Five Simple Steps to Improve Your Active Listening Skills

How would you finish the phrase, “If the pandemic has taught me nothing else, it has taught me …?”

Through my coaching and facilitation over the past 15-plus months, more than ever before, it has been deeply impressed on me how important it is for managers and followers alike to be heard, to be seen and to experience empathy.

Listening and empathy are inextricably linked! Those who have thrived through the change and isolation—who continued to produce goods and services of quality despite remote/virtual/socially distanced work conditions—were heard. Even if their managers could not completely understand, they were diligent to actively listen and acknowledge the challenges their people faced.

Why do we put “actively” in front of “listen” and hail it as superior? Because most of us need to be reminded there IS a difference! I can “listen” to the radio or TV in the background while I work, cook or converse with someone, but I might not be able to give you a very good summary, let alone tell you what I learned or most enjoyed from it.

When I “actively listen,” however, I am focused. The sounds (words, tone and emotions) are not simply around me. They penetrate me. Other distractions, even in my peripheral vision, are eliminated. Envision engagement moving from edge of mind to innermost brain, capturing imagination.

Active listening skills are paramount for leaders because we all need to be known.

Long touted as the cornerstone of Emotional Intelligence, empathy tells us this is so. Reflect for a moment on how important it is for you to be noticed by your leaders. What does it mean to be sought for your perspective, experience, knowledge or skill on various matters? Consider what this kind of recognition and affirmation has done for you, both personally (character and confidence) and professionally (trust, respect and greater responsibility). You can empathize with those looking for the same from you.

Do you prioritize this kind of attention for your team? Perhaps you might approach this as a specific way you can “pay it forward,” with active listening as the investment you make to support the people you lead, develop and influence.

To increase your active listening skills, consider adopting the following:

Include informal interaction in every meeting. Realize that the personal exchanges in the hallway, over coffee, when a group spontaneously “runs out for a bite” or exits a board room, have evaporated. That was where “life got lived.” Info about the kids, the new car, the upcoming vacation and the diagnosis of their ailing parent was shared here. Leaders must deliberately and consistently create time and space for this relationship building in a virtual and remote environment or risk the continued waning of kindnesses, camaraderie, understanding and trust building between teammates.

Put down your phone and pen and raise your eyes to focus on their face. Simply by looking at someone, you will hear more and more deeply. Furthermore, position their face right below your camera so your eyes look almost directly into the webcam. In Zoom, for example, you can grab and drag a square (face) anywhere in the grid; continually move the speaker’s square to top center under your camera.

Another tip—when sharing your screen as presenter, don’t look at the content on the screen. You created it and you know what it says, so look into the camera instead. Each person in the group will sense that you are looking at them, individually. Also examine their reactions to your content. Do they appear puzzled? Intrigued? Dismayed? Pleased? Finally, consider hiding just your webcam image so you aren’t tempted to look only at yourself.

Listen for what they are not putting into words. Launch a treasure hunt for insights! Which expressions cross their face? When they speak, how would you describe their tone, pitch, speed and volume, and what do these indicate? Are they able to match your gaze? Why or why not? Do not presume—ask. Confirm the signals and cues you notice so your imaginations or projections don’t become a false narrative. Give the person opportunity to confirm or correct you for complete clarity and honesty.

Pick up your pen. There is a time to just listen and a time to take notes. This communicates that what you are hearing is important to you and there are actions you will take based on their information and ideas. If you take digital notes, moving your gaze to a second screen or monitor, let the person know where you are looking and why so they don’t wonder if you are multitasking or distracted.

Leverage effective communication tools. Use repetition, paraphrase and summary to demonstrate that you have heard them—accurately. Say, “What I hear you saying is …” or “The two things you appear to be most concerned about are …” Once the message is clearly received, ask follow-up questions like, “How will that benefit the team/our client?” or “If I could get that resource/permission/result, what would that bring to you/our team/this project?” or “Based on our conversation, I would like to take the following action(s)”.

My own finish for the question that opened this blog is this: “If the pandemic has taught me nothing else, it has taught me … that each person is priceless and should never be taken for granted.” Consequently, my personal action step is that I will value people in my sphere of influence by giving the gift of better attention—active listening.

How you complete the sentence and act on this learning is up to you.

APPLICATION CHALLENGE:

  1. Of the list of five action tips listed above, which one pricked your conscience? Determine to practice it DAILY for the next week … and take note of the visible impact this has on people you listen to.
  2. Share your focus area with someone you trust. Invite them to ask you throughout the week about your progress and observations. If they are in meetings with you, ask them to provide you feedback and what they observed as others responded to your efforts.