Active Listening : An Underrated Skill Of 21st Century

We live in a world where social media constantly encourages us to lead the conversation and share our experiences. There doesn’t seem to be enough emphasis on actually listening to others. Many times, we find ourselves interrupted and inundated with tasks and stresses that make us feel disconnected from others. This is making us lonelier, more isolated, and less tolerant than ever before. 

In today’s rapidly changing work environment, leaders must be prudent to connect one-on-one with team members. You simply cannot afford to neglect to build real interpersonal connections with your team. One of the most powerful ways for leaders to build trust is through ‘active listening’. Active listening is an invaluable technique that requires the listener to thoroughly assimilate, understand, acknowledge or make a reply and hold on to the information that he has gained. Unlike critical listening, where a listener is trying to evaluate the message and offer his own opinion; active listening simply makes the speaker feel heard and validated, thus establishing trust and faith between both the parties. 

It means asking questions, challenging all assumptions, and understanding the context of every interaction which results in a new clarity of focus, greater efficiency, and an increased likelihood of making better decisions. 

When Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft in 2014, one of the first things he did was transform the meeting culture. In an interview with Wall Street Journal in 2015, Nadella shared his simple three-rule method for better meetings –

Listen more. Talk less. Be decisive when the time comes.”

The 6 Active Listening Skills

1. Pay attention

A leader must be a good listener. He must be willing to take counsel. He must show a genuine concern and love for those under his stewardship.” –James Faust

Active listening takes practice and requires undivided time. Set a comfortable atmosphere and tone to relax and make the speaker comfortable, giving him time before responding. Also, don’t cut-off or finish their sentences for them and formulate the answer in your mind before they finish. Be sure to make eye contact and be aware of your body language as well as the frame of your mind – as you engage in active listening. 

Active listening also requires planning, putting aside more urgent matters and even getting out of the office to meet one-on-one. Schedule time to meet with people at different levels, offices and parts of your business to get to know them better and seek their input, understand how your messages are resonating with them and their teams, and learn about their vision for the company and their career.

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2. Withhold judgement

“You have to be willing sometimes to listen to some remarkable bad opinions. Because if you say to someone, ‘That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard; get on out of here!’ — then you’ll never get anything out of that person again, and you might as well have a puppet on a string or a robot.”

— John Bryan, former CEO, Sarah Lee Corporation

 As a listener and a leader, you need to have an open mind – inviting fresh ideas, new perspectives and innovative prospects. Even when good listeners have strong beliefs, they need to control themselves from passing judgement, engaging in criticism or interrupting the speaker by arguing or putting forth their arguments right away. Listening with greater empathy and understanding what the other person is saying and feeling, without passing comments, can help diffuse and navigate difficult or emotionally charged situations, to a great extent.

3. Reflect

“To say that a person feels listened to means a lot more than just their ideas get heard. It’s a sign of respect. It makes people feel valued.”

— Deborah Tannen, author and professor of linguistics, Georgetown University

As a listener, do not always assume that you have rightly and completely understood the speaker. Reflecting is an important active listening technique in which you can mirror the speaker’s emotions and statements by periodically paraphrasing the key points, to ensure that you and your partner are on the same page. This also helps increase the listener’s understanding of the other person and helps the other person clarify their thoughts. It reassures the other person that someone is willing to attend to their point of view and wants to help them express their thoughts.

4. Clarify

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” — Stephen H. Covey

 As a listener, if you have any doubts about any unclear or ambiguous statement that the speaker has made, don’t hesitate to clarify the issue by asking open-ended and probing questions. This helps in reducing misunderstandings and ensures that the listener’s understanding of what the speaker has said is correct. It reassures the speaker that the listener is genuinely interested in him and is attempting to understand what he is saying.

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5. Summarize

One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”— Bryant H. McGill

Repeating a summary of what has been said back to the speaker, as the conversation proceeds, is a technique used by the listener to repeat what has been said in their own words. Summarizing involves taking the main points of the received message and reiterating them in a logical and clear way, giving the speaker a chance to correct it, if necessary. It confirms and helps the listener get a grip of the other person’s point of view. 

6. Sharing

“Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet.”— Krista Tippett

Active listening is basically about understanding the other person, then about being understood as the listener. As you begin to get a clear understanding of the other person’s point of view, you can then begin to put forth your ideas, perspectives and suggestions. You can then talk about similar experiences or share an idea. This helps both of you get a picture of where things stand and go about resolving it in the best possible manner. 

Conclusion

Listening maybe the most overlooked of all leadership skills. As simple as it sounds, listening is a skill, an art and a discipline.  It is a skill that requires the listener to be attentive to the speaker and respond, empathize or just remain silent, depending on the situation. More than helping in navigating through difficult conversations, it helps improve overall communication, builds a better understanding and ultimately leads to better relationships with family, friends and co-workers. When we learn to practice the healing power of compassion, we not only strengthen our bonds with others – we also do emotional and physical good for ourselves. Active listening provides a pathway for improving the quality of our connections.

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