In the world of work, listening to reply has become the standard way most people communicate. With the distraction of smart phones, meetings, to-do lists, and other interruptions, it can be difficult to focus and listen to people when they talk to us. We assume that as long as we hear someone's words and understand them, we're listening. While we may think we are listening, we’re actually thinking about how the conversation relates to our own story, how we can offer advice, or even how we can find a way to end the conversation so we can move on to the next thing. In other words, we don’t listen to understand, but rather to reply.
"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." — Stephen R. Covey
To have a truly meaningful conversation, we need to understand what’s being said, why it’s being said, and appreciate non-verbal cues.
What is active listening and why is it important?
Active listening is a method of communication that requires the listener to completely focus on what is being said in order to understand the speaker's message and respond thoughtfully. It requires the listener to observe the speaker’s body language, behaviour, and other non-verbal cues to develop an accurate understanding of the speaker’s message. Additionally, the listener provides feedback on what they hear to ensure the message is being received as intended, and allows time for reflection.
"The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” — Peter Drucker
Research has shown that active listening improves relationships by increasing trust while reducing conflict. It amplifies our ability to motivate and inspire those we communicate with.
Active listening can have transformative power in the way you communicate. The following active listening techniques will help you communicate more effectively at work and at home:
A key tenet of active listening is the ability to demonstrate to the speaker that he or she has your complete and undivided attention. This creates an environment of trust where the speaker feels comfortable to express themselves fully without feeling like they are imposing. Make sure your laptop is closed, your phone is silent and out of reach, and that any other incoming notifications don’t interfere with your conversation. The most effective conversations happen when the speaker feels like they are the only one that matters in that moment.
Make eye contact
Listening with your eyes is as important as listening with your ears. While avoiding eye contact can signal that you’re not listening, too much eye contact can be intimidating for the speaker. In general, try to maintain eye contact for at least 70 per cent of the time you are listening. Lean toward the speaker and nod your head occasionally to help display interest and receptiveness. Avoid defensive body language such as folding your arms; it signals to the speaker that you are not listening.
Not only is interrupting rude, but it coveys a strong message to the speaker that you don’t value what they have to say as much as you value what you want to say. It’s a way of asserting dominance in a conversation, and puts other people on the defensive.
Wait to respond
When you begin to formulate a reply in your head before the speaker has finished, you are unable to listen to the speaker's complete message and lose the emotion embedded in the speaker’s delivery. In active listening, you must wait until the speaker has finished long after you would normally reply. Many find this the most challenging aspect of active listening.
Waiting for the speaker to finish can slow down the pace of a conversation, and at times can create uncomfortable long pauses. Get comfortable with these long pauses – they allow the speaker to fill in the blanks, share additional information, and process the emotions they are feeling inside. As a listener, you can reflect on the meaning of what the speaker has just said. Embrace these awkward pauses.
Summarize and verify
At the core of active listening is the ability for you to demonstrate that you really heard what the speaker has said. To do this, you need to put their words in context. Reflect the content of their message by paraphrasing it back to them in your own words. Practice saying, “Let me see if I understand” and restate what you think the speaker means.
Don’t assume you understand – by reflecting the content of their message, you’re able to confirm what was said and clarify any points that may have been misinterpreted. Not only that, but you’ll help to make the speaker feel heard and understood.
Listen to learn and ask open-ended questions
People often listen to each other out of generosity instead of curiosity. One of the easiest ways to be a better listener is to be curious about what the speaker is saying. When you ask questions, you create space for the speaker to provide candid answers. When you feel it is appropriate to respond, ask open-ended questions. Asking how the speaker felt, or to describe their experience will allow you to continue gaining information and insight. Additionally, asking questions conveys to the speaker that you have not only heard what was said, but you have understood it well enough to seek additional information.
As an active listener, be aware of how you would feel if you were in the speaker’s shoes. What would you be feeling if you were them? Demonstrate that you care for them – not by offering solutions or providing advice, but by acknowledging their story with compassion and genuine concern.
Be the last to speak
If you’re a leader, you likely speak first during team meetings. By doing this, you’re influencing what others believe – team members may feel inclined to align their thinking to yours. Or, they may feel your perspective on certain issues is concrete and are reluctant to voice their own differing opinions. If you wait until the end of your meetings to speak, you’ll hear your team’s authentic thoughts and help them to feel more comfortable expressing them. Employ this active listening technique for one-on-one conversations to get the same result.
Like most things, the ability to listen carefully deteriorates if you don’t practice it. In your daily conversations, ask yourself these four questions:
- Can I completely focus on what’s being said?
- Can I avoid formulating my own response?
- Can I refrain from offering advice or solutions?
- Can I avoid interrupting the speaker’s experience?
If you find it difficult to answer yes to these questions, you may wish to consider developing this skill further in a safe, risk-free environment. The Ivey Academy's Communications and Executive Presence Program will help you to enhance your ability to influence and persuade those around you. Through intentional experiential learning and team exercises, you'll be able to master the active listening skills needed to become a better, more well-rounded leader. For more information, download a program brochure. Additionally, an executive coach can offer personalized and focused skill development while providing individualized feedback.
"Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk." — Doug Larson
Listening can be difficult. We enter conversations with our own agendas, biases, and distractions which can make it hard to communicate effectively. Yet everyone has something important to say and words we can learn from. Active listening allows for impactful and effective communications – the kind that are the basis for meaningful relationships and mutual growth.
About The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School
The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School is the home for executive Learning and Development (L&D) in Canada. It is Canada’s only full-service L&D house, blending Financial Times top-ranked university-based executive education with talent assessment, instructional design and strategy, and behaviour change sustainment.
Rooted in Ivey Business School’s real-world leadership approach, The Ivey Academy is a place where professionals come to get better, to break old habits and establish new ones, to practice, to change, to obtain coaching and support, and to join a powerful peer network. Follow The Ivey Academy on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.