Think about the best manager you’ve ever had. What made them so good? Chances are, they genuinely cared about you, provided a safe space for feedback, and helped you grow in your career—qualities that stem from being an excellent listener.

While we tend to think of leaders as people who can speak eloquently—executives with flawless delivery or smooth negotiators who can close any deal—the ability to listen is just as important. And now, when teams may be spending less time in person as companies adopt new flexible work models, being proactive about making time to listen is crucial.

In a study from leadership development firm Zenger/Folkman, leaders who prioritized listening were rated as significantly more effective than those who spent more time talking. Peers, direct reports, and managers rated those leaders as more competent in key areas, from developing others to innovating to collaboration and teamwork. And when managers actively listened to their teams, according to another study from researchers at Penn State, employees’ sense of job security went up.

“So much of management is actually listening,” Anne Helen Petersen, co-author of Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home , said on a recent episode of the WorkLab podcast. “And not just nodding your head and not speaking, but hearing what the person is saying.”

The value of listening is often overlooked, she says, because it’s “invisible labor.” But learning to do it well can pay dividends in employee retention, engagement, and happiness. Here’s where to start.

Make time for it to happen.

“The one-on-one that you have with your people is really important,” says David Rock, co-founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute. “You want some quality time, one on one, where you have an unrushed conversation that’s more than just perfunctory reporting.” Book regular, recurring meetings so direct reports know there’s a specific time they’ll have your ear, and ask them to jot down some bullet points they’d like to discuss in advance to make the best use of the time. Elizabeth Grace Saunders, the founder of Real Life E, a time coaching and training company, suggests kicking things off “ by sharing a win ,” such as a compliment on a recent project. Recognition of a job well done sets a positive, comfortable tone.

Ask great questions…

Three great ones to start with, Rock says: “How are you? How have you been winning? What do you need help with?”

Make it clear you welcome honest feedback.

…then ask thoughtful follow-ups.

Good listeners ask questions that signal they have understood what the other person has said. Pay close attention to how the other person responds to your initial question, and use that to determine what comes next. If they say they have been struggling with a specific project, for example, try, “So the rebranding project has been particularly tricky. What part is the most difficult?”

If you’re not sure what specifically to ask, try a simple “Can you tell me more about that?” or “And what else?” to encourage more conversation.

The value of listening is often overlooked because it’s “invisible labor.”

Consider nonverbal cues.

Facial expression and body language can be just as instructive as the words someone speaks. “The way you connect to people is you literally look at their face, you resonate with the face,” Rock says. If people feel comfortable, turning cameras on in hybrid meetings can help leaders tap into these signs in their employees.

Even better: turn on Together Mode in Microsoft Teams, where AI technology mimics the way humans interact when they’re in the same physical space. Together Mode places each meeting attendee in a virtual seat with an auditorium-like backdrop, fixing the video-call issue of “gaze misalignment,” when a person’s eye contact doesn’t track with what’s really going on. And it helps ease the brain’s inherent fight-or-flight response to giant faces staring at you from a Brady Bunch –style grid. To show you’re paying attention and not surreptitiously reading an email on your phone, try keeping your hands in the frame.

Show you care.

Microsoft’s “ Model, Coach, Care ” management framework holds that managers deliver success through empowerment and accountability—and listening is a key part of that. “We expect managers to create the conditions and experiences that bring out the best in employees, and care is a central behavior to good management,” says Joe Whittinghill, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for talent, learning, and insights. “The past 18 months have shown us just how critical caring is to creating high performing and inclusive teams.” Listen with empathy and engagement, especially when you can’t be near your people every day.

In flexible work, empathetic leadership is a key skill for executives and managers to develop. Listening is a major part of that equation, and just like any skill it requires practice and a growth mindset. You might not get it right on the first try, but in the long run, it’s worth the effort.