Knowing how to properly listen is one of the most underrated yet important skills for leaders and HR professionals to master.
Being a good listener comes down to more than just a well placed “Mhmm” paired with a knowing nod in a conversation. It’s about knowing how to communicate trust, empathy and psychological safety without words.
It’s a critical workplace skill, but it’s not something most people are particularly good at. A 1950s study from the University of Minnesota surveyed hundreds of working professionals and thousands of students and found the average listener forgets around half of what they were told almost immediately after hearing it.
The researchers suggest this could be due to the school system’s preference for teaching reading and writing skills, meaning many adults need to educate themselves on the art of listening. Here are some quick tips to get you started.
The body language of good listening
The reason some of us are so bad at listening is because we think faster than we speak, former Harvard Business Review executive editor Sarah Green Carmichael points out in an HBR article.
“The human mouth plods along at 125 words per minute, while a neuron can fire about 200 times a second,” she writes.
This is why some listeners often feel the need to jump in to make their own point or become preoccupied by formulating a response instead of taking the time to actually listen to the person speaking to them.
“I work with a lot of people in leadership positions who’ve had their empathy smashed out of them. So it’s a matter of relearning it, step by step,” says Dr Louise Mahler, speaker and online communication coach.
To do that, Mahler suggests practicing empathetic listening.
“Firstly, there’s no ‘I’ in empathy – that’s called sympathy,” she says. “A good example of this is an experience I had when my dog died. People would say, “how are you?” and I’d respond with, “my dog died,” and they’d say, “oh, I had a dog once”. I’d think to myself, what’s that got to do with it?”
While the intention behind saying something like this might be to create a sense of common ground and connection, or provide a solution to an issue, it can end up having the opposite effect, she says. People might feel less inclined to continue divulging information.
Empathetic listening has two stages, according to Mahler – acknowledgement and reflection.
For the acknowledgement stage, she suggests four key words/phrases to begin your response: that’s, it’s, thank you and I’m sorry.
“When someone is sharing something with you, you might respond with “that’s interesting”, “it’s interesting when that happens”, “thank you for sharing that” or “I’m sorry you’ve had that experience,” she says.
Next, connect the acknowledgement and reflection with one of these ‘link phrases’: looks like, feels like, sounds like.
“So you might say, “Thank you for sharing that, it sounds like you’re really concerned about XYZ,” says Mahler.
This is what’s known as active listening. Some people describe it ‘listening with all your senses’. It requires the listener to reiterate what they’re hearing in a neutral and non-judgmental tone and ask follow up questions.
Eye contact is also incredibly important. And there’s a difference between looking at someone and practicing focused eye contact. If your focus is waning, it can look as if your eyes are glazed over, which is a sign that you’re not paying close attention, says Mahler.
For those who find long periods of sustained eye contact to be uncomfortable (read about the time I held eye contact with a stranger for 30 minutes here) a great trick is to look at the bridge or tip of their nose instead – it looks like you’re staring at them straight in the eyes. Go on, try it with one of your colleagues.
Of course, there will be moments where you’ll want to briefly look away. When doing this, try looking to the side instead of down. Some people suggest looking down can signal shame or submission, and when someone starts looking at you up and down, it feels like you’re being ogled or judged.
From good to great
The tips above could be considered ‘good listening 101’. But to take your listening from good to great, there are a few more things to keep in mind.
Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, CEO and president of leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman analysed the data of over 3,400 participants in a development program and found some interesting qualities in those deemed to be in the top five per cent of listeners.
Here’s a brief summary of some of their findings:
- It’s not about staying silent. Great listening, they found, should be considered a two-way dialogue. The listener shouldn’t interject with their own opinions or anecdotes (such as Mahler’s dog experience) but should instead ask questions to show they’re not only listening but also comprehending what’s being said.
- Good listeners know how to disagree with someone without appearing to be trying to poke holes in what they’re saying. It needs to appear as though you’re trying to help them solve a solution, they say, as opposed to defensively rebutting a point or highlighting errors that have been made.
- A great listener will take the time to create a space conducive to listening (private, distraction free – i.e. no laptops or phones).
“While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energise, and clarify your thinking,” Folkman and Zenger write.
Listening in a virtual environment
Conveying that you’re listening to someone becomes much harder with a computer screen separating the two of you.
Our natural instincts around body language can disappear on a video call and that often means some people will just sit there staring blankly at the screen which, Mahler says, “can look a bit psychopathic”.
To overcome this, Mahler refers to her three-part mantra for effective online listening.
“Nod, blink and smile like an idiot,” she says.
“When you nod your head, it says ‘I’m flexible’. We also need to remember to blink around every four seconds and make sure we’ve got a loose jaw, as a clenched jaw can signal aggression.
“Also in the virtual world, silence is not golden. It can undermine trust, sadly, so people might think you don’t like them,” she adds.
HRM has previously written about research which suggests delays of even 1.2 seconds on a phone call can cause the person on the other end of the line to view us negatively or think we’re less attentive. So while ‘Mhmms’ aren’t an all encompassing sign that you’re listening to someone, they do play a small part.
Final quick tips
In Green Carmichael’s article, she shares some helpful tips for honing your listening skills from the HBR archives.
Take notes – Ram Charan, renowned business advisor, author and AHRI award patron shared a tip that he saw a CEO benefit from. When speaking with someone, have a notebook and draw a line down the middle of the page. Keep general notes on the left hand side and take note of valuable key insights on the right hand side. This, Charan says, helps to listen intently while also zeroing in on what’s most important
Extroverts beware – If you’re someone who is comfortable taking control of a conversation, you need to be extra diligent in ensuring you’re practicing active listening rather than thinking of what you’re about to say in response.
Avoid going into ‘fix-it’ mode – when you’re trying to find a solution to an issue when someone is simply trying to vent to you, it can act as a barrier. You might inadvertently cut them off mid-sentence or make the wrong assumptions about what they need. Give people the space to have a conversation and if you feel the need to talk, just ask questions.
What are your best tips for effective listening? Share them in the comment section below.
Learning how to listen is a crucial part of knowing how to have tough conversations at work. AHRI’s short course will take participants through the four stages of difficult conversations.