Chances Are, You Are Not as Good at Actively Listening as You Think
Being truly heard is rare in today's fast-paced digital workplace. Listening is a life-changing gift that every leader can give. Actively listening to employees leaves them feeling valued, affirmed, and connected emotionally with you. Being heard creates safety in the leader-follower relationship and is essential to establishing trust. Listening eases tensions and makes productive conflict work where resentment exists. Although being listened to is not commonly experienced in the workforce, listening is a leadership talent developed through practice.
Rushing from meeting to meeting in the crisis-driven workplace leaves many leaders just getting by when it comes to listening. Most conversations leaders have rarely go below the surface. Leaders talk in bullet points using 140 characters or less when possible, resulting in the leader's focus on the words rather than their meaning.
Additionally, the hybrid workplace has not helped leaders listen. Leaders communicating with a remote workforce receive less context and fewer cues due to the limitations of technology. And all of this is happening at a time when leadership trust is declining in society and employees are not feeling heard in the workplace.
The good news for you is that assessing, developing, and practicing your active listening skills can set you apart from your competition and be a competitive advantage for an organization.
Active listening meaning
Actively listening is your ability to hear and improve mutual understanding. Hearing is not a synonym for listening. When you actively listen, you pay attention, show interest, suspend judgment, reflect, clarify, summarize, and share to gain clarity and understanding. When you are practicing active listening, you are available to the other person.
Suspending judgment can be tricky for leaders pressed for time. Leaders are used to fixing problems quickly, so slowing down can be very challenging. The goal of active listening is to hear the other person. Try to understand before you try to be understood. Listening does not mean agreement.
Clarifying involves asking open-ended, probing, and clarifying questions. A good starting question is to ask, what's on your mind? And follow it up with asking, and what else? You might be amazed at what you learn.
Actively listening doesn't mean only listening and asking questions. It would be best to share your thoughts, ideas, feelings, and suggestions after you believe you have heard the employee. The part of sharing many leaders struggle with is communicating their emotions. For example, using statements like, "You aren't the only one feeling that way," or "I felt similarly "helps connect emotionally with the employee.
The following video from Simon Sinek is on the art of creating an environment where the other person feels heard.
Active listening skills
Verbal, nonverbal, and empathic listening are a few of the different active listening skills:
Active verbal listening is the use of paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, assumption checking, and questioning skills. The words you use matter. Research looking into the value between verbal and nonverbal active listening skills demonstrated that speaking skills are more critical for improving outcomes than nonverbal.
Active nonverbal listening refers to your body language. Eye contact, leaning forward, and an open body position all provide cues of affirmation. Avoid checking your phone, leaning back in your chair, and crossing your arms. Whether intended or not, these are all cues that you are not actively listening to the employee.
Active empathic listening combines the use of verbal and nonverbal active listening skills with empathy. Leaders practice this type of listening by sensing the explicit and implicit feelings being communicated. Active Empathic Listening is vital to innovation and maintaining close relationships.
One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say. Bryant McGill
Benefits of actively listening
The skill of active listening is the most effective form of listening. The benefits of active listening are well documented for building trust and improving relationships and the work environment. When employees feel heard, they feel better about their work and their leader.
Active listening improves creativity and is a skill that cannot be outsourced. Listening for implicit and explicit needs and wants of followers and customers leads to innovations that are used and valued.
Improved relationships lead to reduced stress and improved perceptions of respect that create a better environment for joint problem-solving.
Assessing your active listening skills
A study of employee perceptions of their leader's listening skills revealed it was the lowest-rated competency despite being very important to employees. This is significant because perceptions are proven to influence actions taken.
It is always good to solicit feedback. If you have a formal 360 assessment process, you could incorporate the following statements into that tool, or you could run this as a separate pulse survey to gather anonymous input from direct reports, peers, customers, and your leader. You will want to adjust the wording for the different audiences.
My leader can sense how I feel without me having to say how I am feeling.
My leader reads my non-verbal messages when we are in a conversation.
My leader reflects my emotions to let me know that they understand how I am feeling.
My leader calms me down when I become angry by reflecting my feelings.
My leader restates my words to make sure that they understand me correctly.
My leader makes sure to know what I am saying in a conflict situation.
My leader does not justify their actions when I complain about something they have done wrong.
My leader does not get angry or defensive when corrected.
The questions above are adapted from the Longweni and Kroon (2018) perceptions survey.
Overcoming active listening barriers
The use of metaphors, slowing down, paying attention, and paraphrasing key points are helpful tips for overcoming barriers to active listening.
