Listen Up! Keys to Active Listening

Successful people know the value of listening. “The best way to persuade people is with your ears – by listening to them.”

Dean Rusk, Former U.S. Secretary of State


Supervisors today are expected to deal with many more complex issues than in the past. The old model of the authoritarian taskmaster is fading away as employers learn the value of coaching employees to be their best. One of the most important skills that any effective coach must learn is active listening.

Hearing & Listening are two very different things that are often confused. Hearing is the physiological function of sound waves vibrating the eardrum. Listening is the absorption and understanding of information into the mind. While most of us can hear, few of us are really listening. The reason is that most of us have never learned to listen effectively.

Our listening habits begin at a very young age and are well entrenched by adulthood. Most adults assume that we are good listeners and give very little thought to change our habits. We continue to listen the same way that we learned to listen as children.

Are you an Active Listener?

Many studies indicate that we actively listen less than 30% of the time. Most often, we are passive or fake listening. This is when we hear, but don’t truly comprehend. We fake our attention and pretend to be interested or perhaps we are so focused on hearing what the speaker says that we miss the intent and deeper message.

Active listeners search for the meaning in what is being said. When we are listening actively we don’t become easily distracted. In fact, active listening over a period of time can be quite tiring.

Listen with your face

The first step in improving your listening skills is to act like a good listener. Face the speaker and make eye contact. Pretend that your face is a satellite dish receiving the information. Much of our understanding comes from non-verbal communication. If you are actively watching the speaker, you will pick up on those non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, movements, etc.

You Think Too Fast

Our minds process thoughts faster than we can speak. Therefore, if someone is speaking to us and our mind spots a gap, it will fill that space with other thoughts, “When will this meeting ever end?” “What am I going to have for lunch?” “What should I do about this other problem?” These thoughts, no matter how important, are a distraction for us as we listen. Fight this tendency by asking yourself questions about the speaker’s message. “Does it make sense?” “Why did she say it that way?” “What motives might they have?” “Are there missing details?”

Listening Barriers

Human beings are easily distracted. There are two types of barriers that prevent us from truly listening – internal and external. We’ve already alluded to our internal barriers, our thoughts. The images and messages that our mind creates distract us from effective listening. Stress, boredom, or laziness can be critical internal barriers to listening. Instead of taking notes during a meeting, we may doodle on our paper.

Another common internal barrier is the tendency to pre-judge people and their ideas. We base the entire message on the reputation of the speaker or our preconceptions of the topic rather than the merit of the content.

External barriers are true distractions like the phone (cellphones & pagers), other people including passers-by or children, television, and so forth. These barriers can not only reduce our listening, they can completely stop communication.

So, Listen Up!

The best way to become a better listener is practice, practice, practice. Before beginning any conversation ask yourself, “What can I get out of this conversation?” Focus your attention on the speaker. Remember to aim your satellite dish, your face, at the speaker and maintain eye contact. Fill your brain with questions about what the speaker is saying. Fight those distractions, both internal & external. Turn off your cell phone and move to a private room without distractions.

If you’ve been a good listener, then you should feel tired by the end of the conversation. Practicing these skills will help your employees feel more valued and improve the overall morale of your workforce.

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