How Learning to Listen Can Make You a Better EA

Executive Assistants, if you want to be killer at your job, your relationships, and at life in general, the skill to hone-in on is listening. “Hearing the unsaid needs” in meetings, conversations, will amp-up your career development and help avoid stalled productivity.

Here’s what we mean by listening for the unsaid needs

Listening to what people say sounds simple, but people are complicated. We often forget to make an important point, or ask for the right help. Sometimes we don’t even know how we want to respond until after the conversation is over. If the person you are talking to doesn’t even know what they want to say, how can you as a listener stop the conversation from falling short? Listen for the unsaid needs in the conversation and all parties involved will leave with a better understanding of each other and next steps.

What does this really mean, listening for the unsaid need?

As a participant in the conversation, you are not only listening, you are understanding the bigger picture. Being able to connect the dots will allow you to find opportunities and identify needs, even if they aren’t spoken out loud.

A simple example: Your executive tells you that she won’t have much time to give you work, as this is a stressful week. She will be traveling, and the organization is just short of its fundraising goal for the quarter. You can walk away from that conversation assuming you will have a slow week, or, you can walk away motivated to help the organization reach its fundraising goals and find ways to de-stress your exec on her travels.

If you are listening to someone with the intent of uncovering what isn’t being said, you will prove your value ten times over. This is more than active listening and more than reading between the lines. You are understanding the person you are talking to, the organization and goals you are contributing to. You are really hearing what is being said and not said. To find the unsaid needs, you need to understand all of the outside influences to the conversation as well (like a crazy work week, a full-day of meetings, or a huge company event approaching).

How do you do this? Here are a few listening tips that help you to uncover those unsaid needs

Listen with the intent to understand

It is easy to spend an entire conversation trying to figure out what you want to say next and in the end, you haven’t actually heard what anyone else had to say. The best way to know what you want to say in conversation is to really understand what is being talked about. Don’t let your mind wander too far from what is actually being said.

The best way to do this? Ask questions. Our minds tend to wander when we don’t understand the conversation. Instead of letting your subconscious give up, don’t hesitate to raise your hand and ask for clarification.

Allow time for processing

You don’t always have to respond immediately, and neither does anyone else in the conversation. Give yourself and others time to process.

This can be applicable for a number of scenarios:

  • Maybe you are planning an event and need input from someone not in the room. It’s OK to leave the meeting with the action item to close any loops
  • Maybe you need to think through solutions to a complicated problem. It’s OK to ask if you can get back to the group by the end of the day with your thoughts and ideas.
  • After a meeting is over, you find yourself with questions you didn’t think to ask on the spot. Use a meeting recap as an opportunity to pose your follow-up questions.

Check understanding

Repeat back what you heard in your own words to clarify that you understand what is being said and what the situation is. Understanding is crucial for good listening and good conversation. An example would be repeating back priorities to your executive. “So I’m clear, the top three priorities for the week are …”

Take Notes

Taking notes has two benefits:

  1. You can reference back to help you remember key points.
  2. Just the act of taking notes helps with retention, even if you don’t go back to reference them.

Find a note taking method and system (see this post) that works for you and keep track of any important info from the conversation. Review the notes later and if anything will be important ongoing, find a system to store this info for easy access and search-ability.

Be curious

My tips so far have been focused on listening, but good listeners do more than listen, they ask questions. To really understand the big picture and the people you are talking to, you need to be curious. Be curious about your exec, be curious about the business. If there is something you don’t know, don’t quite understand, or would like more information on, just ask! This will also show your executive that you have a more invested interest in the company and its success, nurturing your career development.

Suspend Judgement

To really understand the big picture, you can stunt yourself by judging the scenario too soon. Take time to absorb and understand before you make any decisions or judgements on the situation or the person speaking.

This can range from making a judgement on the right solution, or the person you are speaking with:

  • Your executive tells you the weekly numbers aren’t transparent enough. You might want to jump to offering to create a weekly report, but is that really the problem? Maybe the numbers are difficult to pull and the system needs to be upgraded. Maybe the team isn’t hitting their numbers and we need to look for ways to motivate them. Suspending judgement and first understanding the problem will help you find the right solution.
  • A team member asks you to do some tedious clean-up work they should have done weeks ago, and you automatically assume they are just trying to offload the work they don’t want to do. Maybe this person may have just been out of the office unexpectedly for a family emergency and hasn’t been able to keep up with their workload. Not making judgements and waiting to understand the scenario will allow you to respond appropriately and take the right course of action for them and for yourself.

Give yourself the time and space, without having judged the situation, to really understand what is happening. This can easily take several conversations, so be careful not to make judgements too soon.


Empathy is a skill that will do you well in all of life. Put yourself in the shoes of others and see the world from where they stand. If you can understand how things work from their perspective, you will have a better understanding of the situation and it will allow you to uncover any needs they haven’t asked for.

This can be as simple as knowing your exec is plane-hopping all week with short layovers. Think about what would make these trips easier for you if you were the one traveling. Maybe you find a map of the her connecting airports and show her the fastest route between her gates, while also highlighting her favorite fast and healthy food options on that course for quick pick-up between flights.

Use these tips to seek out opportunities to draw out what isn’t being said and you will impress even yourself with how close you get to reading minds. Listening for unsaid needs will become your secret weapon.

Written by Bryn Smith

Bryn is the Senior Manager of Brand and Product Marketing at Base, where she is on a mission to build a world-class EA community by connecting them with top-notch thought leaders, invaluable resources, and cutting-edge insights.