Active listening – key steps to succeed

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One of the key skills of a good leader is the ability to actively listen. To actively listen to someone you need to give that person your undivided attention. In today’s world where we are constantly connected to news, tweets, facebook posts, and email it’s becoming harder and harder to stay focused and to stay in the present. Research has shown that the average person listens at only 25% efficiency. Just think about how much we miss! The term “active listening” was coined by American Psychologist Thomas Gordon, and as he rightly points out, “Active listening is certainly not complex. Listeners need only restate, in their own language, their impression of the expression of the sender. … Still, learning to do Active Listening well is a rather difficult task …” In this article, I wanted to share with you what I believe to be the most important steps to succeed in active listening.

1. Devote your undivided attention

Active listening – key steps to succeed
Whether you are listening to your child, a friend, a co-worker or customer, you need to give the person who is speaking 100 percent of your attention. This means that you need to mute your mobile, close your laptop, switch off the television and eliminate any other external distractions. Face the person you are listening to, and make eye contact. Show him or her that you are listening by nodding and make the person feel like you are genuinely interested in what he or she has to say. Periodically say acknowledging words like, “Ok”, “I see”, “Uh-huh” and so on. This doesn’t mean that you are agreeing or in support of what is being said, it just means that you are taking in what’s being said.

2. Listen with the intent to restate what’s being said

In many cases, you start listening fully focused, but then something the person says triggers thoughts that lead back to yourself. If the person says he or she had such a horrible night with almost no sleep, you start thinking of your own night – totally sleep deprived with two little children. Or someone starts talking about an upcoming job interview and you immediately start thinking about the name of a great book you’ve read about interviewing that you want to share. Instead of thinking about your own situation or what you are going to say to the person who is talking, listen to the person with the intent of restating what is being said. If this is your focus then you will be a much better listener because this forces you to fully concentrate on what the person is actually saying. If you are in a customer meeting, a one-to-one meeting, or some other formal business conversation, I highly recommend you take handwritten notes to fully capture what is being said.

3. Be patient and constrain your own impulses

When you are actively listening to someone else you need to be patient and give the other person “air time”. Don’t interrupt. Don’t finish sentences or jump to conclusions. It’s okay to leave room for silence. Even if you have a very strong point of view about what is being said, constrain your immediate impulse of objecting or agreeing. Active listening is not about sharing your thoughts on the matter, but fully capturing what the other person is saying.

4. Ask questions to confirm and deepen understanding

Many times our own background, experience, and beliefs distort what we hear. We interpret what is being said based on our own views. To avoid jumping to inaccurate conclusions ask questions to clarify what the person really means. For example:

  • When you say “poor management”, what do you mean? Can you give some examples?
  • What do you consider to be “unacceptable behavior”?

If you are uncertain about stated facts, confirm that you have understood by asking:

  • Is it correct that in your opinion the project was late due to a change in project management?
  • So, in your view, the biggest challenge was lack of leadership? 

5. Pick up on and affirm emotions

Active listening – key steps to succeedIn addition to listening to the words that are being said, it’s important that you pay attention to the non-verbal communication – body language, facial expression, the tone of voice, etc. To fully understand someone else you need empathy, the ability to see things from the other person’s perspective. Just like you should confirm that you have understood what is being said, it’s important that you show that you are able to pick up on emotions, for example:

  • You seem really happy
  • It sounds to me that you are extremely shaken by this
  • I can see that you’re really frustrated

6. Restate in your own words

The final step in actively listening is to restate what you have heard in a summarized way using your own words, also referred to as paraphrasing. You can see this as a “receipt” of your understanding of what has been said.

  • So in other words, you believe that a change of management during the project is a huge risk and you recommend that we delay the start of the project. Is that correct?  

Not listening becomes a vicious spiral

We all want to be heard. There is nothing more frustrating than speaking to someone who is distracted with something else or speaking to someone who keeps interrupting, or someone who starts talking about his or her own experiences (that by the way always outweighs your story). I always get annoyed with my husband when I tell him something and he (good heartedly) tries to “solve” my problem – a problem I didn’t want help solving in the first place. I think a big problem in today’s society is that we are all poor listeners, and since no one listens we all talk more. This becomes a vicious circle – we talk more and more a listen less and less. A couple of weeks ago I attended a seminar with the Dubai Business Women Council and Vital Voices. In the end, the panelists were asked to pass on some good advice to the audience that they had themselves been given. Raja Easa Al Gurg, President of the DBWC said, “You were given two ears and one mouth, make sure to listen before you talk.” Again, the theory of active listening is very straightforward – it’s putting it into practice that is the challenging part.

(If you have difficulties reading this article, you can access the full article in pdf here)