Last week, I wrote about the role of empathy at work and mentioned active listening. You’ve probably heard this term used, and you may think you’re doing it. After all, we’ve often heard that active listening is just about making eye contact and saying “Mhm” every so often. In fact, though, there’s a lot more to it than that. In this blog, I’ll explain what skills this entails and why they are impactful in the workplace.
What Makes Active Listening Unique
This article from the Center for Creative Leadership defines active listening. It’s a set of skills that enables you to do more than listen when someone else is speaking. When you practice these skills, you’re able to listen, understand, respond, and remember what was said. How often do we really do all those things in conversations? Of course, it’s not realistic to expect yourself to be 100% tuned in at every moment. However, we can try to be actively listening in more of our conversations.
Active listening focuses on making another person feel heard. As explained in this article from Verywell Mind, it’s also about making someone feel valued. When someone makes the effort to practice active listening while we’re talking, we know that they care to hear us. This is the key to building relationships in the workplace.
This HBR article introduces the idea that there are several ways of listening to someone else. Based on this research, the authors identify four listening styles. Each one relates to a different goal in terms of why you’re having the conversation in the first place.
The first style is analytical. When you use this approach, you’re trying to analyze a problem from all angles. For example, you might ask, “So what happens if you try this other strategy?” Another style is relational. This approach centers feelings and human connection. You might ask, “How did you feel when that happened?” If you’re practicing critical listening, you’re trying to judge the accuracy of what you’re hearing. You might say something like, “How do you know that’s true?” And lastly, you might be engaged in task-focused listening. This process prioritizes the communication of information. You won’t be interested in digging deeper into what you’re hearing in this case. Instead, you’ll just respond with something like, “Okay, got it. Anything else?”
As I see it, active listening can fit with any of these styles. If you want to identify it by its goal, I’d say this kind of listening emphasizes communicating value to another person. Any of these approaches can communicate value. If the other person has asked for your help to problem solve, analytical listening is best. When they’re venting, you show that you care by listening for feelings. Or if they want constructive feedback, critical listening will serve well. And if they’re just trying to share information, a task-focused approach shows that you value what they have to say.
Benefits of Active Listening
Of course, letting the other person know they’re valued in a conversation is good on its own. However, that’s not the only plus of practicing active listening. Making people feel valued establishes trust and shows empathy, according to this article. As I mentioned in my blog about empathy, this is a precursor for respect. Practicing active listening when a colleague is talking also fosters safety in the workplace. It makes people comfortable enough to express unique and different ideas.
It probably won’t surprise you, then, that active listening makes collaboration much easier. That’s the assertion made in this HBR article. When team members feel safe sharing ideas and respect one another, creativity flourishes. They are better suited to come up with innovative solutions to big challenges. Their problem solving ability will skyrocket.
Active listening may be most valuable in situations where conflict exists. This might seem surprising, since I’ve been talking so much about respect. The point made in this video by Simon Sinek is that respect is not a prerequisite. Instead, practicing active listening can actually be the beginning of understanding and conflict resolution. Sinek cites a fascinating documentary as an example of active listening resolving seemingly insurmountable conflict. That’s White Right: Meeting the Enemy, featuring Deeyah Khan. It sounds really interesting and worth checking out.
Traps to Avoid
Having reviewed all these benefits, you’re probably eager to dive in and sharpen your skills. Here are a few words of caution before you proceed. This article and Sinek’s video list some common mistakes we tend to make.
For instance, a lot of us just struggle to concentrate through a whole conversation. It’s hardly our fault. Modern society has created a basic expectation of constant multitasking. It’s become a habit ingrained in most of us. Unfortunately, as I’ve described earlier, breaking habits is hard! However, it’s not impossible. With some effort, we can improve our focus. It’s also important that we get enough sleep. It’s importance for productivity is massive.
Even if we’re able to pay attention to what someone is saying, we don’t always like what we hear. Sometimes, we decide to tune someone out because they’re complaining. We might do the same if we find them annoying. That’s not active listening, though, and it won’t serve you at work. Neither will getting defensive when someone questions your ideas. These are not part of successful active listening.
A few more don’ts: don’t undermine another person’s feelings. Don’t be thinking of your response while the other person is still talking. Don’t rush in to give advice. And definitely don’t question someone’s logic while they’re talking. All these things prevent you from tuning in to what the person is actually saying. As long as you care more about your opinion than theirs, you’re not practicing active listening.
Strategies for Active Listening
So what is active listening? According to the Center for Creative Leadership, it’s the sum of six practices. First, pay attention. Make eye contact, show interest through body language, and let the other person get out their thoughts fully. Next, withhold judgment. The time another person is talking isn’t the time for you to critique their ideas. Just try to understand them for now. Sinek advises being curious instead of judgmental. Third, reflect what you heard. Our cognitive heuristics can play tricks on us sometimes. Be sure that you’ve understood what the speaker means as the conversation progresses. Next. ask clarifying questions. Finally, you can share your own thoughts and summarize what you’ve taken away from the conversation.
What happens if someone approaches you to talk, and you just can’t do all this yet? No worries. You can let them know. You might need to schedule a time later on when you can be fully present for this conversation. That’s part of letting people know that you value them and what they have to say. Give them their time of day, literally.
I hope this encourages you to tune in, listen actively, and build more respect in your workplace. Here’s hoping you’ve been able to hear my message and understand it too!