Best Practice

Leadership skills: Five tips for active listening

The secret to good communication is good listening – but do you listen to understand your colleagues or listen with the intent of responding? Emily Kenneally looks at how we can all listen better


Actively listening to colleagues builds trust, strengthens relationships, and encourages collaboration. It is a vital skill in life and the workplace, having a profound impact on the effectiveness of our work and our relationships with others.

Educator and author Stephen Covey has often said that most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.

Furthermore, he argues that the most effective communicators are great listeners.

It is important not to forget that like any skill, active listening takes time and practice. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be a perfect all the time.

Taking small steps and making gradual changes to the way you listen will be easier to achieve and much more likely to stick.

Active listening will differ from person to person, and there isn't one universal “right way” to do it. However, when people actively listen, they will often do some of the following things:

  • Try to see things from the other person’s perspective.
  • Listen with curiosity – what is the speaker trying to convey?
  • Pay attention to the emotional tone of what they are saying – what is their tone of voice or inflection like?
  • What about their non-verbal communication? What is their body language demonstrating?
  • Create a sense of connection through eye-contact and engaged body language – are you facing them directly?
  • Make gestures or sounds of encouragement or acknowledge. Maybe nod your head or say “yes, I see”.
  • If appropriate, demonstrate that you have understood by repeating what you have understood, in your own words.

Author and speaker Jacob Morgan suggests practising active listening by using the acronym BUILD. Next time you engage in a conversation with a colleague at school, consider the following:


B is for body language: How are you standing or positioning your body? The way you hold yourself can show if you are focused on the person you are talking to and are receptive to their message.

U is for understanding: Are you really listening to what is being said? It is easy to stand and nod your head and look like you are listening, but then come away from the conversation realising you do not remember it fully.


I is for interrupting: Are you interrupting? Interrupting someone can be frustrating for them and make it seem like what you have to say is more important than what the other person is saying.


L is for looking at them: Are you looking in their direction? Looking at someone (rather than finishing what you are writing or checking your phone) shows you are paying attention and value what they are saying.


D is for don’t judge: Are you being open-minded? It can help to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Going into a conversation with a judging mindset can destroy the potential for progress or growth. Instead, practise empathy.



Group exercise: The interview

This fun exercise can help you to practise active listening with colleagues, or even work as an icebreaker between new colleagues. Try the following:

  • Ask your team to pair-up.
  • Taking turns, each person should interview the other person for two minutes. You might like to provide them with some question prompts to get started: What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies? Where did you go to school? Do you have a favourite food?
  • The pairs then introduce their partner to the group.


Final thought

Active listening is a particularly important skill for middle and senior leaders in schools to develop to help build relationships with their staff.

  • Emily Kenneally is the content and media manager at Education Support, a UK charity dedicated to improving the mental health and wellbeing of the education workforce. For previous articles from Education Support, go to


Further information & resources

  • Education Support offers help or advice on any issue facing those working in education. Contact the free 24-hour helpline on 08000 562 561 or
  • Education Support offers fully-funded professional supervision which gives leaders a safe and confidential space to talk about, and process what is going on at work and listen to peers who might be experiencing the same challenges:
  • For more on the BUILD method, watch this five-minute video from Jacob Morgan: