

Let me know your thoughts and how this works for you. Learn more about key leadership communications techniques in my workshops, and learn how to communicate intentionally by contacting me today.

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