Active listening is a supportive communication technique.
In the workplace, it can be used to build relationships and motivate, improve efficiency and productivity, develop skills and draw out qualities, have difficult conversations and much more.
- Active listening makes your team feel valued and gives you a window into their point of view and ideas
- Managers and leaders who hear with all their senses are characterised by their considerate, open-minded, thoughtful and attentive qualities
- Active listening helps you to gather information quickly and streamline your conversations
Active listening trains all your senses to intercept a spectrum of information and interpret it fully.
It's a technique that gives you:
- Sharper concentration
- A longer attention span
- Permission to stop broadcasting and projecting your opinions and ideas
- Renewed focus and consideration
- An eye for body language and mirroring skills
- A contextual perspective
- Stronger team relationships
There are multiple benefits for active listening, but predominantly it creates open and trusting working relationships.
Managing with half a story
The Learning Pyramid or the Cone of Experience is a diagram that describes how much we can remember based on what we see, hear, write, say and do.
Visual and audio information is at the top of the triangle.
We only remember up to 50% of the information we see and hear. Without extra support like writing it down, repeating it out loud, or doing something, it's difficult to recall the information.
Let's look at the problem that causes through an example employee concern:
"I have been diagnosed with a learning disorder and I'm struggling with non-verbal mental flexibility. It puts me on the autistic spectrum. Although I have a good working memory and I'm capable, I'm worried about how my performance has been measured up until this point and that you will treat me differently in the future."
If the manager only remembered 50% of the detail, they're halving their chance of helping their employee.
50% recall "I have been diagnosed with a learning disorder. It puts me on the autistic spectrum. I’m worried about how you will treat me in the future."
25% recall "I have been diagnosed with a learning disorder. It puts me on the autistic spectrum."
If the manager used active listening, they would recall closer to 90% of the information given by the employee. Active listening allows you to realise the learning outcomes from the base of the Cone of Experience and greater recall, through analysis and evaluation.
Prepare the environment
Converse in a secure and comfortable space to get the conversation flowing.
Just get rid of all distractions - shut the door, put your phone on silent and close the laptop. Concentrate solely on the person in front of you.
There's a lot going on in their head - they might feel anxious, self-conscious, exposed, or even at risk - so you need to host them in this space so they feel comfortable.
For example, sit next to them rather than opposite them. It's less confrontational and it'll make them feel relaxed.
If you're going into a meeting with multiple people, set some boundaries before you get started so everyone feels protected and valued:
1) Everyone will have a turn to speak
2) The time for questions is at the end of the presentation
3) Speak one at a time and listen to one another
With distractions firmly to one side and the rules of play clear to everyone, now the only thing you can control is how well you listen and engage.
Pro-tip: Encourage your employee to speak their mind and be completely honest and self-focused. They don't need to persuade you. The technique, called the Rapoport Intervention, reassures the speaker they won't be interrupted and that you don't have an agenda. You just want to understand.
Speak when you need to
Active listening means engaging verbally in the right way:
- Prompt and encourage them to elaborate by saying 'yes', or 'I understand'
- Repeat key phrases back to them to show you've heard and understood
- Ask probing questions using the Kipling Method (who, what, when, where, why and how)
- If you don't understand, ask them to rephrase, repeat or use an example to explain what they mean
- Don't give your opinion at this stage - you might accidentally drive the conversation from the back seat
- Remind them of the topic if they get distracted, go on a tangent or become overwhelmed and lost in their train of thought
Look for context means you have the space to think about the context of what they're saying:
- Is their statement out of character?
- Has their behaviour and mood altered recently?
- Has something changed in their personal life?
- Is this statement a feature of a habit they're prone to?
- Is there a cultural influence driving their statement?
- Have changes at work affected them?
- Are other aspects of their work altered?
How they answer your questions can be contextual too. For example, they might answer one of your questions positively, saying 'yes' to please you, but follow up with an answer that means 'no', revealing their true thoughts.
