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A Model for Active Listening: Master a Skill That Can Boost Your Career

By Deb Calvert (1339 words)
Posted in Communication Skills on October 4, 2012

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By Deb Calvert, President, People First Productivity Solutions

Research by Korn Ferry International reveals that there is one competency that may be more important than any other in the workplace. That competency, active listening, rises to the top of the list because it is a “compensator” for other competencies. As a compensator, active listening can neutralize the negative effects of a gap.


In other words, while an individual is working to master other competencies or when he or she falls short, being skilled in active listening can bridge the gap. Skills gaps in areas like political savvy, intellectual horsepower, process management, negotiating, and strategic agility can be partially overcome through the use of strong active listening. What’s more, strengths in other competencies can also be enhanced with strong active listening skills.


Despite the impact it has on others and the career boost it can give individuals, active listening is often overlooked, misunderstood and easily dismissed. Its value is not appreciated. As a result, few spend time pursuing skills development. Additionally, many people already believe they’ve mastered active listening and see no cause, therefore, for spending time on work that would improve their listening.


There are actually three degrees of listening. The first is merely hearing, a passive function for those who are able to hear. Since we are able to hear without making any effort, we often settle for this and call it “listening.” But listening involves more than hearing. Listening happens in the brain, not in the ear. Listening requires hearers to pay attention to what they are hearing. Active listening goes a step further, involving focused concentration and deliberate processing of what’s being heard.


Active listening is not always embraced in the workplace because there is such a premium value placed on multi-tasking.  Our own day-to-day habits prove just how lax we’ve become at listening. Phone calls take place while grocery shopping or working out. Conversations with our children happen while driving from one after school activity to another. If we’re lucky, we manage to squeeze in a few updates with our significant others while commercials interrupt our favorite television programs. At work, these habits are no different. Managers talk to their direct reports while answering e-mails. Co-workers converse in snippets as they pass each other in corridors or on their way to and from the office. During meetings, it appears that nearly everyone is checking e-mails and voice mails and doing side work.


Focused, fully attentive listening is rare. People spend time preparing to speak but not preparing to listen. We evaluate others on what they say and how they say it, but not on how well they listen. In fact, all that attention on what we say impairs our ability to listen – while someone else is talking, we are thinking about what we will say in response.  Our own brains work against because we can think faster than others can speak, so our attention span may naturally wane, too.


If you would like to become a more active listener, there are concrete steps you can take to improve your attention span and discipline yourself. These three actions alone will force you to spend more time processing what you are hearing and will demonstrate to the other party that you are genuinely making an effort to be fully engaged.


1)     Don’t respond until you have all the information.


In a typical conversation, we may feel compelled to complete the speaker’s thoughts or to chime in as soon as you understand the gist of what’s being said. When we respond too quickly, we may appear to be interrupting. Inadvertently, we may be signaling that we feel the speaker’s ideas and thoughts are less valuable than our own.


When we listen actively, attentively, we will be processing what’s been said instead of racing ahead with our own input. When we slow down, we’ll give the speaker more room to fully communicate their own complete thoughts. Even if what the speaker says is identical to what we would have said, there is merit in letting the speaker say it. At a minimum, the benefit will be the connection we create just by listening.  


2)     Focus on what’s different instead of focusing on what’s familiar.


One trap we commonly fall into as listeners is that we hear something familiar and pounce on it. By doing so, we risk taking the conversation in a different direction than the speaker intended. We may also sound like we are engaging in competitive conversation, trying to match the speaker point-for-point or “one up” the speaker’s statements. A “me too!” response can wait. While you wait to comment on what’s familiar, listen closely for what’s different.


By forcing yourself to listen for what’s different, you will tune in to things you would normally miss. Our selective hearing picks up what is familiar or expected. Being fully engaged in active listening gives us more information because we actively tune in for what’s unique, different, unfamiliar, changed or unusual to us. When we get the complete picture in this way, we will be less likely to jump to conclusions or to rudely shift the focus on to our own experiences.


3)     Encourage the speaker  


Without intending to, we discourage people who are speaking. If we aren’t making eye contact, continue to multi-task when someone is speaking, put on the fake listening behaviors that show up as misplaced nods and delayed reactions, or appear to be rushed or bored, people who are speaking to us will feel discouraged and perhaps even minimized.


