Part of being an effective leader is knowing how to listen to your followers or employees. But it’s one thing to passively nod along and listen – it’s another thing to engage in effective listening, absorb the provided information, and make the speaker feel heard. The key is active listening. Today, let’s explore what active listening is, the major benefits of active listening, and some tips on practicing it and becoming a better listener.
What Is Active Listening?
Active listening is an important leadership skill that involves consciously making an effort to understand:
- What a speaker is saying (both in content and context)
- Why the speaker says it
In a normal conversation where you don’t practice active listening, you may instead practice certain bad communication habits, including:
- Interrupting the speaker to provide your own thoughts or contradicting opinions
- Not really listening (i.e., allowing your mind to wander to other topics while you act like you are listening)
- Focusing on other things aside from the conversation at hand
In contrast, when you actively listen, you:
- Focus exclusively on the conversation you’re a part of
- Try to understand and fully absorb the information provided to you
- Make it clear that you are listening so the speaker continues and feels encouraged to do so
Active listening is most important when you are in a one-on-one conversation with a peer or a subordinate. It’s a form of emotional intelligence for all leaders and aids in effective communication. However, active listening is also an essential skill in a group conversational context, such as with team members in a work environment. In such situations, everyone needs to pay attention to the current speaker so that information isn’t lost and so everyone has the opportunity to make their thoughts and feelings heard properly.
What Are the Benefits of Active Listening?
There are many important benefits to practicing active listening. Due to these benefits, every workplace leader should strive to cultivate this skill set as soon as possible.
1. Build Relationships
Firstly, active listening contributes to professional relationships. When you actively listen and practice good communication, you show the speaker that you care about what they have to say and that you can give them your full attention when needed.
This is not just the bare minimum of workplace respect. It’s also an important part of forging a personal relationship between workers. This benefit of active listening is crucial for leaders and managers, but it’s also important for workers when speaking to their peers, superiors, and clients or customers.
2. Conflict Resolution
Secondly, active listening usually contributes to strong conflict resolution and problem-solving. Interpersonal workplace conflicts are unavoidable. However, they can be exacerbated or spiral out of control if the injured or affected party feels that they aren’t being listened to, particularly by HR staff members or those who are supposed to fix their problems.
When you actively listen, you contribute to conflict resolution by:
- Soothing the injured party’s feelings
- Fully understanding their grievances
- Using that understanding to come to an appropriate conclusion or resolution
Good conflict resolution is a cornerstone skill for any manager or executive. This is just one more reason why you should learn how to practice active listening at the earliest opportunity.
3. Information Retention
When you actively listen, your brain is better able to retain key information, even if it is spoken once or in a crowded environment. When your full attention is focused on a speaker, you’ll be more likely to absorb everything they have to say.
This is vital as a leader and as an employee. For instance, imagine your boss telling you a complicated work process that you’ll need to repeat tomorrow. While you could ask them to repeat the information later down the road, if you retain everything the first time and use it properly, you’ll impress your boss and do better work as a result. Information retention benefits are also important when you are a leader or manager. If many employees have several pieces of information, being able to absorb and recall that information accurately is key so you can make the wisest decision for a given problem or situation.
4. Problem Identification
Speaking of problems, active listening often allows you to identify issues more succinctly or accurately. Imagine a scenario where an employee explains a problem they had with a coworker. If you actively listen, you’ll be able to repeat the information back to the employee to make sure you heard it correctly. Once more, this element of active listening does wonders to improve your relationships with your coworkers or employees. But since you can identify spoken problems more accurately and easily, you’ll also be able to better come up with resolutions or fixes.
5. Knowledge Building
Active listening also contributes to better knowledge building. When you have to take in a lot of information from your employees and synthesize solutions, active listening allows you to build your knowledge more readily and easily as opposed to barely tuning into a conversation and asking people to repeat their words again and again. An identical benefit applies if you are a front-line worker or employee. If you listen to everything everyone has to say, you’ll build your knowledge rapidly and quickly become a rockstar at your place of employment.
6. Better Leadership
More generally, active listening enables you to provide better leadership to your staff. The more you listen, the better you’ll understand their pain points, needs, and personalities. This, in turn, will enable you to lead them with a style that integrates well with their personalities and work requirements.
How Can I Effectively Practice Active Listening?
Luckily, you can practice active listening using several smart strategies.
1. Face the Speaker
For starters, always try to face the speaker in a conversation. This shows them that you are tuned into what they have to say, making it harder for your brain to lose focus and think about something else.
2. Maintain Eye Contact
By the same token, you should maintain eye contact when actively listening. Look into the eyes of the person speaking, and you’ll:
- Immediately show them that you are listening
- Make it almost impossible for your brain to focus on something else
- Be more likely to build a good working relationship with the speaker
Eye contact is a key part of human communication for a reason. Use this to your advantage when practicing active listening; your leadership results will likely improve immediately.
3. Don’t Interrupt
When active listening, do not interrupt the speaker unless necessary. Interruptions aren’t just rude. They also have the potential to derail a conversation by making the speaker forget what they were about to say.
4. Don’t Plan What To Say While Another Is Speaking
In keeping with the above, don’t spend your time actively listening by planning what you will say as a response while the other speaker is still talking. This is a bad habit that many people pick up over time.
For example, a speaker might make a statement or have an opinion about something, and your brain will immediately begin working on how to counteract their opinion. This is a particularly common habit when people talk about controversial topics. But this is bad conversational form, bad leadership, and the exact antithesis of active listening. Instead, focus on listening exclusively, then decide what you’ll say when the speaker has finished their current statements.
5. Pay Attention to Non-Verbal Cues
Active listening allows you to pick up nonverbal conversational cues and body languages, such as head movements, eye movements, and hand movements. These motions can provide important context and help you better understand the speaker’s message, mood, and more, all of which can be invaluable when speaking to a subordinate or superior. Armed with extra information, you can respond after actively listening in a more organic and meaningful way.
6. Indicate That You’re Listening
Lastly, take steps to show the speaker that you are listening. Even if you make eye contact, they may be so focused on getting their message out that they don’t register you are paying attention to them. To that end, you should practice things like:
- Nodding along, even if you don’t agree or the conversational topic doesn’t require agreement
- Saying “hmm” or making other thoughtful noises when the speaker says something interesting
- Occasionally sayings things like “right” or “yes” when the speaker paraphrases or summarizes the key points to encourage the speaker to keep going. Note that this is a smart strategy if you want to encourage a shy speaker or someone who has difficulty speaking in front of a crowd
These active listening techniques show that you’re a good listener, allowing you to build trust with them compared to passive listening.
Ultimately, every leader needs to know how to practice active listening and the benefits of doing so. When you actively listen to your subordinates, you strengthen your team’s cohesion, make your workplace more secure for everyone, and make it easier to retain important information.
That’s just one way you can improve your workplace and become a better leader. 1AND1 has several other guides and strategies to follow to improve things at the office.