How Listening Improves Your Leadership Skills

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Coaching Habit" by Michael Bungay Stanier. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is listening an important leadership skill? What question should you ask to get your team members to open up and dig deep?

Listening is good leadership. Not only do your team members feel more cared about and supported, you learn vital information that helps you lead even better.

Keep reading to learn one simple question to ask when you practice listening in leadership.

The Listening-Leadership Question: “Anything Else?”

In a relationship, there might be times when your partner asks you if something is wrong, to which you reply that everything is “fine.” Your partner, sensing that this is a loaded reply, may try to prod you a bit more. After being asked for the third or fourth time, you finally open up and tell your partner what’s bothering you. There are many reasons you may haven’t answered directly at first—maybe the issue seemed too trivial to mention, or maybe you wanted to keep the peace. But doesn’t it feel amazing when you’re finally able to confront and resolve whatever it is? It might even lead to a deeper level of intimacy and understanding.

Similarly, in the workplace, there are many important things left unsaid. The essential listening leadership question, “Anything else?” reveals these hidden issues and helps team members dig down to continue unearthing solutions and possibilities. It’s a question that encourages deeper thinking and greater participation and shows how the first answer isn’t necessarily the best answer.

Why This Question Is a Good Coaching Habit 

There are three benefits to asking your team members, “Anything else?”

1) Better Decision-Making

The more you ask, “Anything else?” the more ideas and options for action you unearth. And, according to science, more options are a good thing: One study showed that when you make a decision based on just two choices, the failure rate is more than 50 percent. When you add just one other option into the mix, you cut the failure rate down to 30 percent. 

2) Greater Self-Control

When someone comes to you with a problem your immediate reaction might be to fix it. Isn’t that why they’re coming to you in the first place, to ask for your advice? 

The problem with flexing your problem-solving abilities is that sometimes you only think you know what the problem is—you may not know all the pertinent issues and details. Adopting a listening leadership style and asking, “Anything else?” keeps you from the bad habit of immediately giving out advice based on your conclusions or perspective on the issue.

3) More Time

As a manager, you want to show that you’re always on top of things—but sometimes, you may not know the answer to a question your team member is asking you or aren’t sure of the correct way to proceed. When you ask, “Anything else?” and let your team member continue hashing out the problem, you give yourself more time to think.

How to Make It a Habit

You can use this listening leadership question in a variety of scenarios: after your conversation starter, when you’re trying to get to the heart of an issue, when you want to keep a conversation moving forward, or in any other situation where you feel like there’s more that’s waiting to be said. Be curious, and give the person your full attention so that your “Anything else?” comes out as a genuine inquiry rather than as an automatic follow-up. 

Follow Through Enough, But Not Too Much

To keep the conversation productive, keep a balance between asking enough and too much. Ask the question more than once: Some people need time to warm up and get comfortable before saying what’s really on their minds. Asking them the question three to five times gives them the chance to open up and provide you with better insights.

However, listening leadership involves being aware of when you’ve exhausted the question. Coming up with too many “anything elses” can create too many options—you and your team member may become paralyzed by trying to decide which to focus on. Three to five options are plenty to work with. If you’ve gotten to the heart of the matter or come up with enough options before the fifth time you ask the question, stop and focus on the material you have.

How Listening Improves Your Leadership Skills

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Coaching Habit summary:

  • How to turn coaching into an informal, effective daily habit
  • Why you should practice listening instead of speaking for 10 minutes a day
  • The seven essential questions to ask your team members

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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