We all want to be heard. And when coworkers say they want to be heard, it means they want their teams, their company, and their leaders to listen to them. An important part of leadership development, then, is improving one’s listening skills. Skills like active listening.
Active listening is simply a method for listening to others in a way that is present, interactive, and focused on the speaker. The goal is not so much to respond to what is said, but to indicate it has been heard and understood.
There are many ways in which leaders who practice active listening outperform their colleagues who do not. First and most obviously, active listening shows a level of care and concern for one’s direct reports and coworkers. This makes the individual feel valued and can often lessen tensions all by itself. Done regularly, active listening also benefits the organization as a whole, boosting morale and helping create a culture of candor and support.
But active listening also benefits the listener, too. It forces you to think more about what is being said rather than how you will respond. Leaders who practice active listening often report they learn more, earn trust more quickly, and stay more open-minded.
Like any skill, though, active listening must be learned and practiced. So here is a “quick and dirty” guide to sharpening your active listening skills:
- Be present in the moment. Active listening is difficult enough without competition from television, smart phones, email, and other modern distractions. Spend some effort tuning-in… not thinking about the last meeting, the next game, or happy hour.
- Look at the person who is speaking. Don’t look around the room, or at your work, or (gasp) at your smartphone. Maintain eye contact, or at least face the speaker.
- Watch your posture, too. Do you tend to leans towards a speaker, or away from them? Leaning in can indicate interest and attention, while leaning-away shows aloofness. Avoid other non-verbal signals of being disengaged, such as crossed arms, head on one’s hands, slouching in your chair, etc.
- As they speak, acknowledge what they say. As the person is speaking, acknowledge that you hear them. Nod occasionally, or say “Uh huh” or “I see.”
- Pause when they seem done. After they’re done speaking, pause for a few seconds. The speaker might have more to say, and you don’t want to interrupt the flow. And even if they’re done, pausing shows you are thoughtfully considering what they’ve said.
- Restate what you just heard. When you are ready to reply, start off by restating or paraphrasing what the person just said. This confirms you understood what was just said—or else exposes any misunderstandings right off the bat. It also forces you, the listener, to process what was said.
- Practice! Here’s the ironic thing about all these active listening tips—you can focus on them too much! Think about it: active listening requires being present in the moment and focusing on the person speaking. How well can you do those things if you are spending time obsessing about these tips?
That’s why you must practice. For most people, listening in this way does not come naturally—and it might require some focus at first. So don’t try it all at once. Practice a few times until it becomes habit. At that point, you won’t have to think about them.
Active listening is one of many soft skills people can learn to improve workplace communication and team performance. To learn more about these soft skills, come back regularly to our blog or contact us for a demo of our short instructional videos.