Context can change from moment-to-moment and active listening keeps you alert for a change in the wind.
Read body language
You can't assume to understand mindset and motivations based purely on body language.
But it can give you clues about their emotional state and how comfortable they are speaking to you.
For example, you might pick up on body language that signals tiredness, hostility or exasperation, all of which would give a new dimension to a dip in their performance. You can respond to their body language by:
- Reflecting gestures and movements back to them, if it's positive
- Using it to inform your probing questions
But it works both ways - don't allow your mind to be clouded and distracted by their body language. Misinterpreting a facial expression could cause conflict and misunderstanding.
Recommended body language read: Talking to Strangers: What we should know about the people we don't know, by Malcolm Gladwell
Monitor your behaviour
Maintain eye contact, nod and keep your frame open. Reciprocate their hand gestures and facial expressions, if it's appropriate.
The tricky part is staying neutral if it gets heated.
There's nothing you can do to dull the instinct to fight back or leave the room if the conversation takes a turn:
- Emotion stops you from listening. You're distracted by a sudden influx of white noise in your head
- Take a breath. The urge to defend yourself, be antagonistic and fight back will pass in just a few seconds
- Check what your face is doing - if you're tense, relax your forehead and jaw
- Relax your body, lower your shoulders and keep your frame open
- Put a pin in your rebuttal or opinion and focus in on their voice - consider what they're telling you
- Clearly repeat back to them the points you agree on. Ask if they agree.
- Explain what you've learnt because they've spoken up. Ask if you've interpreted the meaning correctly.
- Calmly put across your perspective and opinion, if it feels appropriate.
Analyse, evaluate and repeat
You might feel like there's a big gap in this conversation where your opinion and expertise should be.
It's not missing - you've just internalised it. You're:
- Analysing the multi-sensory information in front of you
- Evaluating it to form a judgement, opinion and plan of action
- Formulating a response to satisfy the person you're speaking to
- Recalling information in your mind and out loud so you remember it clearly
What's the difference between listening and active listening?
If you're listening, you'll only take in the overview or main points of the conversation. If you're actively listening, you'll gather meaning.
Recall a time when someone didn't listen to you.
As an example, perhaps you'd walked over to someone's desk and they:
- Spoke to you without looking away from their screen
- Turned to speak to you, but also picked up their mobile phone
- The conversation was hijacked by another person approaching the desk, or someone sat nearby
- They forgot you were there, mid-conversation, and went back to work
You would probably feel embarrassed, annoyed, hurt and demotivated. What would you have changed about this situation to make yourself heard?:
- No screens
- A private arena to voice your concerns
Those two simple changes would have created a distraction-free and focused environment for you to have a quick discussion. This is what you have to carry with you as a manager.
Active listening gives you a rare opportunity to:
- Cast off your agenda
- Tune into another life
- Really hear what they have to say
- Understand a different take on the goals you're trying to achieve.
It'll spark creativity and solve problems, so you can meet your goals and targets in innovative ways.
If you take the time to acknowledge their thoughts and ideas, reflect it back to them and recall 90% of what they say, they'll feel valued and loyal.
Crisis talks and difficult conversations are easier
Fluid dialogue and strong alliances are the prizes for active listening. If you employ it even for the most mundane discussions, you're better prepared for high-pressure conversations. Whether you're negotiating or problem-solving, your active listening approach will diffuse tension and make the environment less irritable.
Create a respectful culture
If your meetings are a purposeless fracas, lead by example with active listening. If your team can learn to listen to one another without stealing the floor, baiting arguments or belittling their colleague's ideas, you'll build a respectful culture.
You've created a situation where your agenda and distractions won't divert your focus. You can gather information quickly and translate it into a productive plan of action.
Active listening is a skill you have to practice and muscle to flex at every opportunity. A good team leader is self-aware and you only become self-aware by listening to the people around you.
But active listening also shows your people their voices are worth listening to. They need to get used to hearing their voice in a public forum. Presenting their ideas confidently is a key skill which will aid their progression.