Active Listening: The Lifeblood of Great Communication

Published on: 12:13PM Nov 13, 2010

Many, perhaps most, of us do not fully listen to what is being said nor do we then ask follow-up questions to elicit greater understanding or additional information. 

Think of a recent time when someone – employee, colleague, partner, family member, friend – was not listening when you had something important to say. Now think about how you felt and describe your feelings in one word. Feelings like the following are common:
·                     Frustrated
·                     Ignored
·                     Angry
·                     Unimportant
·                     Upset
To avoid situations where we leave others with these feelings, we need to become better active or empathic listeners.
Our tendency is to view listening as a passive activity. Active listening is a very proactive way to enhance communication with employees and others. The listener is taking “active” responsibility for understanding both the content of and feelings behind what is being said. An underlying theme is for the listener to use active listening to help others solve their own problems.
Let’s look at an example. An employee approaches you and says: “The deadline to finish bedding the animals is not realistic.” The typical response would be to insist that the deadline is realistic. An active listening response, however, could be: "It sounds like you are concerned about whether you can meet the deadline.”
The advantage of this response is two-fold. First, you show understanding for the employee’s position. Second, you and the employee can now talk about both the employee’s feelings and the practical issue of meeting the deadline. Active learning opens the door for effective communication, reducing the likelihood of a confrontation.
The following contrasts our usual approach to listening and the active listening approach:
·                     Our usual listening: Listening to the other person in order to respond to what they are saying, often even to use what they are saying against them in an argument.
·                     Active listening: Listening carefully to truly understand what the other person is saying and how they are feeling about what they are saying.
An open communication climate is created through active listening. The listener better understands what a person means and how the person feels about situations and problems. Active listening is a skill that communicates acceptance and increases interpersonal trust between employees and you their supervisor. We have often talked in this column about the importance of fairness. The chance of an employee leaving a conversation perceiving they have been treated fairly is heightened by the use of active listening.
Think about all of your communications -- employees, co-workers, partners, friends, family. In those communications, what percentage of the time would you categorize your listening as:
  1. ___      Pay little or no attention.
  1. ___      Listen but you are also thinking about other things.
  1. ___      Listen but you are also thinking about how you are going to respond to what is being said.
  1.  ___     Listen with nothing else in your mind. Only after he/she has finished
            speaking do you begin thinking about how to respond.
We normally think of listening-level 3 as good listening; the problem is that, not unlike level 2, we are multi-tasking as we are also thinking about how to respond distracting us from fully -- actively -- listening. 
Active listening might suggest that the last choice should be 100 percent. That is unrealistic and unnecessary! My challenge to you is to establish a realistic goal for the percentage of the time you will make that choice – listen with nothing else in your mind. Now, WORK to meet your goal!
Many, perhaps most, of us do not fully listen to what is being said nor do we then ask follow-up questions to elicit greater understanding or additional information. More often than not, when someone – an employee, a partner, a customer, a friend, a spouse – initiates a conversation; they have spent time thinking about the idea, the issue, the concern or the situation. Interjecting our-off-the-cuff ideas and responses before they completely explain their thinking both loses the fruits of the time they spent and diminishes the quality of the interpersonal relationship with that individual. 
The following two listening practices can assist you in becoming a better listener:
  1. Pause one to two seconds before replying. This practices has three advantages:
    • It shows you are carefully listening
    • Your avoid or at least reduce the risk of interrupting
    • You actually hear the other person better
  2. Ask questions for clarification. I find these two to be especially helpful:
    • “What do you mean?”
    • “Tell me more?”
    I find the one- to two-second pause especially helpful on the telephone where interrupting is an even greater danger. In addition to being rude, interrupting often renders the conversation ineffective. 
    I find the “tell me more” phrase to be extremely effective, especially when listening to someone who is quiet, has difficulty expressing their thoughts, or someone who is not certain whether I am interested in what they are saying.
    The consequences of failing to allow others to fully express ideas, opinions and feelings and/or to not fully listen are often two-fold. First, the current conversation is not brought to successful conclusion. Second, you have communicated the message that you do not want to listen and even more significant future ideas, concerns and feelings may never be communicated. 
    I encourage you to set a goal for November to become a better active listener.