Think back to a situation at work that did not go well. Perhaps it was an interaction with a colleague, a poor decision, or a costly mistake. What factors contributed to that situation?
Have you considered listening as a factor? If everyone involved had truly been listening – to each other, to the information being conveyed, to the company’s goals or needs – would the outcome have been any different?
Why We Don’t Listen
Listening is, arguably, the most important communication skill and is a cornerstone of most business activities, regardless of industry. Unfortunately, most people aren’t naturally great at listening. We get caught up in multitasking, so our attention is divided, all but ensuring we miss out on some critical aspects of the message. Or we jump to conclusions or interpretations that might be inaccurate, then react on the basis of misinformation. Alternatively, we might focus on our response, how to convey our points or press our agenda forward, bypassing the fundamental step of understanding. Ultimately, we want to speak, to be heard, and we often gloss over this crucial first step of effective communication: listening.
That’s too bad because being an effective listener gives you a competitive edge, regardless of your organizational role.
So what does it mean to be a great listener? It isn’t necessarily an innate talent. Rather, being a great listener means that you have mastered the skill of active listening, which essentially includes 3 main active listening techniques:
1. Pay attention.
Multitasking or splitting attention is a myth. Trying to do so will result in you missing out on a significant chunk of information being conveyed verbally or non-verbally.
2. Convey that you are listening.
Demonstrate that you are fully engaged by using body language, nodding, making small verbalizations (e.g., “Uh, huh,” “I see”), responsive facial expressions, or asking open-ended questions for elaboration.
3. Focus on comprehending the message as intended.
Listen with the intent to understand, not respond. This also means suspending judgments initially. Clarify your understanding to ensure accuracy before you move on to responding.
The Benefits of Effective & Active Listening
The benefits of active listening are multifaceted. At a minimum, being a good listener means that you will capture and retain more of the crucial information, which can increase productivity and facilitate better performance on projects. It also means that you will have more accurate and robust information to consider when making decisions, potentially improving the quality and outcomes of those decisions. Thus ultimately making your conversation partner feel heard and building trust with them.
In addition, active listening skills strengthen relationships. By paying full attention to another person and ensuring that you are understanding their message as intended, you are communicating several key messages such as “I value you and what you have to say” and that “you can trust me to understand and cooperate with you.” Practicing active listening helps with problem solving. In contrast, consider times when you’ve tried to talk to someone who was distracted by their phone or email or something else, nodded mindlessly, or cut in to respond without actually understanding what you were saying. You likely felt frustrated, dismissed, or devalued in some way.
Effective and active listening can help cut down on miscommunication and the conflict or subpar performance that can follow. Furthermore, it enhances your influence and ability to persuade or negotiate. The most persuasive people and successful negotiators start by truly seeing the other’s perspective, then guiding them to a new one. Understanding that perspective starts with listening.
Taken all together, active listening is a soft skill that can have a substantial impact on your performance across the board.
Tips to Try
Active listening is a skill that needs to be practiced in order to master it. Implement these helpful strategies and notice what impact doing so has on you, your teams, and your organization.
Pay Full Attention:
- Make eye contact.
- Put down your phone.
- If you must use a device to take notes, tell the other person. Say something like, “I want to be sure I capture the important points, so I’m going to take some notes.” Spelling it out directly lets them know that you are still fully engaged, not somewhere else mentally.
- Before you respond with your opinion, ideas, or retorts, make sure you have an accurate understanding.
- Paraphrase their take home points. Rather than verbatim stating what they just said, rephrase it in your own words. Start with a phrase like, “Let me make sure I’m understanding correctly. Are you saying…?” or “What I’m hearing you say is…”
- If you notice that you start to get upset by something you are hearing, this is a powerful signal that you need to fact check. It is quite possible that there is a bit of miscommunication happening, and strong emotions cloud our ability to think logically, process new information, and make effective decisions.