Listening to Learn and Lead - Business Results
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Listening to Learn and Lead

Listening to Learn and Lead

An essential part of communication in the workplace focuses not on speaking, but rather listening. Active listening is a necessary skill for managers and employees alike, but one that people are losing in our modern age of multitasking. In a world where technology is ingrained both in the workplace and in our personal lives, it is all too easy to let your eyes drift to your phone, laptop, or even smartwatch during that important work meeting or casual coffee chat. Even during critical interactions between manager and employee, such as evaluations or conflict resolutions, distractions are present. Even if using pen and paper, the emotional gravity of the situation, or the discomfort with silence, can cause us to place our attention elsewhere, to distance ourselves from the situation. We watch the clock, stare at the floor, and do anything but listen to what the other person is saying. And sometimes, we just like to hear ourselves talk, so we override the conversation, without really listening to what the other says.

Listening well is a skill. It is so much more than just hearing the noises of the world; it involves active participation and intention. Of course, the first step is hearing the words, but in order to make sense of the words, your brain also takes into account the context of the situation – the tone in which the words were spoken, the speaker’s body language, and the where, when, and how of the conversation. Once you have all the information, then your brain can translate it into meaning and truly understand. The trick is, this must be done with intent. Your brain will do much of this subconsciously, but for it to have any meaning, you must actively listen. You have to be willing to listen, not just hear, and break down your internal barriers and resistances to accept their words and intent. For example, if having a difficult conversation with your boss, there may be a natural inclination to disagree with whatever they are saying, especially if you feel attacked. But you must push that aside, and truly try to understand what they are saying and where they are coming from. You must also shut down your internal monologue. During a particularly uninteresting meeting, it can be easy to get distracted while someone presents their report, and let your thoughts jump from topic to topic, thinking of lunch, picking up the kids from school, next week’s party, anything. But you must actively and intentionally pull your attention to the present moment. Finally, while paying attention to what they say, don’t just listen for the “buzzwords,” the key words your brain wants to hear. You have a natural inclination to “skim” conversations to listen for the ideas that connect with what you’d like to say next, or listen out for things you agree with. But listening because you want to agree or jump on the conversation is not truly listening, it is waiting for your chance to interject.

Knowing the steps of active listening, how can we put this into practice? Try to keep the following in mind while you practice listening. It may feel awkward at first, to both listen and think of these things while you listen, but with time, it will become second nature.

Get to know the person you are paying attention to, especially if you regularly interact with them. While this may not be feasible for visiting speakers or workshop leaders, strengthening your bond with your coworkers, mentors, and managers improves your work relationship with them, but can also help you to invest attention in their words. Seeing someone as an individual, rather than just labeling them as “boss” or “teacher,” makes them three-dimensional, and makes you care more intrinsically.

Reserve judgment while listening, and listen openly. Take in both that which you agree with, as well as that with which you disagree. Alternative viewpoints help you see the world from a different angle, and can boost your own creativity and productivity at work, by showing you new ways of doing things. Differing opinions are not attacks or demands, but opportunities. Listen with the intent to learn, adopting a curious mindset that seeks to intake information, rather than argue or problem solve.

Listen not only to what is being said, but listen for what is not being said, and the context surrounding the conversation. Search for the subtext. Even if the person is saying something you agree with, there may be information they leave out. This is essential to critical thinking, especially if someone is posing an argument or giving you a choice – you want all the information to be able to make the best choice, or form your own opinion.

Hold all questions until the end – if you have an impulse thought, comment, or question, write it down or mentally note it, and wait until the speaker is done talking so you don’t interrupt them.

Listen both attentively and intentionally – what will you do with what you learn from the conversation? What are you going into this interaction intending to learn? Once the speaker is done, mull the information over in your mind before responding. When you do respond, ask questions to clarify your understanding.

In a group, practicing active listening may involve appointing a leader who can moderate the conversation, to ensure no one is dominating the conversation, leaving questions unanswered, or rushing things too quickly. As a participant in a group setting, consider the following. How much are you talking? Are you actually listening, or are you taking control of the flow of conversation? Consider sitting back, and seeing if others open up. When they do, truly hear what they have to say. More often than not, others’ contributions to the table will bring up viewpoints you hadn’t considered. Remember, don’t reject new ideas outright, consider them. And, if you are a perfect listener, model the behavior for others. Humans often learn by watching others, so be the one to show others the way. If someone is dominating the conversation, gently say, “I think X had a good point, maybe they could speak more on that?” or “I think that is a great idea, do X or Y have anything to add? I’m willing to hear suggestions.” And again, when those others enter the conversation, listen. Often, this will grant them confidence and they will be more willing to contribute. If they don’t feel listened to, they may shut down and drop out of the discussion.

Active listening is a skill, so don’t get discouraged! With practice, you will get better and better, and your critical thinking, relationships with others, and leadership skills will get better too. Business Results offers a number of training programs to help managers and leaders at all levels improve their skills. We can help.