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Listening Skills for Influence in the Boardroom

Countless times, I’ve sat impatiently at the board table waiting for another director to stop talking so I could have my turn. Needless to say, I was not really listening to what they were saying. My mind was preoccupied with my own upcoming pearls of wisdom. I know I’m not alone in this.

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

But if everyone is mentally practicing their own response, and no one is really listening, why are any of us speaking at all?

Real communication goes in both directions

I’m sure we would all agree that good communication skills are a requirement for savvy directors. So what does that imply?

When we talk about communication skills for the boardroom, we often mean speaking or presenting. We think of communication as a way of sharing our ideas, knowledge and opinions with others. We communicate to influence others, advise them, or challenge them.

But let’s say we’ve thought long and hard and we’ve prepared some high-quality, targeted, meaningful comments for the board meeting. Is our work finished once we’ve voiced them aloud at the meeting?

Or if we show up to a board meeting with a bunch of great questions that we fire off one after another, not paying attention to the responses, can we pat ourselves on the back for being good communicators?

No, we can’t. These behaviors ignore the essential fact that communication is supposed to go two ways. As board directors, we should focus on not only our questioning and speaking skills, but perhaps more than anything, our listening skills.

“I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions.” — Lee Iacocca

Many of us believe that we are naturally good listeners. We may not realize that effective listening is a disciplined behavior that takes awareness and dedicated focus. As a consequence, we never really think about improving our listening skills. But in actual fact, we may not be as good as we think we are. Just ask your spouse!

One of the challenges facing us is that we think way faster than we speak. The average person listens at about 600 words per minute, but the speaker can only talk at 150 to 200. That leaves a huge gap. It means we're using only 30% of our mental capacity to listen. Unfortunately, the other 70% of our mind is free to wander, be distracted, or mentally practice what we want to say next.

Why it matters

So what difference does it make? Well the fact is we’re not living up to our responsibilities as board directors if we are not listening effectively. Not listening is just as harmful as failing to read the board material, skipping meetings, or never speaking up.

Without really listening, how can we understand our organizations? And listening helps people clarify their thinking, makes them feel valued, and encourages them to bring forward ideas because they know they will be heard. That’s the key to gaining consensus.

Effective listening can also give us early warning signs of problems, allowing us to cut through filters that can mask critical truths.

“Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable — and one of the least understood. … [A few leaders,] the great ones, never stop listening. That's how they get word before anyone else of unseen problems and opportunities.” – Peter Nulty

By listening more effectively, directors get more honest information, increase trust, reduce conflict, and inspire commitment. We build better relationships and contribute to positive board dynamics by listening more effectively to management, to guest speakers, and to each other. Those strong relationships in the boardroom enhance our ability to contribute to discussions and influence decisions.

Becoming a more effective listener

“Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you.” ― Alan Alda

The power of effective listening in the boardroom is highlighted by this Alan Alda quote. By listening ─ really listening ─ we open ourselves up to the possibility of changing our minds.

The key is active listening. While many of the techniques of active listening are designed for one-on-one conversations rather than a group setting like a board meeting, most can be adapted for use in the boardroom.

In his book ‘Just Listen’, author Mark Goulston identified four listening principles that are useful for guiding us on the path to better listening.

Be present.
  • Let go of multi-tasking and pay attention. Don’t spend your listening time planning what to say next. Think only about what the other person is saying. If your thoughts start to wander, force yourself to refocus.
  • Look at the speaker and, if possible, make eye contact. In a board meeting, this advice can be problematic, depending on where you are sitting in relation to the speaker. Keep the speaker in your field of view and be prepared to make eye contact if they look your way. In a virtual meeting, look at the screen as though you are actually able to make eye contact.
  • Demonstrate through your body language and facial expression that you are listening. Don’t fidget or look at your emails or play with your phone. Stay alert, maintain good posture, and sit slightly forward in your chair. In a virtual meeting, maintain an alert and attentive expression and don’t be distracted by what is going on around you.
Be open. 
  • Keep an open mind. Allow for the possibility that your own viewpoint may not be the only one, or even the best one.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions. The speaker is using language to represent their thoughts and feelings. The only way you'll find out about those thoughts and feelings is by listening.
  • Be aware of and turn off your personal filters. Show respect for what the speaker is saying, even if you disagree. Don’t evaluate the message according to your pre-conceived notions about the speaker.
Be more interested than interesting.
  • Don’t interrupt. Interrupting says I'm more important than you are and I don't have time for your opinion. If you need clarification, wait until the speaker pauses before asking for an explanation. Then say something like Back up a second. I didn't understand what you just said about …
  • Show interest through questions. Use phrases like How did it work? and What do you think? If you ask a question that leads the speaker off topic, take responsibility for getting the conversation back on track.
Be a mirror.
  • Summarize, repeat and paraphrase to let the speaker know they’ve been heard and understood. If you haven’t understood them correctly, they’ll let you know. When paraphrasing, do so fairly ─ don’t twist their words.
  • Acknowledge the speaker. In a board meeting, when you have to wait to speak until  the board chair acknowledges you, you may find that other people have spoken after the person you want to respond to but before you've had a chance to speak. In this case, acknowledge the person who just spoke before you return the conversation to the previous point. Otherwise you send the message that you were not listening. Try saying something like I really appreciate the point you just made. I agree it’s important to … before moving on to I’d like to take a step back to what X was saying before that …

The Savvy Director’s challenge

If we want to have more influence in the boardroom, the challenge for all of us is to consciously try to be better listeners. Maybe select one of the principles above and work on it. Once we’ve made some progress, then decide what we are going to tackle next. Here’s a few very specific ideas:

  • If you’re usually the first person to speak in a meeting, wait until you have listened to at least three others.
  • When you do speak, refer back to what previous speakers have said to signal that you’ve actually been listening and not just waiting to speak.
  • Ask a fellow board member to tell you how you are doing. Then ask them again in three months.


Your takeaways:

  • Real communication goes two ways.
  • Unfortunately, most of us are not naturally good listeners.
  • Effective listening leads to better relationships in the boardroom, which in turn enhance our ability to influence decisions.
  • Active listening requires self-awareness, dedication and effort.


Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.

Thank you.

Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.

Share Your Insight: How have effective listening skills (or lack thereof) impacted your boardroom experience?




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