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Active Listening: The Cornerstone of Servant Leadership

Active listening is defined as “the process of attending carefully to what a speaker is saying, involving such techniques as accurately paraphrasing the speaker’s remarks.” It is an important skill when leading others, providing services, resolving conflicts, and participating in other productive human interaction. Active listening is a learned skill—and it’s not natural to humans. Frankly, most of us are pretty bad at this. In fact, 85% of what we know we have learned through listening, yet we only generally listen at a 25% comprehension rate (Llopis).

Some people, when listening to another person speak, are taking their time to prepare a response while the other person is still speaking. Others are actively distracted by personal electronic devices, such as phones or tablets (Elements of Active Listening).

How can you actively listen to someone else when you are busy formulating your own response? Stephen Covey stated in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

As leaders, followers, and providers—we need to take the time to actively listen to those who engage with us.

As a leader, your constituents will feel valued and know you are concerned. Without active listening, you can’t understand your constituent’s point of view. You can’t address their concerns, meet their needs, or help them to serve others if you aren’t listening to what they have to say.

As a healthcare provider, active listening is a prerequisite for a successful healthcare encounter (Fassaert et al.), particularly in clinical situations that require no specific medical intervention. Patients value personal, active, and listening doctors (Fassaert et al.). Active listening is a part of therapeutic communication skills, which are fundamental to providing quality care (Fitzgerald). In order to help develop this skill in nursing students, Dr. Debbie T. Fitzgerald required students to take online training to improve their active listening skills and apply that training as volunteers to an online emotional support website. After 6 weeks of practicing active listening on a regular basis, these students reported that this skill helped them improve communication and positively contribute to their community (Fitzgerald). Improving active listening skills also improved their therapeutic communication skills.

It will also improve your leadership influence and success if your constituents know you are listening!

Here are some simple tips to rapidly improve your active listening skills:

  • Remember what others have to say isn’t a reflection on you—it is their opinion, perception, or perspective.
  • Eliminate distractions.
    • Do not engage in extraneous conversations.
    • Don’t look at your phone/computer.
  • Look directly at the person with whom you are engaged in conversation.
    • Body language is a major part of nonverbal communication.
  • Engage yourself in hearing the words as well as their meaning.
  • Ask questions to understand clearly.
    • “Can you give me an example of . . .”
    • “How frequently does this happen?”
  • Restate/reflect to the speaker what you understood them to have said to clarify the message they are relaying to you.
    • “What I hear you saying is . . .”
  • Don’t rush to conclusions—let the speaker finish speaking and then clarify their meaning before you attempt to formulate a response.

Dr. Covey really did simplify the concept with his statement: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Take the time to understand the person you are speaking with—it will revolutionize your interactions with others!


Covey SR. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. 1989. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Elements of Active Listening. The Volunteer Management Report. 2020; 25(8). doi:10.1002/vmr.31357

Fassaert T, van Dulmen S, Schellevis F, Bensing J. Active listening in medical consultations; development of the Active Listening Observation Scale. Patient Education and Counseling. 2007; 68(3), 258-264. doi:https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1016/j.pec.2007.06.011

Fitzgerald DT. Using online active listening to facilitate student communication skills. Journal of Nursing Education. 2020; 59(2), 117. doi:doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.3928/01484834-20200122-13

Llopis G. 6 ways effective listening can make you a better leader. Forbes. May 20, 2013. https://www.forbes.com/sites/glennllopis/2013/05/20/6-effective-ways-listening-can-make-you-a-better-leader/#5ca518181756

Scott Arthur headshotScott M. Arthur, MBA—Scott Arthur has worked in the EMS and fire industries for 20 years as a paramedic and later as a director and senior director of operations. He currently works as a CareerCert instructor and as a business consultant helping organizations improve their safety and team leadership skills. Scott has a master’s degree in business administration and a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. As an educator, Scott has presented at EMS conferences across the nation and enjoys connecting with first responders to improve department outcomes.


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