Why is it so hard to talk to some people?
You want to tell your boss about a conflict with another team member, but she’s always so grumpy. You need to tell your coworker about a budgeting error, but he won’t take his eyes off his phone.
Both of these are interpersonal communication problems caused by poor active listening skills. And they can be some of the most frustrating to deal with in the office.
By mastering and modeling active listening and embracing it as a critical soft skill in the workplace, you can become the person in the office everyone (including your boss) loves to talk to.
What is active listening?
A general definition of active listening is a method of using all the senses, as well as verbal and non-verbal communication, to enhance mutual understanding and problem-solving.
Active listening is one of the best soft skills you can have. It doesn’t just improve your communication skills. It also helps build relationships in and out of the workplace and create psychological safety in your team.
Most people would describe themselves as good listeners, but most of us have also experienced talking to someone who clearly wasn’t listening. You do the math.
Active listening skills are tough to master for a few key reasons:
Active listening techniques require a physical commitment.
Passive listening is easy. But to be an active listener, you need to do more than hear the speaker’s words. You also need to gauge body language, communicate empathy, and form open-ended questions to confirm understanding.
If you’ve ever felt exhausted after a full day of meetings, it’s probably because of the active listening marathon you just ran.
Active listeners withhold judgment.
As an active listener, you must set aside judgment until you have all the information—and that can be really hard.
When someone comes to you with a problem, your fist instinct is probably to solve their problem as quickly as possible. For that, you’ll rely on your own experiences and instincts, as well as existing company or societal processes. But active listening skills rely on none of those.
Active listening is almost like an out-of-body experience. You need to forget what you think you know, set your ego aside, and put empathy and critical thinking front and center. Only then can you make the speaker feel truly heard and provide meaningful advice.
“There is a difference between truly listening and waiting for your turn to talk.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
How to Improve Your Active Listening Skills
Active listening skills are important if you want to advance your career with a network of people who trust you. Here are five tips to get you there.
Create an environment of psychological safety.
People don’t tend to speak up when they feel threatened. So unless you have an environment of psychological safety, it won’t matter whether you’re actively listening or not—you probably won’t be having an authentic conversation, anyway.
To start, ensure the physical space you’re in meets the other person’s needs. Maybe they’re fine talking at their desk, but for sensitive issues, a private meeting room or even a coffee shop outside the office might be best.
Next, give the other person your full attention and withhold judgment about whatever they have to say.
We live in an age of constant distractions. The whole world seems designed to pull our attention away to the latest gadget release or juicy bit of office gossip.
Your smartphone is probably the greatest adversary to your active listening skills, but be wary of anything that sends notifications: Slack, Google Calendar, your email inbox, etc. Set all of these items aside—better yet, get them out of the room.
There may be other distractors that you are uniquely sensitive to, as well. Do your eyes tend to drift to windows or open doors? Do you have a tendency to doodle during discussions?
For active listening, you must provide your undivided attention.
Watch your body language.
Albert Mehrabian developed the famous 7-38-55 Rule in the late 1960s. The rule states that only 7% of meaning is communicated verbally, while 38% comes from tone of voice and 55% from body language.
More recently, the Harvard Business Review similarly reported that up to 80% of communication comes from non-verbal cues such as posture, breathing, and even sweating.
Active listeners pay attention to body language—including their own.
Take care to avoid subconsciously aggressive or defensive body postures such as crossed arms, slouching, or fidgeting, but maintaining eye contact is the big one here. If your eyes are darting around the room, the other party might feel like your attention is flitting around, as well.
Ask open-ended questions.
According to Leo Castillo, partner and lead culture and strategy consultant at Fearless Inc., the best leaders ask questions. “Most people think that the best leaders are the ones who can answer all the questions,” he says. “[But] when you ask questions, it activates a different part of your brain.”
To practice active listening successfully, you must know how to ask open-ended questions. These are questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” and they have a dual benefit: They clarify your understanding and prove that you’re listening.
When the other party is done (and only when they’re done) sharing their side of the issue, don’t jump right into giving your advice. Instead, ask them if you can summarize the issue. This way, you can ensure that you’ve absorbed all the key points they feel you should know.
Try to use some of their own language and phrasing. If you missed something, ask them to repeat it.
The Key to Unlocking Active Listening Skills
Active listening skills can bring all kinds of benefits to your life and career. They can also support other excellent soft skills like critical thinking and interpersonal skills.
But remember this: Active listening doesn’t come naturally. It takes practice and refinement, as well as a will to improve.