Active Listening

Think about the worst boss you ever had. You could probably rattle off a laundry list of his or her faults — if you had a free afternoon. But if you had to describe the boss-from-hell in just a few words, it would probably go something like this: He (or she) just didn’t listen.

Just about everyone claims to be a “good” listener — including, most likely, your old boss. But how many people actually work with good listeners? And how many people can honestly say they’re married to a good listener? For all of the supposedly high-quality listening going on out there, we seem to live in a world of misunderstandings and mixed signals.

What does ‘active listening’ mean?

In reality, very few people really know how to listen, says Elliott Jaffa, Ph.D., a Maryland-based behavioral psychologist and expert at effective communication. Jaffa regularly conducts “active listening” seminars for businesses and other groups. As the phrase implies, there’s more to active listening than sitting back and letting your eardrum collect vibrations. When done properly, it’s actually hard work. “It’s almost like learning another language,” Jaffa says. But as many truly good listeners have discovered, the rewards are worth it.

Effective listening is especially crucial in the business world, Jaffa says. When friends drift in and out of a conversation, nobody gets hurt. Even husbands and wives can work through the occasional misunderstanding. But when bosses (or their employees) let things go in one ear and out the other, the entire business suffers. Mistakes are made, clients walk away, and employees become extremely frustrated.

Tips to be a better listener

According to Jaffa, active listening requires at least 100 different learned behaviors. The essence, however, can be boiled down to a few basic steps. In a nutshell, here’s what it takes to become an active, effective listener:

Stop talking. Silence is the key to listening. If someone is trying to say something important, whether it’s a compliment or a complaint or a suggestion, don’t interrupt. Even “uh-huhs” and other conversational clutter can get in the way. But you have to use your silence wisely. Many silent listeners are simply waiting for their turn to talk, Jaffa says. “Waiting is the opposite of listening,” he says.

Send the right signals. Maybe you’re a multi-tasker, the kind of person who can carry on a conversation while writing a memo. Even so, if someone comes into your office, you need to put down your pencil, make eye contact, and show respect by giving your full attention. Ask the person to sit down. Show through your facial expressions and body language that you’re comfortable but attentive. Your visitor will feel ready to talk, and you’ll be ready to listen.

Ask the right questions. Consider the waiter who comes to the table and asks “How is everybody doing?” Almost invariably, the customer says “fine.” But if the waiter asks, “Can I get anything for you?” or, even better, “Would you like a refill on your drink?” the response is often very different. Keep your questions specific and on target, and you’ll get answers worth listening to.

Paraphrase. This is one of the skills that separates the great listeners from the brick walls. It’s also one of the most challenging skills to learn. After someone has talked to you for five minutes, it’s natural to just say “yes” or “thanks for letting me know” or to change the subject completely. But if you have the slightest doubt about what the person just said, you need to paraphrase their main points. The classic approach is something like, “So what you’re saying is that you’re working too much overtime.” Keep your tone calm and even. You’re still in the listening stage. Reacting can come later.

As you become a more accomplished listener, you’re bound to become more aware of the poor listening skills around you. So what do you do when coworkers — or, worse, bosses — seem to have their hearing turned off? In most cases, the best way to break through is to ask questions, says Steven P. Cohen, president of the Negotiation Skills Co. and author of Negotiation Skills for Managers. Try something like “Is there a clearer way to say what I just said?” or “You’re always dealing with these people, how would you explain it to them?” The other person will either prove that he really was paying attention, or he’ll have to ask you to repeat yourself. Either way, you get your message across — and the other person just might learn a lesson.

As Cohen explains it, such questions are a polite version of “What did I just say?,” a query that’s really a declaration of war. “You can test whether someone is listening without picking a fight,” he says.

At first, active listening may seem like too much work. It may even feel stilted or artificial — after all, our normal conversations tend to take a far different form. But with practice, you’ll soon find that listening comes naturally. And once you start listening, you’ll be amazed at what everyone has to say.


Interview with Elliot Jaffa, Ph.D., behavioral psychologist and corporate trainer

Interview with Steven P. Cohen, president of the Negotiation Skills Company and author of Negotiation Skills for Managers, McGraw Hill.

University of Maryland. How to be a great supervisor.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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