Bryant H McGill, author, poet and activist, once famously said ‘One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say’.
Communication is, as we all know, a two way street. Just as clearly articulating your thoughts when speaking is vital, so is active listening when someone else is talking. The inability to listen actively causes many problems in organisations – instructions are misunderstood, intentions hijacked, resentments build, or performance suffers. Performance of both the team and the individuals can suffer when communication breaks down.
So what is ‘active listening’. It is obvious what it is not. How many times have you had someone come into your office to tell you something and when they’ve gone you realise you can’t remember what they had said. Or asked someone a question and realised you can’t recall the answer. You were probably thinking about the next thing you had to do or organise, were looking at your emails (or Facebook!), or worrying about something else, while they were talking.
Active listening is a skill that not only aids your own comprehension of what the person is saying but also helps you frame the next thing you are going to say as part of that conversation. In a work situation, not listening properly can cause disagreements, upsets and worse.
Active listening is about focusing not just on the words being said, giving the person your full attention, but concentrating on the entire message, looking at body language and listening to tone as well.
For example if someone says ‘yes I’m fine with that’ but their tone of voice or body language indicate that in fact this is not the case then it is time to ask some more questions, listen to the responses to try and see what is actually going on for that person. You demonstrate that you have actively listened by responding to any underlying issues – eg ‘I get the impression that you’ are disappointed with the result. Tell me about that – or paraphrasing what has been said and repeating it back – eg: ‘from what you have said I understand that the time frames given by the client were unrealistic’.
To practice active listening use your own body language – lean forward, pay attention, make eye contact, and nod your head to show you are listening.
Active listening is not checking emails, looking at your phone, allowing someone to interrupt, or looking out the window.
Most of all try not to interrupt what the person is saying – this will be difficult for some people, especially for those who want to help or rescue the person who is speaking.
Just as it is important to listen carefully and ask questions to clarify what the other person is saying, it is sometimes just as important to allow for silence, without the need to fill it with more words.
In a supervisor / employee relationship, silence allows the employee reflection time, time to think of a response to a question. It also shows that you have patience, not needing to give the employee the answer to the question.
If you are concerned a co-worker has not listened properly to something you have said ask them to repeat back what you have said to make sure it is clear.
Most importantly – listen to understand, not to argue your own point!