George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
One of the most valuable soft skills for anybody – manager, employee, senior leader etc. – is the ability to actively listen. Active listening has tangible benefits. It helps build connections and trust. It helps you identify and solve problems, understand key information, and increase knowledge. It makes for stronger, more collaborative teams. And, by taking the time to pause and listen, it saves time.
Employee surveys consistently come back with complaints about poor communication, transparency, and lack of feedback. Active listening is a key piece of strong communication and employee engagement.
Senior leaders can improve active listening throughout the organization by modeling it. In a world that demands our attention be split in hundreds of open tabs, a world that values multi-tasking over focus, becoming adept at active listening can be a challenge. Listening goes beyond words. It’s about knowing what someone has said or meant to say. It takes incredible focus to listen well. And to do so, the office space needs to slow down.
Active listening is a skill that needs to be taught and reinforced so coworkers and direct reports feel heard – are heard – in order to work better.
Here are six tips on how to become a better listener and increase employee engagement.
1. Simple math. There’s a two-to-one ratio between ears and mouth. Apply it.
2. Stop the multi-tasking. Put away your cell phone. Away, out of sight. Close your computer or shut off the screen. Make eye contact. Give your co-workers or employee the time they’re asking for.
3. Schedule face-to-face encounters. Not every time is a good time to listen. Pay attention to your day, how you’re feeling. If you are bombarded with deadlines and are feeling anxious, communicate with your co-worker or employee that you need to schedule another time when you can be present for them.
4. Practice makes perfect. When was the last time you really listened? We’re so often in automatic mode with our routines, our lives, we often forget that active listening takes energy. Practice listening. Maintain eye contact. Paraphrase what the person has just said. Don’t interrupt. Ask follow-up questions. Confirm what is being communicated. Listen for words that communicate intention. What isn’t being said?
5. Know thyself. And know your biases. There are people who simply rub us wrong. It’s normal to not want to listen to everyone, but as a manager, as a senior leader, your job is to listen to opposing opinions. Go back to the basics and practice the ideas in #4.
6. Set boundaries. Active listening doesn’t mean therapy. It’s natural that sometimes people just want to blow off steam. But it’s a slippery slope to full-blown gripe sessions. Listen without offering advice. Keep things professional. Steer the conversation away from personal issues. If, however, you identify harassing behaviors and language at work, you need to take action.
Active listening might be considered a lost art. Bring it back. Slow down. Be mindful. Be present. And really listen. By doing so, you’ll tap into your employees’ and coworkers needs and be a better leader.