Becoming A Better Active Listener

3 July 2020

We all want to be heard. Feeling truly listened to can boost your self-confidence, make you feel understood and strengthen the connection between you and others. In the workplace it can be the difference between feeling engaged or unappreciated.

In the book You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, Kate Murphy writes: “Done well and with deliberation, listening can transform your understanding of the people and the world around you, which inevitably enriches and elevates your experience and existence.”i

The good news is with a little concentration, patience and practise you can develop your active listening skills.

Active listening instead of simply hearing

Ask that person with the glazed expression who is busy doing something while you’re talking to them if they’ve heard you, and they’ll probably say yes. They can parrot back what you’ve said but it’s unlikely they have let your words sink in.

The difference between hearing and active listening is that the latter involves your full attention, not just the ability to hear the sounds the speaker makes.

Why we’re not great at active listening

Active listening, is actually more difficult than any other form of personal communication. This is simply due to the fact that the rate at which we speak requires our brains to receive words at an extremely slow pace compared with its capabilities.iiOur brain has spare time for thinking while listening, which can be either used well or misused. This is made all the more difficult as our attention is pulled in many directions these days. Notifications on our phones and computers ping, we’re scrolling through websites, we often need to multitask – when we do have conversations it’s rare that we tune out these distractions and focus solely on the speaker.

Our emotional filters and perceived assumptions also influence our capacity to actively listen, as can our habit of trying to ‘get all the facts’, which prevents us from grasping broader concepts while committing facts to memory.

We can also misunderstand what it means to be a good listener. As the example above illustrates, perhaps you think the ability to repeat what was said means you’ve honed the art of listening. Or the fact that you can still hold a conversation while scrolling through your phone shows you can still listen.

Being an active listener is not something that comes naturally to many of us, but we can work at it.

The benefits of improved listening

While active listening is obviously beneficial to your interpersonal relationships as you’ll develop greater connections with the people around you, it also provides value to businesses. When people fail to hear and understand each other, productivity is impacted, mistakes occur, conflict can arise and processes break down.

Promoting active listening and platforms to enable communication, can improve customer satisfaction, enhance client retention and build company culture. Innovation and process improvements can also benefit as management hears suggestions and takes action.

How to actively work on your listening skills

How many times are you busy formulating your reply to someone before they’ve finished speaking? Most of us do this and it means we’re more likely to miss out on nuance, visual and verbal cues or an unanticipated revelation this way.

Recognise and moderate any preconceived assumptions or biases you may hold. Pause before rushing in. Ask for more information to help inform your response, using open-ended questions. Just as importantly, listen to yourself. How do your responses show that you respect the other person’s point of view?

Making a space conducive for listening is also important. This could be finding a separate room, stepping away from your computer and silencing your phone so you can focus on the conversation, maintaining eye contact and positive posture.

You won’t become an active listener overnight, but by making an effort to strengthen this ability you’ll undoubtedly reap the benefits.

i Murphy, Kate. You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters. Penguin. (Original work published 2020).