Modern Work

Improving Active Listening Skills at the Workplace

Illustration of two characters pointing and looking at a computer screen

Active listening skills in the workplace can increase productivity, facilitate a healthy workplace culture, prevent mistakes, and avoid misunderstandings.

Better yet, as your team members develop this skill, they’ll interact better with customers, clients, and key stakeholders.

Simply put, active listening leads to business growth!

Why is it Important to be a Good Listener?

All parties in a conversation need to demonstrate that they’re paying attention to each other.

Attention management doesn’t just improve workplace interactions; it increases productivity and helps manage procrastination. By modeling and teaching these techniques, you can help your employees build strong business relationships and achieve goals more quickly.

Benefits of Active Listening: Avoid Misunderstandings and Mistakes

By paying true attention to people—and the vast array of verbal and non-verbal information they share—you can prevent virtually all misunderstandings. When confusion does arise, you can quickly (and non-dramatically) address and resolve it.

Resolve Workplace Conflicts

Conflicts arise from misunderstandings, as well as ego/status battles. Lead by example; use active listening techniques to make everyone in your organization feel “heard” and valued.

For example, one of my mentors has incredible body language when listening. In small-group settings, he looks directly at the speaker (not around the room or at other listeners). He offers eye contact and a genuine smile that says, “I value you and everything you’re saying.”

How many dramas and conflicts in your workplace would disappear if everyone showed this level of mutual respect?

Benefits of Being a Good Listener: Foster Cultural Understanding/Diversity

Avoid costly misunderstandings (and potential lawsuits) by absorbing speakers’ true messages – instead of simply making assumptions.

Many listeners wait impatiently for their turn to speak; this false listening leads to all kinds of complications, especially between co-workers of differing heritage/experience.

By encouraging active listening in the office, you can attract and retain talented professionals from around the globe (and around the block).

Reward your team members when you see them paying close attention to each other, responding to each other’s body language, and asking insightful questions.

Active Listening Skills for the Workplace

When coaching your team in active listening skills, offer rare and concise advice.

Remember, you’re asking people to change social behaviors they’ve practiced their entire lives.

Instead, suggest one of these techniques at a team meeting and wait until you witness someone using it. Depending on the situation, you could praise this person for using an active listening technique in front of the team – or in written communication.

Focused Listening Skills

Many teachers of active listening techniques use the Comprehension/Retention/Response Method. Of course, it’s important to understand people, but they also need to know you’ve understood them.

By remembering key facts and responding accordingly, you’ll let people know you care about what they say.

After listening, paraphrase the speaker’s message. Don’t repeat their exact words like a parrot; instead, restate their ideas in a novel way.

This technique helps them feel “heard” and shows you understand their point of view. Also, it helps to add a clarifying question.

For example, you could say, “So, you prefer our new workflow because it balances peak and non-peak product volumes better than the old system. Is that correct?”

Effective Listening: Put Aside Emotional Barriers to Listening

Listeners often fail to understand speakers due to emotional triggers and biases.

Some people have trouble with active listening because they consider careful listening to be a low-status behavior. In some authority-driven organizations (and families), one person does all the talking and everyone else listens quietly.

Team members who talk too much (and rarely listen well) will likely need frequent praise and validation when learning to change their listening habits. They also need to know that listening to opposing points of view doesn’t mean they agree.

Encourage people who have difficulty listening to demonstrate comprehension without tacit agreement.

For example, they can respond with neutral statements of understanding. For example, they could say, “Interesting, it sounds like you believe praying to the Greek god Zeus every three hours will enhance our team’s productivity.”

Understand Shift and Support Responses

When responding to a person, pay attention to how you “twist” the conversation.

People who habitually “make the conversation about themselves” can annoy and alienate others.

To turn conversations into monologues, they use shift responses like, “Your company does business in India? When I was in Mumbai, I blah blah blah…”

When you identify this narcissistic tendency in yourself and your teammates, add more support responses into your interactions.

Don’t be a “ball hog”; hand the conversation back to the other person by paraphrasing their statements asking insightful questions.

Better yet, transcend I/you duality completely by making “we” statements. For example, you could say, “Your company does business in India? If you want to increase your visibility in Mumbai, we could create an initiative together.”

Removing Logistical Barriers to Active Listening in the Workplace

Help your team improve listening skills at work by holding key conversations and meetings when people are most ready to listen.

Don’t launch into a lengthy presentation when your team members are tired and hungry (or on a Friday afternoon).

Use simple language and gauge your audience carefully. For example, don’t use industry-specific language or tell inside jokes around clients and other stakeholders who don’t understand your office lingo.

When you want to communicate complicated, emotionally-charged, or novel concepts, make sure the setting is conducive to careful listening.

Take care to make your points slowly and use short, direct language. Keep it short and sweet and encourage your audience to ask clarifying questions (and use other active listening methods).

Practical Examples 

According to seminal communication psychologist Albert Mehrabian, interpersonal communication combines three factors:

  • Body language and facial expressions (55%)
  • Tone of voice (38%)
  • The meaning of the words we say (7%)

Remember, we don’t do most of our listening with our ears; we do it with our eyes!

Body Language

When listening, nod in agreement and use sub-vocalizations (murmurs of assent) to let people know you like what they’re saying.

This method allows you to take part in the non-verbal part of a conversation without interrupting the speaker. If you disagree with someone, you can shake your head; however, allow them to finish talking (and confirm their meaning) before launching into a counter-argument.

When speaking, use appropriate gestures.

Point toward specific words on your white board/smart screen when making presentations. Nod your head when talking about a new project you want others to approve.

For example, wave to clients when greeting them, shake their hands, and engage in a little “small talk” before providing detailed technical information on your latest product offering.

Tone of Voice

Some people use aggressive or bombastic vocal tonalities as a matter of course. If you or a team member have this tendency, learn to soften your language (at least, some of the time).

As a leader, you need to use a dominant tone to get people’s attention, but not in one-on-one conversations.

Conversely, encourage people with soft vocal tonalities to speak up. Remind them to remain patient when listeners ask them to repeat themselves.

When dominant speakers interrupt shy people, interrupt them and tell them to wait until the original speaker has finished.

Model Non-Judgemental Behaviors

When you’re communicating with your team, let them know you value them and care about their perspectives.

Especially in creative/brainstorming settings, cultivate an affirmative (the opposite of judgment) office culture.

For example, if a typically-shy team member presents an off-the-wall idea, don’t shoot it down harshly. Say, “I value the courage it took you to suggest such a bold move, but it’s out of the scope of this project. Let’s remember that idea when we’re brainstorming our goals for next quarter.”

When you witness people criticizing each other, suggest an alternative approach.

Ask them to listen actively, demonstrate they understand each other, and accept diverse opinions. Remember, it isn’t about agreeing with each other – it’s about showing respect in the workplace.

Conversational Timing

People who love to talk rarely notice they’re doing it – or that their listeners’ eyes have glazed over.

These speakers can learn a simple and powerful technique called strategic silence (I personally love this little trick). When you suspect a person isn’t listening, take a pause. Wait for the listener to re-engage and restart the conversation.

For people who love to talk (like me), this technique provides a simple and polite test.

I use it every day to gauge how interested other people are in my stories – and when they’re dying to get a word in edgewise.

Track Your Team’s Progress

Use Toggl to keep track of how much time your team spends on productive work, brainstorming, and in lengthy meetings. By facilitating quick, insightful, and effective communication around the office with active listening techniques, you can develop a healthy and productive workplace culture!

August 29, 2017