Use metaphors. A metaphor is a phrase that conveys something typically abstract through a symbolic image with shared understanding. Like the saying, a picture is worth a thousand words. Metaphors help create connections. For example, when attempting to clarify, you could ask, is it like driving in the fog at night? Instead of asking, are you confused?
Slow down. Leaders are under pressure, and active listening does not typically happen in a rushed environment. The key is not to try and force a conversation into an arbitrarily scheduled time frame. Allow the option to reschedule additional time as appropriate.
Pay attention. It is easy not to be aware that you are sending unintended signals. Put your technology on mute. Get curious about what they are saying and their emotions. This is not the time to multi-task. Be natural and use verbal and nonverbal cues such as nodding your head or saying yes to let them know you are engaged.
Paraphrase key points. Like when playing catch with a ball. When the conversation is tossed to you, that is the time to put what you heard into your own words and use that to make sure you hear the key points correctly.
The following video provides a hilarious example from The Office on what not to do when it comes to active listening.
How to encourage others to use active listening
Everyone has been in a situation where they don't feel heard. The following are some strategies you can try to help bring about the change you want to see:
Find common ground. Whether you are getting to know a person or engaging a leader you report to on a complicated topic, starting with something you share in common can help create interest.
Be a role model. Being the change you want to see in the world is a powerful tool for influencing change in the workplace. Don't be the one wanting to be listened to but unwilling to hear yourself. Look in the mirror and assess how you are doing before trying to fix someone else.
Let them know. Often it is not a lack of desire as to why someone is not using active listening skills. If you decide to provide this feedback, you want to use an "I" statement. Such as, I don't feel like you are hearing me.
How to develop active listening skills
If you are ready to invest some energy into developing your active listening skills, the following list of development ideas is compiled from various research studies on active listening.
Daily reflection. Reflect and assess daily how you are doing. Reflect on specific conversations to identify what went well and what still needs improvement. Specifically, focus on how well you pay attention, show interest, suspend judgment, reflect, clarify, summarize, and share to gain clarity and understanding.
Find a mentor or accountability partner. A mentor should be someone that is a skilled active listener. This will be someone that can role model and help ask good reflective questions to help you learn.
Find an accountability partner. An accountability partner can be someone that is also working on building their active listening skills, or they could be already skilled. The key is that they can observe you and catch you using or not applying active listening skills.
Focus. Consciously focus on building active listening skills rather than expecting to learn these skills while focusing on another competency.
Experiential practice. Like building physical endurance and strength, you can build active listening skills with training. Use blended experiential methods that require learning by doing. Active listening is influenced by the context of the conversation and cues that are best learned by doing. Don't just rely on reading about active listening.
Key Summary Points:
Actively listening to employees leaves them feeling valued, affirmed, and connected emotionally with you.
Listening eases tensions and makes productive conflict work where resentment exists.
When you actively listen, you pay attention, show interest, suspend judgment, reflect, clarify, summarize, and share to gain clarity and understanding.
Active Empathic Listening is vital to innovation and maintaining close relationships.
The benefits of active listening are well documented for building trust and improving relationships and the work environment.
A study of employee perceptions of their leader's listening skills revealed it was the lowest-rated competency despite being very important to employees.
Using metaphors, slowing down, paying attention, and paraphrasing key points are helpful tips when practicing active listening.
Being the change you want to see in the world is a powerful tool for influencing change in the workplace.
Like building physical endurance and strength, you can build active listening skills with practice.
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Bodie, G., Vickery, A., Cannava, K., Jones, S. (2015). The role of "active listening" in informal helping conversations: Impact on perceptions of listener helpfulness, sensitivity, and supportiveness and discloser emotional improvement. Western Journal of Communication;79(2):151-173.
Center for Creative Leadership. (2019). Active listening: Improve your ability to listen and lead, second edition, 2nd edition. Center for Creative Leadership.
Gearhart, C., Bodie, G. (2011). Active-empathic listening as a general social skill: Evidence from bivariate and canonical correlations. Communication Reports;24:86-98.
Jahromi, V., Tabatabaee, S., Abdar, Z., & Rajabi, M. (2016). Active listening: The key of successful communication in hospital managers. Electronic physician, 8(3), 2123–2128.
Kourmousi, N., Kounenou, K., Yotsidi, V., Xythali, V., Merakou, K., Barbouni, A., & Koutras, V. (2018). Personal and job factors are associated with teachers' active listening and active empathic listening. Social Sciences, 7(7)
Longweni, M., & Kroon, J. (2018). Managers' listening skills, feedback skills and ability to deal with interference: A subordinate perspective. Acta Commercii, 18(1), 1-12.