Listen With Care
What if there was one skill you could practice as a leader that would improve engagement, lead to more effective communication, increase creativity, enhance conflict resolution, foster higher morale, reduce turnover, and drive collaboration? What if you could apply this skill to workplace relationships, your marriage, friendships, or even the after dinner small talk at the corporate gathering?
This multi-applicable skill is called “active listening.” The concept was first publicly defined in 1957 by Carl Rogers and Richard Farson, two world-renowned psychologists and authors. For the past century, this skill has been taught primarily in the counseling and psychotherapy world. For the past fifty years, the discipline of executive coaching has practiced it. In the past five to ten years, the business world has begun to embrace it as research emerges, validating the importance of emotional and social intelligence in leadership.
It is a technique of listening that is both active (not passive or reflective) and collaborative between speaker and listener.
Active listening must first be applied with the right attitude and posture — genuine curiosity and care. When applied by a servant leader desiring to enrich the lives of those he or she leads, active listening can help deepen relationships and promote a flourishing workplace. When used in a self-serving manner it comes across as sterile, empty, and even manipulative.
3 Practices For Developing the Active Listening Skill
Create Space to Listen
Give complete attention to the speaker and remain present in the moment, whether that be a three-minute conversation or an hour-long check in. Dedicate your attention physically, mentally, and emotionally to the person in front of you. Remove mental distractions by turning off the computer screen, silence the cell, and don’t attempt to multi-task during the conversation. Physically turn toward the speaker, make good eye contact, and keep your hands free. Emotionally allow what is being said to impact you. Notice whether the speaker is excited, anxious, reserved, happy, etc., and express your impression. Your engagement will be understood and appreciated when you make statements such as: “You seem excited about this project.”
Listen For Meaning
Do not assume you completely understand what the speaker attempts to communicate. Encourage them to give further insight and explanation. Invite clarification, such as: “Tell me more about [subject at hand].” Ask clarifying questions, such as: “What did you mean when you said ____?” Periodically, restate what you have understood to that point in the conversation, such as: “I hear you saying you feel ill-equipped to deliver the report well with your current resources.”
Remember the Goal
The goal of active listening is primarily for the speaker to feel genuinely heard. Often, leaders are tempted to jump to advice and solutions. When you feel the urge to share advice or a solution, stop and use one of the “Listen for meaning” tips (encourage them to speak more, ask for clarification, or restate what you have heard). Listen to the entire person—verbal and non-verbal cues, current situation and emotions, opinions and perspectives—before inserting your views. Remember, you may have heard incorrectly; be willing to have your interpretation corrected.
How Not to Actively Listen
01 Think about what to say next or anticipate what the speaker is going to say next.
02 Interrupt to “move the dialogue forward.”
03 State, “I hear/understand you” without providing a summary of what you heard.
04 Allow distractions to grow or continue. (For example, if you must visit the restroom, pause the conversation and return fully focused!)
In short, active listening requires that you remove distractions, ask more questions, and care for the person in front of you.
Create Value and Deeper Engagement
When we actively listen, we communicate value, worthiness, respect, and consideration. To paraphrase Francis Flynn, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford: A person who feels appreciated (or valued) will always do more than what is expected. When leaders practice active listening, it invites deeper engagement and creates an atmosphere in which people willingly bring more of their thoughts, passions, and energy.