The Art of Listening

By Katy Tynan

How hard can it be to listen? After all, most of us have been doing it since we were born. Hearing is certainly simple enough, but listening, especially active listening, requires a bit more effort. Active listening begins with being present. We are all accustomed to having multiple things competing for our attention, from smartphones to email notifications to instant messages, just sitting at our desks each day can feel like we are being bombarded with information.

We can get into bad habits when we spend so much time bouncing from task to task, and trying to keep up with all of the streams of information that are coming at us every day. The first step in using listening as a tool to help you engage and build relationships with your team members, is to step away from the distractions of phones, emails and texts, and focus on the person or people around you.

Narrowing your focus to just the person you’re listening to allows you to do several important things:

  1. Observe Body Language – We don’t just communicate with our voices or our words, we communicate with our expressions, our posture, our hands, and our attitudes. As you work with people on your team, you can see patterns in how people respond to stress, how they approach conflict, and how they behave when they are excited. Going back to the example we used in the very beginning, when we approached the team with their tasks for the event, body language alone would probably have told us who was excited and engaged in the process, and who wanted nothing to do with it.
  2. Remember Details – While we’ve all heard that multitasking is a skill we should master, you’ll notice that it’s nowhere on the list of key skills for managers. It’s actually not something that our brains are wired to do. We’re actually only able to truly focus on one thing at a time. When we try to focus on multiple things, we lose track of the details, and our memory fails us. When we focus with our full attention, on the other hand, we are better able to retain information, and to think critically about what we are being told.
  3. Build Relationships – If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation with someone who was texting or typing an email at the same time, you know how frustrating it can be. They may say they are listening, but it’s impossible not to feel like they don’t really care enough about what you are saying to give it their full attention. You also sense that they won’t remember most of what you said, so it feels like a waste of time. People want to work with leaders who care about them as people – leaders who are willing to invest time and energy into a shared goal or outcome. Active listening, when another person’s thoughts and ideas are your only focus, is a powerful way of demonstrating that their ideas are important, that their work matters, and that you are willing to invest as much energy and time into the conversation as they are.

In addition to removing distractions, so you can truly focus on the person you are listening to, there are a few key things to avoid when you are working on developing your listening skills:

  • Don’t Interrupt – This one is obvious, and in fact most people hate being interrupted, and know they shouldn’t do it. However, even knowing that we should let people finish doesn’t always keep us from jumping in when we feel like someone is going on for too long, or when we feel like we know what they are going to say. Interrupting is typically a habit – one that has been formed along with our habit of trying to do multiple things at once, by the fact that we feel so busy most of the time. We often interrupt because we’re trying to move the conversation forward. If you know you have a habit of interrupting, do your very best to eliminate it, as it will erode your ability to communicate effectively, and will make people feel like you are not truly listening to them.
  • Don’t Jump to Conclusions – How many times have you been listening to someone, and realized that you know exactly what they are going to say? Sometimes we jump into a conversation out of enthusiasm, because we agree with them and want to show that we’re on the same page. This is bad for two reasons. First, because it’s usually a form of interrupting. Second, you could be totally off the mark. And third, you could miss an important element of the idea or thought, because you assumed you knew already what they were going to say. If you agree with someone, and want to show it, nod, smile, and keep listening to get all the details.
  • Don’t Prepare Your Next Comment – This most often happens when we don’t agree with someone. We’ve heard their side of the story, and now we want to have our say. But because we’ve decided not to interrupt, we tune them out and start crafting our own response. In its own way, this is just as bad as interrupting, because instead of listening, we’re just waiting for the other person to stop talking. This is typically the sign of a discussion that’s unlikely to go anywhere productive, so it’s best to take a pause, regroup, and try to decide what makes sense to move the conversation forward.

Listening is an art, and when you do it well, it has many great benefits. It will help you better understand the issues and challenges that people on your team are facing, and to come up with creative ideas on how to solve those challenges. Listening also helps you build strong relationships, and demonstrate that you value people’s time and efforts. And finally, listening is often a great way to help your team members come up with solutions to the challenges they face.

While listening has benefits of its own, there’s a reason that we’ve paired it with the skill of assessing. Leaders have the challenging job of absorbing and processing a variety of information in order to be effective. They need to understand the organizational goals, the team’s goals, the development goals of each person on the team, and all of the many tasks that revolve around achieving all of those goals. As we gain new information, as managers, our role is to assess that data point, in the context of all of our objectives, and decide how to respond.