7 tips to be an active listener, at home and at the workplace
You’re hearing them out, but are you listening?
I tend to interrupt people before they’re done speaking. It’s a terrible habit. It used to be out of sheer excitement when a friend was dishing out hot gossip. I’d dismiss it as harmless until I found myself doing it more often in professional settings. Like a dog running across the pitch of a high stakes T20 finals cricket match. Given how it annoyed me when someone interrupted me mid-thought, I couldn’t believe I was on the other side of the table. So close to being known as that person who doesn’t let anyone else get a word in.
In both professional and personal settings, Raj Dua, former HR head of a leading advertising firm, says what’s more likely to stick in people’s minds isn’t that you interrupt others, more so that you’re not an active listener.
There exists a holy trifecta of soft skills – critical thinking, problem-solving and active listening – that are held in high regard by employers. It is the latter that can help demonstrate your interest in work, and build and strengthen relationships with colleagues, superiors, friends, and partners.
It sounds easy enough. But just because you can hear what someone is saying, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re an active listener. We’re all guilty of it. Scrolling through the newsfeed on our phone while a friend is talking to us about their day. Nodding along while mentally running over your day’s work schedule as your kid describes — with great excitement — his dream of swinging from vines like Tarzan in the jungle.
Passive listening is a one-way street, whereas being an active listener is a skill. Just like any other skill you’re brushing up on, it needs commitment on your part, and some practice.
Being an active listener enhances our personal and professional relationships
Hearing is involuntary and out of our control, like a stream of sounds flowing through our ears. Listening, actively listening, happens with intent.
Why have we become so bad at consciously listening? Some say it’s because of our depleting attention spans and the ease of distraction. We’re all mentally overloaded by our own daily humdrum. We do our best to listen to what our partner is saying to us, but there’s that itching feeling of FOMO about what could have been posted on your friend’s Instagram feed. Communication is the foundation of healthy and strong relationships but it’s a channel that needs to be fortified with constant use.
Being an active listener can make your partner feel more heard and validated. It’s a skill that psychologist Sharvee Thakur herself practices for talk therapy with clients. “Being an active listener is important when you’re sitting down with someone that is going through a tough time or in a time of crisis. Our reflex is to bombard them with kind words, tell them how worried we are and all that. Instead, we just need to listen more.”
Whether you’re in a leadership position or working your way up there, being an active listener can strengthen your position in the company and your relationship with coworkers.
As an employee, active listening shows to the higher-ups that you’re engaged in the work and the company. Listening with intent to what people are saying enables you to spot problem areas before they blow up like a blender without a lid.
As a leader, engaging in active listening can build trust with your employees. It positions you as approachable and understanding. Creating an environment of psychological safety where employees feel comfortable speaking up with questions and ideas more freely without fear of reprimand leads to loyalty and respect for you as a leader.
According to research by leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, every conversation we have doesn’t need to be a high-level event. That would be exhausting. Each situation needs assessment for us to decide the conversations and interactions that would benefit the most from more focused listening.
Being an active listener isn’t only about taking in the information either. Imagine that you’re opening up about a difficult subject to a friend and all you get is a blank expression and robotic nods back. You’d feel awkward and embarrassed, and rethink ever talking to them about something you’re going through.
Zenger and Folkman’s study of 3,492 participants, found that instead of being a sponge that absorbs all information, “good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energise, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.”
7 tips to become an active listener
It’s easier said than done when your phone’s vibrating and your teeth are chattering at the thought of your upcoming dentist appointment. But if you’re trying to brush up on this soft skill, then this is the most basic of techniques.
Put away your phone, shut that laptop screen. You want to give the person your undivided attention.
Listen with an open mind and without judgement, or jumping to conclusions. You can’t cut in with a counterpoint to what they are saying, even if you disagree. There will be time to share your opinion later.
Take note of non-verbal cues and body language
There’s more than one way to show that you’re listening. Communication coach Alex Lyon explains that we also demonstrate whether we’re engaging in the conversation through our body language and non-verbal cues. “Maintain eye contact. Keep your body posture open and oriented towards the person.”
He also says to take note of the other person’s non-verbal cues. “There’s an expression that you listen with your eyes and part of that means you notice what’s happening with the person visually. Their mood, emotions; do they look nervous? Frustrated? Annoyed? You can pick up on that by active non-verbal communication.”
This conversation isn’t about you. As yet, at least. Open up the space to be non-judgemental. Make it known that they’re allowed to vent if they want, and let them share their unfiltered thoughts without fear of reprimand. “They may seek out your opinion and validation through the course of what they are saying,” says Thakur.
“But in the beginning, especially, you need to reassure them that you’re listening. That what you, the listener, think isn’t important right now. The floor is theirs. We need to make them feel supported and confident to air any issues or differences openly.”
Seeking clarity on a point once they’ve finished it showcases engagement on your part. Open-ended questions encourage the other person to do some more introspecting and encourage problem-solving on their part. This is particularly beneficial in a professional environment.
Asking for clarity, such as “Why do you feel like…” or “How did X happen?” tells the speaker that you’re at least trying to understand what they’re coming from — not by giving them a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, but a chance to really put across their point of view.
A good conversation can’t be a one-way street. Good or active listening is a cooperative act. You’ve maintained your silence for a large part of the conversation, but simply nodding along doesn’t exactly give the speaker the right amount of comfort that their words have been heard.
“People perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight,” say Zenger and Folkman, based on their research. Make them constructive rather than critical questions, that shows that you’ve not only heard and followed what was said, but you understood it well enough to want more information or to understand it better. It doesn’t have to be about heavy subjects either. For example, if a colleague is talking to you about how they finally managed to overcome their fear of heights and go skydiving with their friend. Instead of ending the conversation with an “Oh, that’s nice.” Probe the situation further, with a question like, “Oh, that’s incredible. Would you want to try more extreme sports like bungee jumping?”
Let the silence sit
Silence doesn’t always have to be broken. Especially if the person you’re speaking to is talking about something they’re uncomfortable with or a difficult subject. If you’ve been paying attention to their non-verbal cue, you’ll likely be able to assess when the need for a pause is coming up.
Silence can be more meaningful than we give it credit for. It makes us uncomfortable so we tend to break the silence with advice, comment or stories of our own. But silence can be important, as Laura Jane Jones says, “It creates space, leaves a gap for further thinking, can be comforting and create a bond. It doesn’t mean ‘empty’. There is always a lot of emotion in those silences, silence can be where growth and problem solving happen.”
The moments of silence allows everyone to take a beat and collect their thoughts, take a deep break before getting back into the thick of it. “I encourage all couples to let the silence sit if they’re in the middle of an argument. It’s usually to break those moments that we have our worst emotional reactions,” says Thakur.
Validate and connect
Ending a conversation in an effective and productive way can be as challenging as trying to talk to your partner about STDs.
You want to end on a positive note. One way to do that, according to experts, is by paraphrasing and summarising to the speaker the gist of what they’ve said in return. Instead of offering your own opinion or inserting yourself into their situation (unless asked otherwise), give them validation on their experience and advice, only if asked.
If you do have counterpoints, try and bring them up as feedback that opens to questioning. You can challenge what they’re saying without making it a competition or debate that someone needs to win. Even a simple, “I don’t wholly agree, but I understand where you’re coming from” can do the trick, says Thakur. If they’re seeking solutions to a problem you can offer options, rather than pointing to one single path as what you think is correct.