Communication is vital for leaders in all kinds of organisations; how we talk to others, what we say, and how we say it really matters. But talking is just half of the communication process; the other half is listening. And to do so effectively, we need to practise active listening.
So, what is active listening? It’s a two-way communication process. Actively listening is not just to hear but to understand, interpret and evaluate what we hear.
The majority of us think that we are good listeners, but the reality may be different. As a norm, we only retain about 17 to 25% of the information we received.
And as Stephen R. Covey said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
First, it’s helpful to differentiate between 3 types of listening and understand that whichever one you use will affect the outcome.
Passive listening: It means indifferent listening. It’s just a bit more than hearing. We are not making an asserted effort to understand or even respond to the message in any way.
Selective listening: We only pay attention to the part of the message that we are interested in or the position we agree with.
Active listening: Active listening means that the listener is making a conscious effort to understand the message, participate, and show regard for the speaker. Through this type of listening, we can better understand the message, which helps us remember it too.
Why is active listening important?
We already mentioned some benefits for the listener above, but active listening also has enormous benefits for the speaker. So, this might be the people in your teams and organisation.
Consider active listening as a form of communication in itself. Focusing all your attention on listening to others is a way of communicating that you care about them and value their opinions and ideas.
And feeling heard and valued is a significant factor of employee engagement.
“Employees who feel heard are 4.6x more likely to feel empowered to do their best work.”
Furthermore, it can improve creativity and innovation. In a dynamic world where everything is rapidly changing, innovation and creativity are more crucial than ever. And it may surprise you, but 82% of employees have ideas about how their company can improve according to research. But, unfortunately, many of these ideas will never be heard because people don’t think their employees will listen.
How can we improve our active listening skills?
There are many tips we can use to improve our active listening. Let’s differentiate three types: behaviours, responses, and self-awareness.
Actions speak louder than words, which is why our behaviours play a big part in active listening. These are some of the things we can do to improve our listening skills.
Remove distractions. To actively listen, we need to focus all our attention on the speaker, so we can’t multitask. This means removing all distractions (notifications, noises, etc.). For example, you probably know how distracting and frustrating it can be to talk to someone who keeps looking at their phone.
As Scott Peck said, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”
Non-verbal signs. These are simple but powerful behaviours when it comes to communication. For example, maintaining eye contact, smiling, or nodding your head to demonstrate you’re paying attention and adjusting your posture to appear open and positive are some things that will help your listening skills.
All these behaviours are important to demonstrate interest, but they are not a substitute. The interest must be genuine.
As Michael P. Nichols said, “There’s a big difference between showing interest and really taking interest.”
Non-verbal communication goes both ways. Active listening is not only about the words but about all forms of communication. The speaker’s body language can give you more information too. For example, if the speaker is acting anxious, this could mean they don’t feel comfortable.
Active listening is a two-way communication process that requires some kind of response on your part too. The crucial point, however, is to adapt those responses to the speaker and the situation.
Choose the right time to speak. Our focus is on listening, so we should never interrupt to impose our opinion. Choosing the right time is half the battle.
Ask the right questions. While listening, you should also ask questions that help you understand the message better and enhance the communication process.
Summarise and offer brief responses during the conversation. For example, a simple “yeah, it makes sense” tells the speaker that you’re paying attention.
Acknowledge your feelings and others too. Sometimes the message can be misunderstood; for example, some messages can be taken as personal or offensive. Whilst actively listening, it is essential that we acknowledge these types of feelings and emotions.
Even if we intend to listen fully, our minds most of the time have other plans. They are always wandering. Sometimes it’s about what’s being said, or if we agree or disagree, and maybe we are thinking about our response.
But to actively listen, we need to quiet our minds and put our full attention into receiving the message.
As Bryant H. McGill said, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”
Be aware of your thoughts. Try to be as mindful as possible during your conversations. Of course, there will always be thoughts coming to your mind, but consciously choosing to be aware of them makes it easier for you to realise when they come and to go back to actively listening.
Prepare for active listening. Like any other learning experience, understanding why we want to improve is essential to commit to the process. If you fully understand the benefits of active listening and why you’re motivated to improve this skill, it will make it easier to overcome the challenges along the way.
The Optimist View…
Active listening is a big part of good communication, which is the foundation to building a healthy environment. Through authentic and open communication, we build trust, connections and deeper relationships.
Fortunately, listening is a skill that we all can learn and improve; we only need to be willing to make an effort.
The good thing is that you don’t need to do it by yourself. At Optimist Performance, we help leaders to develop and maximise their leadership skills, including communication.