Last Updated May 2, 2007 7:19 PM EDT
Few people are naturally gifted with the ability to be an active listener, but it's a skill that can make or break a leader. In fact, most people are not quite sure what active listening is, and therefore do it very badly. It's particularly difficult for those who are narrowly focused on a clear set of goals and are convinced that they know the best way to achieve them. These people have little patience or time for listening to others, appreciating different points of view, or gathering new information—even though it may be critical for the advancement of their idea. Instead, they are ready with well-rehearsed responses, sometimes before they have even heard the questions, and they often jump in with solutions that they have seen work in the past. These people believe that they're too busy to look at things from a new perspective and synthesize the contributions of others into their own plans. By contrast, a good active listener will broaden his or her knowledge through relating meaningfully to others, and then help to build motivated and responsible teams by creating an environment where new ideas can flourish and take flight.
Perfecting this fundamental communication skill should be on the agenda of any aspiring leader.
There are times when active listening is not appropriate, for instance during an emergency or when health and safety are at risk. At those times you may find the imperative a much more useful form of communication. However, there are many reasons why good leaders need to be active listeners. If you never employ this skill, you will probably find that the members of your team lose their motivation and that eventually their performance diminishes. As a result of this, you will remain responsible for making all the decisions, and delegation will become impossible. Rather than thinking for themselves how to reach an objective, your team members will find themselves relying solely on you to give them instructions.
Although developing active listening skills undoubtedly requires some hard work, the rewards are worth it. Most people are eager to put forth their best effort, and to have their contributions noticed and rewarded in some way. If no one is listening to their ideas or suggestions, they will undoubtedly become disheartened and no longer interested in contributing. By using active listening in your communication, you will find that your relationships improve significantly, and the effectiveness of your team members increases because they feel that their efforts are noticed and valued.
Unfortunately, political debates usually demonstrate bad communication. If you listen carefully, you will usually notice that each person has a specific agenda to meet, regardless of what the other is saying. The communication style is combative and non-exploratory, and can be quite manipulative. No one really listens to what the other is saying, and the real point is to win, not to resolve anything. Arguments are also examples of communication going awry, as each party becomes defensive and less likely to listen to the other. On a more personal note, you may recall instances between you and family members when you felt that you weren't being listened to.
If you want to be more aware of what others are saying, you will have to develop the habit of watching yourself and how you communicate. See how the reactions and responses of others change as you vary the way in which you relate to them. Having the intention to change is half the battle, although there are also skills you will need to develop. You will probably revert to your natural communication style under pressure, but celebrate the small incremental steps you make and use them to propel you on to further success.
To build an understanding of the importance of active listening, get into the habit of observing others communicating and appraise the success of the exchange. Did each manage to put their point of view across without interruption? Was their body language more or less in harmony, or was one person more assertive and the other somewhat restrained? Was their communication fluid or stilted? Did both parties interact equally, or did one dominate? Once you begin to distinguish the quality of communication, you will notice that much is lost when people don't listen respectfully to each other. Relationships suffer and motivation wanes when people's best efforts are ignored or dismissed.
The people who influence us most profoundly are likely to demonstrate most of the active listening skills listed below.
This means focusing on the speaker's perspective rather than listening to our own internal dialogue, and jumping to conclusions before the other person has finished speaking. It can be difficult to withhold our remarks, even though they may be premature and based on assumptions. It is also important to stop ourselves from curtailing the conversation with an abrupt statement or decision. Many people start to prepare their response before the speaker has finished…try not to use the other's air time as a silent rehearsal of your retort.
By mirroring their body position, maintaining good eye contact, and nodding in appreciation of what is being said, you are acknowledging the other person's contribution to the discussion. You can further emphasize your recognition of them by summarizing your understanding of what has been said and checking that this is what the communicator intended to convey.
Empathy is about being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes and imagine what things are like from their perspective. You can convey this by telling them about a situation where you felt the same way, or by simply validating their feelings and thereby showing that you identify with them.
