Excellent listening skills are not always the first thing we think of when looking at a list of desirable personal traits. Many of us probably believe that we are great listeners already.
We assume that we are listening because we give non-verbal cues and smile and nod and say “mhmm” while someone is speaking. However, these gestures are only a tiny part of authentic listening and can sometimes indicate that someone is not listening at all.
This listening style, the nodding and the mhmm’s is called passive listening. It’s the act of listening to reply but not to understand, and it hurts interpersonal communication.
We already take in only 25-50% of what we hear, and that, coupled with a busy manager’s stressful work environment, can leave team members feeling left out of the conversation.
With the rise of remote work and tech for communication, leaders have less and less meaningful interaction with their employees. In a 2021 study conducted by Workforce Institute, 63% of employees reported feeling ignored or unheard at their jobs.
One-on-one time is valuable to read where our team members stand in their work and life. If we spend that time listening passively, we are not maximizing communication.
Good listeners are active listeners. They are engaged and present with the person they’re communicating with because they listen to understand. Strong, active listening skills, listening to learn and not just to respond, are foundational to being a solid leader.
You need to “let go” mentally and be fully present with that person. When we listen at this level, we’re sending a message to the person you’re speaking with that says I have time for you. Not just I have time to address the problem, but I have time for you.
And active listening is good for business overall. A 2020 study shows that employees whose managers are strong listeners are also happier, healthier, and more fulfilled in their jobs.
The same study by Workforce Institute showed that 88% of companies that financially outperform others in their industries have employees who feel heard by their employers. This is compared to just 62% of employees at financially underperforming companies.
Becoming an active listener can be a challenging skill to develop; it requires practice, patience, and self-awareness. Here are five steps you can take to begin your active listening journey:
1. Don’t Interrupt
Let the other speaker complete their whole thought. This also applies to interrupting in your head (remember – “let go” in your head). In the middle of someone’s thought, we might stick to a point and say to ourselves, “I’m going to say this after they’re done,” then feign listening while we form the perfect rebuttal.
It’s hard because we want to get our thoughts out there, and we need to be heard as well. Staying engaged throughout a person’s complete thought, rather than checking out halfway through, gives them the space to convey the full breadth of their idea and you the opportunity to form a fully informed response.
2. Take a Second
Pause and reflect after they’ve finished speaking; I encourage you to take a breath after they’ve completed their point to digest what’s just been said.
It does not need to be some long, pensive pause. But quickly reflecting on their words, especially in moments of conflict or high emotional stress, will give you the ability to look at the real meaning of their words more critically.
3. Ask Questions
Get clarity wherever it’s required. As a society, we’re so conditioned to know everything. We fear looking dumb or embarrassed by asking a dumb question.
Questions are tools for more profound discovery. They are not a sign of ignorance but are a true sign that you are looking for deeper understanding.
4. “What I’m Hearing.”
When in doubt, summarize what you heard and how you interpreted that to your speaking partner. People are not mind readers. We each bring a unique perspective and set of personal experiences into every interaction we have.
5. Pay Attention to Body Language
What does their body and expression say that their words do not? Are they saying they’re happy, but their body is closed off? What are their facial expressions conveying? Are they animated or reserved?
Research suggests that only 7% of our message is conveyed through spoken words; the remaining 93% is expressed through a mix of facial, physical, and auditory cues. These subtle visual clues offer us a deeper insight into how a person truly feels. We lose them when we spend too much time in our heads.
These are just a few examples of behaviors of great active listeners. What is something someone in your life does that helps you feel heard? Let us know in the comments below.
About the Author
Atiyeh Ghanbari of This is Leading is helping women in business become strong, empathetic leaders through her holistic approach to leadership coaching and improving their lives professionally and personally.