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Active listening: A skill to make or break your career

Brandi Gratis

Brandi Gratis

March 24, 2017

While you need many skills to do your job, “active listening” skills may be some of the most crucial for determining the long-term success of your career.

In our jobs, we listen to others for three main reasons:

  • to obtain information,
  • to understand, and
  • to learn.

It’s obvious then why someone who struggles with listening will likely struggle in their career: Employees who have trouble obtaining accurate information, understanding feedback, and learning new concepts don’t make great teammates.

Suddenly, active listening seems pretty important, right?

Here’s our guide to active listening.

What is “Active Listening?”

Active listening is a communication technique often used in counseling, training, and conflict resolution. It requires that the listener fully concentrates, understands, responds, as well as remembers what is said.

It’s a conscious effort to understand not only the words other people say but, more importantly, the meaning behind what they’re saying.

3 Signs You’re NOT Actively Listening

1. You’re forming counterarguments in your head as others speak.

While you may feel compelled to correct or counter someone speaking, the second you start formulating arguments in your head, you’ve stopped giving your full attention to what’s in front of you. You’re half-focused on yourself and what you’re going to say next.

2. You’re allowing distractions.

Distractions can come in many forms:

  • Notifications on your phone or computer
  • Other people interrupt your conversation
  • Thinking about unrelated tasks you need to get done later in the day

What do all of these distractions have in common? As they happen, you’re not able to be fully present. If you’re focused on anything other than what the person in front of you is saying, you’re not actively listening.

3. You’ve already decided how you feel before they’ve finished talking.

We often jump to conclusions too quickly. The problem is, when you make up your mind about what someone is saying before they finish saying it, you’re not listening anymore; you’re just waiting for them to be done.

Active listening is the antidote to all three of these problems.

The 4 Steps of Active Listening

1. Give your undivided attention.

Next time you need to engage in a meaningful work conversation with someone:

  • Put your phone away where it can’t be seen or heard.
  • Close your computer.
  • Reserve a conference room, or find a quiet space where no one can interrupt you.

Create a space conducive to focusing all your attention on the other person.

2. Participate in listening.

“Active listening” is called “active” for a reason: it is not a passive process.

  • It takes more than eye contact. Encourage them to continue using brief verbal acknowledgments like “um-hm,” “Oh?” “I understand,” “And then what?” Display warm facial expressions, and nod appropriately to what they’re saying.
  • Demonstrate open body language. Don’t cross your arms, lean back in your chair, or shift away from the person speaking.
  • Ask clarifying questions. But save any opinions or contradictions until the end.
  • Defer judgment. Hold off on forming counter-arguments to what they’ve said until after they’ve finished speaking.
  • Note their body language. We all send non-verbal queues—Do they seem nervous? Frustrated? Defensive?

3. Summarize what you’re hearing.

Many times we think we understand what someone’s saying, and we are wrong. The best way to nip misunderstanding in the bud is to summarize what you believe you’ve heard.

Paraphrase their thoughts with phrases like, “What I’m hearing is,” or “I sense that what you’re feeling is,” etc.

We all come with our own brand of filters, assumptions, judgments, and biases that distort how we hear what others say. This doesn’t make us bad people; it just means we need to be sure we’re not projecting those filters onto others when we listen to them.

4. Respond thoughtfully and respectfully.

Once you’ve carefully listened and summarized the information back to the person to verify that what you’re understanding is accurate, then you can formulate a response.

Remember, active listening is a demonstration of respect that requires emotional maturity. Personal attacks, put-downs, or mockery are never acceptable responses to another person sharing their thoughts with you, regardless of whether you agree with them or not.

If you’d like to share thoughts that contradict what the other person has just said, make your points in a respectful, calm, organized fashion.

Tips for responding respectfully:

  • Validate the speaker’s feelings and acknowledge/repeat any good ideas or points the person did make.
  • Respond using “I” statements. Ex. “I see the problem this way…” and “I would like to see a solution that…” rather than “You should…”
  • Be straightforward. Provide your speaker with candid feedback.
  • Don’t ignore or neglect to respond to points your speaker has clearly stated are important to them.
  • Present any counter-arguments in a way that demonstrates their value to the project rather than how they prove the other person wrong.
  • Avoid sarcasm and patronizing statements.

Positive communication can help you deliver your message without offending.

Final Thoughts

An old saying goes, “treat others as you want to be treated.” But a more accurate model of care and respect is to “treat others as they want to be treated.”

If you see that someone gets easily overwhelmed, defensive, or insecure, be sensitive to those emotions when framing your response. Your relationship with each of your coworkers is unique. The more you practice active listening with each, the better you’ll be able to improve your communication skills across the company.



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