How to Talk (and Listen!) Like a Leader

Retention. Resignation. Career satisfaction. Chances are you’ve thought about at least one of these lately… whether you’ve handed in your notice or you’re hoping to hold on to your team.

With the Great Resignation, retention is not just about money anymore. There’s a reckoning in the corporate world, and workers are reevaluating everything from working hours and environments to their company’s culture and values.

Wondering what to do about it? If you’re managing or leading a team, it’s time to show your capacity for empathy and adaptability to retain and gain employees.

This puts the key leadership soft skills, listening and communication, at the center of the puzzle. I’d like to think I saw this trend coming – these are the areas that come up most often for the leaders I coach, even pre-pandemic. But did any of us REALLY see ALL of this coming?

Regardless, it’s time to catch up to the change. To do that, you may need to reshape everything you’ve learned about being seen as the “boss.”

“It takes more than a 20% pay raise to lure most employees away from a manager who engages them, and next to nothing to poach most disengaged workers.”
– Gallup Workplace Insights for 2021

Leadership’s missing key


To unlock ease, productivity, and cohesion in your workplace, start with some self-reflection about how your business is operating and what part you’re playing in that.

Consider putting your relationships over revenue – when we focus on taking exceptional care of our employees, the employees will take exceptional care of our customers…and the customers will take exceptional care of us. The revenue follows suit.

What does taking care of your employees look like? It’s going to be a little different for everyone, but here’s the great thing about that. If you’re ready to listen, they’re going to tell you.

The trouble is, most of us weren’t taught to be excellent communicators. We don’t necessarily know how to deal with frustration and anger, let alone deal with it professionally. So some of us tamp it down… and then we breed resentment.

If that’s not your M.O., I can almost guarantee it’s the pattern for at least one of your employees.

So it’s your job to get to the bottom of that breakdown.

How can you speak to your team with clarity, intention, and fairness? How can you express what you need from them, putting everyone on the same page for expectations and responsibilities?

And by the same token, how can you encourage them to engage with you, honestly and productively? What will you gain when you slow down to be curious, to listen, to be present with your teams?



“The main driver of employee experience and culture is the way leaders communicate.”
– Elizabeth Cardiello, BRAVE Conversations Over Coffee

As a lead communicator, you will literally set the tone for your workplace. You are the one to establish trust, transparency, and safety to speak. You can create a culture of collaboration instead of silos. Your team will be stronger for it. 

You also create the boundaries and accountability for your business. Your team knows what the benchmarks are because you set them. They know what you expect of them because you tell them. 

What happens when you don’t get clear and consistent about those boundaries and benchmarks? It might look on the surface like things are working. But in most workplaces your team is now falling back on the Unwritten Ground Rules. 

UGRs are the ways we function in any setting because, honestly, we can. Leadership or the culture outwardly pays lip service to one standard, but in practice it’s the UGRs that actually dictate the parameters for how we’ll interact. 

UGRs are the “good old boys,’ the microaggressions gone unaddressed, and the standards applied without consistency. They persist because it’s easier to turn a blind eye than to change the culture at the heart of the rules, but they breed conflict and resentment. If there’s ever a moment needing direction and clear communication from a leader, it’s here. 

Have you ever been in the position of not being sure if you’re doing the right thing at work or if you’re meeting expectations? To put it bluntly, it sucks, right? And worse, have you also felt it would make you “look bad” to ask for clarification? What an uncomfortable, no-win situation.

You can break that cycle. 

Let me give you an example. I had one client whose most pressing professional problem tracked back to his own shortcomings with communication.

He felt like he needed to fire one of his employees, but he was incredibly conflicted about it. He had never been direct and clear with them about the expectations. He also had not been clear that this employee was not meeting those expectations.

So instead of feeling confident about a move he needed to make for his business, he lacked the clarity on whether this was the right decision. Was this employee truly the wrong fit, or did the responsibility actually lie with himself?

Of course, the responsibility WAS his. But that responsibility was to be clear. To lead his team. To listen to that employee’s reaction to the feedback, as well as the team’s input on what was working and what wasn’t.

Until he could get clear about that, nothing was going to get any easier.


Leading as a LISTENER

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

As much as your team needs to hear from you, they need you to listen to them. REALLY listen.

This comes up often here – and it’s because it is so key, and so misunderstood. If you’re scripting your rebuttal while someone is speaking? You’re listening just to reply. You need to be listening to understand.

Too often we’re making sure we’re “right,” then defending ourselves (maybe even when we’re wrong) and trying to, above all else, “win.”

Can you set that aside and listen to the people around you? Can your primary goal be to honestly say “I hear you,” and to have those people believe you?

Consider how frustrating it is to be misunderstood. What if your employees, your coworkers, even your family, never had to feel that with you?


Leading by taking the first step

If it’s time to communicate and listen like a leader you’re going to start by doing LESS. Internally, you’ll be doing a lot more. More observing, more facilitating. But outwardly? You’ll at the very least be SAYING less, at the start.

1) Be Present & Get Curious – Put aside your stress and any conflict. To get started, you’ve got to get honest about the current situation. See what is actually happening, and ask questions, to yourself or others, about what’s causing that. Don’t assume you already know. Stay curious and stay open to what you’re about to learn.

2) Be Silent – As you move through your work and life, don’t feel the need to fill the space. Stay quiet and see what happens when you let the story in front of you unfold without your intervention, or opinion. You might learn a lot more about what’s important to the people around you, what they need, what they’re capable of, and what you can let go of.

3) Walk the halls – This is admittedly harder, and unfortunately more important, if you’re connecting virtual teams. Make the time to check-in, professionally and personally. Listen without an agenda – truly listen. When the people in your life see you showing up, they will start to open up.

4) Build trust – When people talk to you, show them you’re actively listening. Reflect back to them what they’ve shared with you. Let them speak without a quick reaction on your part, and reinforce to them that what they’ve shared is valuable, even if it’s a critique.


Ready to start listening?

Maybe you’re ready to see how that shift in communication will move you forward in all your relationships. Now it’s time to take that listening out into your world.

You can change how the people in your life experience you. How you experience them. And how you experience YOURSELF.

Let each of those shifts change how you communicate, too.

When you do, it becomes easier to resolve conflict. You’re improving your relationships, you’re decreasing stress. You’re holding yourself accountable for doing your part. And having done that work you know it’s fair to expect accountability from those around you.

With this effectiveness comes self-confidence.

I can’t wait to listen to what you do with that gift.