While it may seem like common sense to point out that listening skills are important in the workplace, many leaders do not make enough of an effort to use their active listening skills. According to some studies, the average manager only listens attentively for 35-40% of the time and even then only remembers half of what was said. This has the effect of creating serious disconnects in the workplace that can negatively impact employee engagement and leave leaders struggling to utilize influencing strategies effectively.
Communication in the Workplace
Communication is not a one-way transmission of information, but rather a two-way street that is affected by individual perceptions, personal styles, and culture. It can take place over a variety of channels (e.g., face-to-face, telephone, video, and email), some of which may be more appropriate for specific situations than others. Knowing which channel to use and how to tailor the message for the audience is an important starting point for any communication process. Many communication strategies go awry when one side fails to take into consideration that there are different perceptions of a situation or how style and culture can impact how messages are sent and received.
Listening is a vital aspect of any communication process. Since conversations involve a two-way exchange of messages and responses, failure to listen on either side can render even the most carefully crafted message completely ineffective. Active listening incorporates a blend of specific skills that help to demonstrate attentiveness and avoid misunderstandings.
The four primary active listening skills are:
- Paraphrasing: A summary of what someone has said in the listener’s own words, paraphrasing focuses on the content of the message and is useful when verifying or clarifying meaning. It shows that the listener understands what’s being said, even if they don’t necessarily agree with it. Paraphrasing forces the listener to consider what was said and understand the other person’s point of view rather than simply preparing a rebuttal.
- Empathizing: Although similar to paraphrasing, empathizing is more focused on demonstrating an understanding of how the other person feels about something than what they think about it. Empathizing is valuable when someone expresses concerns or is in an emotional state. Spotting nonverbal cues and identifying when those cues are inconsistent with the verbal message is a key aspect of this skill. Patience and lack of judgement are essential because empathizing is less about offering solutions than giving people the opportunity to be heard.
- Questioning: While paraphrasing and empathizing are effective skills for letting someone know they’ve been heard and understood, questioning focuses on providing more context and information for the listener. By asking open-ended questions to draw out specific details, the listener can engage the other person in a two-way conversation. Questioning also helps to guide the conversation in a collaborative fashion that allows the speaker to contribute to working toward a solution.
- Balanced Response: Once key issues have been identified, effective leaders can use a balanced response to provide constructive feedback about a proposal or performance without being confrontational or diminishing anyone’s self-esteem. This can be especially effective when leaders need to overcome concerns or modify potential ideas. A balanced response emphasizes the strengths of an idea or proposal and highlights points of agreement without letting its weaknesses or concerns undermine problem solving.
Benefits of Active Listening
Active listening skills provide an excellent foundation for the effective use of most other leadership skills. As an information gathering strategy, it helps leaders to better understand their teams and creates opportunities to involve team members in developing solutions collaboratively. Although active listening may seem like a very “basic” skill, it has a very high impact on leader effectiveness. With more and more organizations making use of virtual teams, learning to communicate effectively with people who are not co-located is especially critical.
Practicing active listening is essential for leaders who want to build trust and inspire their teams. When people feel like their feelings and concerns are understood and that they are able to participate in solving problems through two-way conversations, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work. Since low levels of engagement generally lead to diminished productivity and employee retention, learning to listen effectively should be a vital competency for any leadership position.
Active listening is also a crucial component of emotional intelligence, so working on these skills can help improve a trait that is strongly linked to job performance. Emotional intelligence emphasizes using observation, reflection, and proactive communication to help people understand their own emotions and those of others.
Trust is the bedrock of any effective workplace. Team members need to know that they can count on others to complete their tasks and provide assistance when needed to help the team accomplish its goals. While there are a variety of methods for building trust, few of them will get very far without effective communication. Active listening can help leaders connect with team members and demonstrate that they understand their value, which makes it easier for people to trust that they’ll be treated fairly and valued for who they are, not just for what they do.