This will help move the communication forward. By doing this, and then listening for agreement or disagreement, you are enabling both parties to start exploring the territory more openly. It is important to listen for at this point, which enables you to remain open to new ideas and to think positively about the other's input. Listening against results in you closing down to new information and automatically seeking arguments as to why something won't work.
This brings forth more information and should clear up any misunderstandings about what is being said. If you want to explore someone's thoughts more thoroughly, open questions are helpful. "Tell me more about…," "What were your feelings when…?", "What are your thoughts on…?" These questions encourage the speaker to impart more information than closed questions, which merely elicit a "yes" or "no." Remember that the choice of words is vital—they are very powerful in being able to stimulate further conversation, or to close it down altogether.
Giving and receiving feedback is an important part of active listening, but make sure that it is done in a constructive way. This allows both parties to make their positions clear and to iron out any ambiguity before it becomes a barrier to good communication. Constructive feedback focuses on specific outputs, rather than general inputs. In other words, the focus should be on what the other does, rather than who the other is. For instance: "When you answer your e-mails during our meeting, it makes me feel as if you are not listening to me." rather than: "You are being inconsiderate and rude and it drives me crazy when you do that !"
Most people are uncomfortable with silences and feel compelled to fill in with words, even when they don't really have anything to say. Yet silence can be helpful in creating the space to gather thoughts and prepare for what we are going to say next. Silence between words or thoughts can convey a tremendous amount of meaning and add to a richer exchange, but like everything else, it can be overdone. Experiment with the length and number of your pauses and see how they affect the dialogue.
These suggestions may lead you to think that active listening is a rather amorphous ability and takes too much time. This is not the case. Active listening enables more efficient communication because it is based on a meaningful understanding of the situation and each person's feelings about it, rather than on assumptions and misinterpretations. This saves a lot of time because misunderstandings are rare, and relationships don't need repairing.
Although active listening skills come naturally to some people, they can be learned by almost anyone. You probably know someone who you enjoy talking to because they always make you feel heard, and they allow you the time and attention to say what you need to. People like this have a way of making you feel important, and that you are making a significant contribution. Compare how their behavior matches the traits listed above, observe them in action, and use them as a role model. You might also ask them for feedback and guidance on how to improve your own communication style. As you begin to master these skills, you will probably find people giving you positive feedback quite naturally, and see the quality of your communication improve dramatically. In addition, not only will you learn more about other people, but also about yourself—your predispositions, assumptions, and values—which is always useful when planning your life.
Be aware of what you are doing and don't let your enthusiasm cause you to overplay your role. Be careful that the person with whom you are communicating doesn't think that you are mocking them. Too much matching and mirroring, nodding, and probing their thoughts and feelings is going to cause them to withdraw rather than open up. Take it easy as you embark on this new style of communication and you will find that it will gradually become second nature.
If active listening is to be done properly, it must be done authentically. It is easy to detect when someone is just going through the motions without fully attending to what is being said. So don't bother with probing and asking open questions, if you are going to give yourself away when you reflect back your lack of understanding. Instead, make a point of concentrating on what the other person is saying, getting a full understanding of the context and reason for their communication, and withholding judgment until they are ready for a response.
Our values and beliefs are so deeply ingrained that it is sometimes difficult to imagine anyone feeling any different. But assuming that everyone has the same values and motivations is a common source of confusion when trying to build rapport. Active listening can help to suspend some of those assumptions, and will protect you from falling into this trap. If you detect differences in the way someone perceives a situation, it's better to explore it so that you can fully understand and appreciate where the other party is coming from.
Laborde, Genie Z.
Center for Rural Studies—active listening: http://crs.uvm.edu/gopher/nerl/personal/comm/e.html
International Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict—Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, active listening: www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/treatment/activel.htm
The Poynter Institute—active listening techniques: www.poynter.org/Research/lm/lm_listen2.htm
University of St Thomas—study guides and strategies, active listening: www.iss.stthomas.edu/studyguides/listening.htm