By deliberating planning to encourage the speaker, we will exhibit different behaviors. We will ask questions that invite more detail and dialogue. We will notice when the tone conveys emotion, rather than hearing the words alone. We will show empathy as our body language and facial expressions mirror the speaker’s. We won’t be distracted, won’t be multi-tasking, won’t be looking at our watches, and won’t be letting our minds wander. Being listened to like that is validating, encouraging and rare.


All of these behaviors are relatively simple to adopt. Consistently demonstrating active listening behaviors starts with intent to truly listen and understand what’s being said. That intent stems from caring about the people you work with, the outcomes you will produce, and the brand you want to create for yourself. Little changes with big payoffs! 


Please join Deb's conversation in 'This Week's Discussion', located in our Workplace Communication Skills Community.


Written by Deb Calvert,

Workplace Communication Skills Expert for ManagingAmericans.com & President, People First Productivity Solutions.

Ask our Expert Panel a question in Workplace Communication Skills Ask an Expert Forum.


Here are some related articles you may be interested in:

Eight Communication Tips to Gain Respect at Work

Six ways to improve your communication skills.

Are Speaking Skills More Valued than Listening?

Is Your Defensive Position Keeping You from Moving Forward?

Make It Easy to Have that Difficult Conversation

At ManagingAmericans.com we encourage members to go in and out of our communities to learn about different areas of the business; how to work together, solve problems and improve skills.  Each community details expectations, challenges, success tips, training programs and useful resources. Growing your knowledge base and learning about all areas of business can help you navigate towards success in your career. 

Comments (13)

Nadia posted on: October 5, 2012

I really enjoyed reading this post. Very enriching. Thank you.

Beth Ruegg posted on: October 7, 2012

I believe being able to process information will be more crucial in the future. Many individuals simply wish to shout others down instead of really taking the time to listen to what they have to say. Many people cannot absorb new information because it threatens there comfort zone. Good listeners are definitely ahead of the game.
I believe that being a good listener can serve as an excellent attribute because so many individuals merely shout others down without processing any information that they hear. Many people also have a difficult time processing new information because it threatens their comfort zone. I have good listening skills. I believe that myself as well as others who can absorb inforamtion can ultimately find our selves ahead of the game because we will have more of an inside track as to what is really going on.

Matt Perelstein posted on: October 7, 2012

In my opinion, Active Listening is one of our most important EQ skills (however, I term this critical skill a little differently... called "Shut Up and Listen") as it includes empathy, caring, delayed gratification, giving yourself, and good old-fashioned love.

Larry Easto posted on: October 8, 2012

For many people, the ultimate compliment they can pay a service professional, is "He/she really listened to me."

Listening is such an effective but simply way to develop and enhance relationships with clients and colleagues. Unfortunately too many professionals prefer to listen to the sound of their own voices.

Nadia Massarelli posted on: October 8, 2012

Thank you for sharing. It was very enlightening.

Dr. Ethelle Lord posted on: October 10, 2012

Active listening is a basic tool in your coach toolbox. This is a wonderful article outline the power of active listening. I will use this in my training programs. Active listening tells the other person that what they are telling you matters. It is the best way to validate their thoughts and feelings. Thank you for posting.

David Welham posted on: October 10, 2012

Hi Deb, I have just read your article on active listening in the workplace and certainly found it worth reading. There are things in the article that I have thought: Yes I could do with improving in this area and will start to practice more.

Alex Dail posted on: October 22, 2012

My favorite suggest was focus on what is different rather than what is familiar, focusing on the familiar is a heuristic that can lead to error.

Marie Henshaw posted on: October 22, 2012

Great article! "Active listening" is so important to identify positioning, linkages and key messages. I've found that regardless of whether a meeting is a half-hour or a half-day, there are usually a handful of statements/ideas that guide communications' success. Thanks for sharing!

Diane DiResta posted on: October 22, 2012

Listening is the most underutilized communication skill. Most people are not trained to listen. U.S. culture seems to favor speaking over listening. The culture teaches "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" and "Toot your own horn". There's much work to be done in the area of listening.

Marc Wong posted on: March 14, 2013

Listening is the art and practice of putting someone else’s speaking, thinking and feeling needs ahead of your own.

Biron Clark posted on: October 24, 2013

Great article. As somebody who works in recruiting, listening is what sets me apart from some of my peers. Listening thoroughly and understanding obstacles and objections can be the difference between making a placement and alienating a potential job candidate.

Carolyn Simpson posted on: December 16, 2019

Great article, I really did learn a lot about listening from this material.

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