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What happens when you and your employee, friend, family or client speak over each other? Do you think it makes for a productive effort and effective meeting? It’s doubtful. More likely, the interaction could make the other feel unheard, unseen and not taken seriously.
Our communication skills allow us to create, convey and prosper. As a leader, boss, entrepreneur or manager, you need to be able to share a message and receive one. The ocean doesn’t flood the coastline. Instead, it gives and receives. There is a push and pull to its existence and immense power, almost hidden in plain sight.
What is active listening?
When you visit your doctor, what do you expect them to do? Listen. But that isn’t enough, is it? They can’t just stand in the room. Every patient expects their health care provider to listen to their concerns and issues and absorb the information helpfully. Unfortunately, a significant cause of medical errors and unintentional harm is distracted listening. Doctors with better active listening skills can diagnose and treat the sick more effectively, because they have a more holistic view of the patient.
As a leader in your field, how did you develop your skills? They weren’t developed in a vacuum. Instead, you watched, listened and learned how others performed and used that knowledge to earn your current position. If you want to continue that growth and performance, active listening will be your most effective tool to better industry insight.
Active listening is taught to teachers, liaisons, aids, interpreters, police officers, social workers and religious leaders. By definition, it requires your full attention to the purpose and meaning of the speaker’s intentional communications. However, it’s more than just hearing the words. Active listening involves both listening and understanding why the speaker communicates these ideas or thoughts. The “why” is, by far, more critical than the actual words.
Four rules of active listening
There are only four rules to active listening. However, it can be difficult for management to deploy these skills without practice and intentional interactions. Here are the rules:
Focus the intent of your interaction with the speaker on understanding their perspective and message before requiring them to understand yours.
Enter the interaction without judgment on what could be communicated. Past actions don’t have to define future decisions.
Pay attention — Put your phone down. Face them. Look them in the eyes.
Be silent. Your silence empowers them to be more open and trusting.
When is active listening important?
Most likely, you’ve encountered active listening in all aspects of your life and potentially every day of your life. However, each moment of life could require a slightly altered version of active listening. Mastery of all situations leads to better communication in the future during unique or unusual events. So, here’s when active listening is important:
A spouse, family member, parent or child deserves a moment of uninterrupted time. However, the most affected people in our lives can be our children. Giving them the correct type of attention grows healthy bonds and teaches them to be stable and empathetic adults. For example, being an active listener to a child could mean repeating and responding to a silly comment or pride of accomplishment on a spaghetti creation.
You may not have to interact with children in your professional life, but you will earn the respect of your colleagues if you treat them as individuals with valid opinions rather than cogs in a machine. Active listening and responding with inquisitive questions keep the speaker talking and exploring their thoughts. It breeds creativity and trusted communication. Tactful follow-up questions could yield golden moments of insight.
Active listening should be included in the corporate culture as a respected tool for all employees. Practiced active listening can positively affect productivity, workplace mental health, communication across diversity walls and even employee retention rate. The more employees feel heard and seen, the more important they feel.
How do you enhance your active listening skills?
When practicing active listening, the first thing you need to learn is that hearing is not listening. You can hear birds, but that doesn’t mean you understand them. Take in the speaker’s words like a deep breath. Breathe them into your mind and dissect them.
Learn to stay silent. Silence is a tool. Shutting your mouth allows them to open theirs. Let the speaker finish their thought before responding. It could be that their words will answer your question or bring up more critical issues.
Use body language to show that you are engaged in the conversation. This usually involves standing or sitting to signify the speaker is the center of attention. It could include nodding your head or gesturing with your hands as you respond.
Always respond. Don’t parrot back what they’ve just given you. Instead, summarize it. Ask if you’ve stated their opinion correctly. Ask a probing question for clarity. Create an extension to their logic. However, don’t judge. Putting them down makes them feel like they’ve wasted their time and could negatively impact future interactions.
If possible, share their thoughts and comments with others. Communicating their ideas to others reinforces your initial act of listening. In addition, they will feel empowered by your act of respect. Just make sure to give them credit.
What not to do while actively listening
Active listening shouldn’t focus on what not to do, but rather on uninterrupted listening. First, however, here is a list of the most common faults that will hinder any communication or interaction:
Prejudging — judging while the speaker is talking – judging the opinion in the follow-up response
Developing a counterargument or dismissing the thought before the speaker is done communicating
Hearing without understanding or just listening for facts instead of intent
Allowing diversity differences to interfere or affect the moment in negative ways, usually from preconceived notions of the individual or what they have to offer
Multitasking while trying to listen
Communication is an art. However, it is also a skill anyone can develop with time and proper practice. When you meet someone who interacts with you using active listening, you can feel better about yourself, your actions and your personal wellbeing. Those are the listeners you want to work for, invest in and follow to success.