IMMEDIATELY after taking office in January last year, United States President Barack Obama began pushing an ambitious agenda.

He was eager to make progress in ramping up a faltering economy, creating new jobs, saving banks, fighting wars and numerous other areas.

One year later, how has Obama fared?

His approval ratings have dropped, few of his initiatives have borne fruit, and his party lost iconic Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat in a bitterly contested election.

In the wake of these setbacks, President Obama reassessed his situation.

He realised that he needed to listen to the people. They were worried about jobs and the economy, and he needed to address their paramount concerns.

No one would deny President Obama’s talents.

He is intelligent, energetic and charming. His speaking ability is legendary. He is a confident and charismatic leader. But he was too busy leading to listen.

Listening does not immediately spring to mind when listing the most important qualities of a leader.

But followers clearly value a leader who listens.

Active listening

A good listener listens actively. There are several components of active listening:

* Paraphrasing. Restate what the speaker said in your own words. This shows him you were, in fact, listening to what he just said.

More importantly, it allows you to clarify his meaning if he feels you did not understand his message.

* Red flags. The speaker may use certain red flag words. These are ambiguous words or phrases such as “that’s interesting” or “my problem”.

When you hear a red flag word, follow up to gain further understanding.

For example, ask: “What do you mean by ‘interesting’? Interesting in what way?”

Or you can say: “Tell me more about your problem.”

Listen for opportunities to learn more about the speaker and his needs.

* Encouraging the speaker. You can encourage the speaker verbally with comments such as “I see”, “Really?” or “And then what happened?”.

This prompts the speaker to continue, giving you more opportunities to listen and learn.

You can also encourage the speaker non-verbally by aligning yourself with him, nodding in agreement and looking him in the eye.

Empathetic listening

A good listener listens actively. But that doesn’t mean he is really listening. After all, robots can be programmed to nod their head and say “I see” every few seconds. Active listening can be faked.

A great listener goes one giant step beyond active listening.

Great listeners listen empathetically. Empathetic listening includes active listening and another valuable element: reflecting feelings.

An empathetic listener understands what’s on the speaker’s mind and also feels what’s in his heart.

He reflects the speaker’s feelings verbally and non-verbally.

He will ask questions that reflect the speaker’s emotional state, such as “You must be very proud” or “That sounds exciting!”

His facial expression will also mirror what the speaker is feeling.

You must first identify the emotion the speaker is feeling and then feed it back to him.

You cannot do this unless you truly understand what the speaker is feeling. You cannot fake empathetic listening.

Active versus empathetic listening

Larry King is very successful as a talk-show host. His guests are among the most high-profile newsmakers in business, government and entertainment. Whenever anyone makes news in a big way, they are booked on his show – immediately.

Oprah Winfrey has been phenomenally successful with her own talk show.

But ask anyone who the better listener is, and the answer is a given – Oprah wins hands down. Why? Because she listens empathetically.

Larry King seems like a nice, decent, caring human being. But he doesn’t show that he cares the way Oprah does. You can see it in her face and hear it in her voice.

It isn’t enough to care; you have to show that you care. Showing others that you care is the essence of empathy. People prefer to follow a leader who cares about them.

It all begins with listening.