Psychologist: The No. 1 soft skill highly successful people use at work—‘It’s like having a superpower’

Millionaires and CEOs alike tout the importance of being productive, organized and grinding 24/7 to build a successful career. 

While this might be true, there’s a different skill that gives successful people a competitive edge in the workplace — being a good listener, says Sarah Sarkis, a psychologist and Exos’ senior director of performance psychology.

At Exos, a performance coaching company, Sarkis and her team of dieticians, physical therapists and other health experts teach NFL players, executives at Fortune 100 companies like Adobe and Humana, and other professionals how to thrive in high-pressure environments.

What sets high achievers apart from everyone else, Sarkis has discovered, is that they excel at communicating — and active listening is “an important, underrated” part of that, she says. 

“Few people know how to be fully present in a conversation and respond thoughtfully to what another person is saying,” Sarkis adds. 

Instead, most people fall into the trap of listening without hearing the other person’s perspective.

Sarkis explains: “You enter the conversation prepared for where you want it to end, or distracted … whether that is rolling your eyes, huffing and puffing, cutting someone off or getting distracted by your phone. But sometimes this very style of listening is why your conversations, your negotiations and your conflicts go sideways.”

Here, the performance psychologist offers three strategies for becoming a better listener at work: 


Know your strengths and weaknesses

First, you have to figure out how well you’re listening. Sarkis recommends asking three trusted co-workers, mentors or friends how you typically act in conversations. 

“Ask them how you make them feel when you are at your best — in agreement, dialed in, relaxed? — and at your worst — distracted, agitated, stressed?” she says. 

Great listeners have a positive impact on how people feel after speaking to them, Sarkis explains, and these responses can help you gauge how close or far you are to this goal. 


Practice using reflective listening skills

During your next conversation with a colleague or client, practice reflective listening: Summarize what you hear and ask the other person if that is an accurate synopsis of what they just said. 

If it’s not, Sarkis suggests asking them to clarify or elaborate. 

“Reflective listening allows us to hear and receive what is being said with less of an agenda,” she says. “It also shows that you’re empathetic and genuinely care about what they think.”

Stay curious

If you space out during a conversation or don’t understand what someone is saying, ask open-ended questions, says Sarkis, such as:

  • How can I help you with this?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • How do you feel about this situation? 

Doing so helps you build a rapport and trust with the other person, says Sarkis. It also shows that you are open to feedback and willing to learn from them. 

Becoming a better listener takes practice and patience, but once you nail it, “it’s like having a superpower,” says Sarkis. “There’s so much more you can accomplish when the people you work with feel seen, heard and supported.”


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