You already know that active listening is a core skill to have as a leader or a manager but how do you actively listen? Many articles on the subject tell you why active listening is important but not how to do it.
I’ve talked in an earlier blog post about building a listening framework. In the next series of articles, I’ll expand on the listening framework and look at how to actively listen and how to build your listening skills.
What active listening is not
You may think that active listening is the ability to repeat the speaker’s words if you do, this is a mistake. Your speaker wants more from you than just the ability to parrot back what they have just said.
Although there is a technique of mirroring back to someone the last one to three words that they have spoken. This technique is to get the speaker to go deeper with their thought process and not to prove your listening skills.
We often go through the motions of listening. Sometimes we get away with it, but other times we are caught out. You’ll suddenly come back to the present moment with a jolt when you hear the words “what do you think?” You may fumble for some time by saying “I’m not sure”. But by then it is too late because you realise you’ve not been listening at all.
Sometimes you listen, but you’ll only skim the surface of what was said. Perhaps because you don’t know the person well or you consider them boring or uninteresting. You’ll not hear key points of the story and miss their key experiences you might hear a few facts, but the deep meaning will not be there. You’ll search for the right thing to say, but it will often have a hollow feel to it.
Finally, another form of non-listening is rehearsing; you might hear something that triggers a memory or challenges a belief. Your mind will quickly start to formulate a response so that you have something to say. While you are doing this, you are not listening, and again you may miss something meaningful.
Effective listening means listening intently to someone’s core themes and core messages. When you are listening intently, you sometimes need to pause before you respond as you process what someone has just said. You don’t need to rehearse, and you are always have something constructive to say.
Empathic listening and the search for meaning
The opposite of non-listening is listening driven by the values of empathy and compassion. When you listen with empathy, you put aside your concerns and enter the private world of the other trying to experience life from their point of view.
It means suspending judgements and asking yourself the question ‘if I were experiencing this story how would I feel?’. It also means answering that question from two different time perspectives. How would I feel when that experience took place and how would I feel now if I was telling the story?
As a leader, manager or self-described helper of others, you should be able to enter the world of your speaker deeply enough to understand their challenges. Once you understand their problem context any help, advice or direction that you give them will be useful. If your understanding is limited and superficial because of the forms of non-listening above, then your interventions will be of limited value.
Active listening isn’t a state of mind rather it is an intention to bring your focus to the person speaking. Letting their words, sounds and body language consume your awareness. And every time that your attention wanders bringing it back to the person in front of you.
Thus active listening is a choice; you are choosing to put aside any problems and concerns and enter the world of the speaker. Before you make that choice, you need to check that you are in a position to listen with such focus.
Your first step should be to check in with your emotional state, are you tired, frustrated or angry? Is your mind occupied with your issues and concerns? Do you have any biases or judgements already about this person? Can you put them all to one side and listen to them with empathy and compassion?
If the answer to any of these questions is no and they need your attention, then it is better to postpone your discussion. Active listening requires you to bring your attention to the speaker. Thus active listening is cognitive work and will require you to expend emotional energy to listen with focus.
Just because you have to ability to understand language and hear what people say, it doesn’t mean that you are automatically good at listening. Just as being able to write doesn’t make you a good writer. It is a skill that requires determined and repetitive practice.
Improving your skills
First practice noticing when your mind wanders and bring your attention back to the speaker. I find it useful to use my breathing as an anchor point. When I catch myself rehearsing or my mind wandering, I bring my awareness to my next breath and refocus my attention on the person in front of me.
Take a pause before you answer to reflect on what the person has just said. Your goal isn’t to remember word for word what someone has said but to pick out key themes and experiences. Ask yourself what stood out for you in their story what elements were meaningful?
Then challenge yourself to ask a question rather than responding with your dialogue. If you hear an experience, then ask them to expand on that experience, if you hear emotion ask them to expand on that emotion, if you hear a point of view ask why they hold that point of view.
Read part two here.