For today’s article, the author actively listened to all her tech-coachees when they told her they don’t know how to actively listen to their own team members.
However, they usually listen to her, which can only mean that active listening is not a skill, but most probably a matter of motivation: you are capable of listening to what you want to hear or insulate from whatever you don’t.
The problem is that more often you need to listen to things even if you are not in the mood too, because they might be important or they might be coming from a significant source. But even if that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t really know it, since you didn’t really listen, did you?
Active listening is very different to hearing and it is what differentiates an effective leader from an average manager. While the first is always present in the moment, the other is usually not.
So before sharing some tips that will help you become a better listener, first we need to look at typical listening mistakes during a discussion.
- You get distracted
At one point during the conversation, you start thinking about a bug in your code, or the film that you saw, or what you did last weekend. However, if you don’t suffer from ADHD (which in any case is very rare in adults), it means that you can self- regulate and actively choose to stay in the conversation.
- You start thinking of your answer before the other person has finished talking
This is also very common. You choose one of the first points made by the other person and mentally start creating your response, losing all the following points being made that could differentiate your eventual response anyway.
- You think you know what the other person is going to say, therefore, you interrupt them
You are so sure you know the other person (or every person), that you have pre- decided on their behalf what they’re going to say, and you interrupt them so you can answer upfront and save time. Even if you are right 9 out of 10 times, this tenth time it’s bluntly rude and not the approach a collaborative leader would take.
- You come to conclusions too soon
Let’s say that someone is telling you a story. Too soon in the conversation, based on your instinct/ knowledge of the person/ what usually happens, you come to specific conclusions concerning who’s to blame, who’s the victim, what is the motive here etc. At that point, you stop processing all the data given, leading the other person towards your opinion of what happened, instead of actually trying to understand what is being said.
- You judge
Virginia Johnson (the famous sexologist) was once asked how she feels when she hears weird things from her patients. Her answer was: “when a patient gets in my office and tells me he’s in love with a whale, I ask them how the whale feels about it”.
For a small person, a small problem is a big problem. You have the right not to engage, or you have the right to actively listen and try to help. The right you don’t have, is make the other person feel bad for sharing something with you.
Now that we’ve highlighted some of the common mistakes, let’s look at how you can improve, shall we?
The key, like I’ve already mentioned, is motivation: how much do you want to actually communicate with the other person? If you are serious about becoming a more active listener, the following tips are a good start:
- Show empathy: Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes while you are talking to them. How would you feel? Do you understand what they’re going through? Connect emotionally with what is being discussed, instead of trying to process it logically.
- Ask questions: Engage. The more questions you ask, the more focused you stay and the more details you acquire about what is being discussed.
- Never interrupt: It is the most impolite thing and the most problematic in a communication as well. Let the other person fully complete their thoughts and then start answering. If you believe the other person needs to improve their communication and perhaps make it more concise, then deal with that in a feedback environment separately.
- It’s ok to ask for some time: Telling someone “I can’t talk right now, I apologize, but my head is on something else, can we please discuss in a while?”, is not a bad thing. It shows self-awareness, respect, and confidence. If you are not in a mood because you are distracted, it is better to acknowledge it and reschedule than start a discussion that might lead to the other person feeling disrespected or undervalued.
- Not every conversation is about feedback: The fact that someone is talking to you, does not necessarily mean that you need to answer something back. Sometimes, you just need to listen carefully, without expressing an opinion afterwards. People talk for many reasons: get something off their chest, give information, interact. Not sharing your thoughts can be a very active decision, instead of a passive behavior. Also, not everything needs to be addressed on the spot. If you don’t feel ready to give an answer because you need more time to actively process what you’ve listened to, you can always say: “I need some time to think about it and I will let you know how I see it”.
Last but not least, I still haven’t mentioned the reasons for being an active listener.
The obvious part is it’s the right thing to do, the best for business, the best for your team and your employees/ colleagues whose voices need to be heard.
The least obvious part is that it’s the easiest way for self-growth. You can learn from everyone. Every single person has at least one thing to share with you that you didn’t already know about.
Instead of focusing on what you do know, try searching for the elements that you don’t. Each person is a unique world with perspectives you can’t second guess or even imagine.
Embrace this fact, connect, and you will live more than one life.
Isn’t this an extraordinary possibility?