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  1. Blog
  2. Career Development

How to Listen Effectively (& Why You Should)

Active listening is a sign of respect

Two office workers practicing active listening skills
Image courtesy of AllGo

“What did you say? I heard you, but I wasn’t listening.”

You’ve probably had this said to you. The person you’re speaking to at work is distracted, either thinking about something else or actually doing something else when you’re talking. Whatever their excuse, not being listened to is insulting. And if it occurs frequently, as sometimes happens in the workplace, it can erode employee engagement and productivity.

Good listening skills, then, are important to develop and to use. They can affect your career: Active listening can make you a better leader and manager. If you’re constantly asking colleagues to “say again,” you might need to develop your effective listening skills.

What is active listening?

Actively listening to another person is a choice. Unlike hearing, which just happens, you need to concentrate in order to listen effectively. It’s not a matter of being passive, but requires responses that show you understand what the speaker is saying.

To listen well, you have to pay attention to the speaker. That kind of focus means you should not be distracted by your phone, your own thoughts, or any other interruptions. Good listeners are in the moment: They don’t race ahead of the speaker, making judgments and formulating responses.

Read more: The Open Door Policy: Pure Chaos or Creative Collaboration?

Why is effective listening an important skill?

We asked Nicki Nance, a psychotherapist and an associate professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, this question.

She said there are three main reasons why active listening is so important in the workplace

  1. Active listening (which includes paraphrasing what is said and asking for clarification) decreases errors.

  2. Listening is a mainstay of teamwork. The more you know about the individuals in your workgroup, the better you will work together.

  3. Listening builds relationships, and strong collegial relationships make for a less stressful work environment.

All of this (decreased errors, seamless teamwork, and a healthy work environment) results in increased productivity and higher employee engagement and retention.

Read more: Are You a Manager—or a Leader?

How can active listening be important to your career?

“Being a good listener can help you to be a better leader,” Nance tells us. She explains a couple of reasons for this:

  • Charismatic leaders have the greatest influence over others because their followers develop loyalty to them. Part of that loyalty is based on the fact that those leaders are effective listeners, and good listeners appeal to a common denominator in humans—the desire to be heard.

  • Competent leaders also have a deep understanding of workplace dynamics. The best way to keep your thumb on the pulse of the workplace is to interact with the people in it. If you are a good listener, more people will open up to you. 

If you understand and are able to motivate your colleagues and team members, those leadership abilities will be noticed by your direct report and those higher up the corporate chain. For instance, you and your team will bring in projects on time and on budget, and your team’s productivity rates will be consistently high. This makes positive performance reviews and promotions much more likely.

Why listening is so crucial

Being an active listener is part of empathetic leadership, the kind that prevents employee burnout, writes Jennifer Moss, cofounder and board member at workplace insights and consultancy firm Plasticity Labs, in an article for Harvard Business Review. Demonstrating empathy “requires stepping outside of your own needs, assessing and removing bias and privilege, actively listening to your people, and then taking action.” 

And now, during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, more than ever, being a good listener is a desired skill to have. That’s because listening is critical in times of crisis

Front-line workers, for example, need emotional support. If you’re in a mentoring position to health care workers, “begin with listening,” advise David P. Fessell, Vineet Chopra, and Sanjay Saint at HBR. Ask your mentees how they’re really doing.

“Expect to hear about grief, anxiety, and fear,” they write. “Encourage them to talk about these feelings: Naming emotions helps us feel them, and allows them to flow through us, bringing a helpful shift in brain activity and perspective. Help your mentee know they’re not alone. This can assuage their grief, calm the fight-flight-freeze response of their nervous system, and strengthen your relationship.”

Read more: How to Find a Mentor & How to Ask

How can you become a better listener at work?

If you want to improve your listening in the workplace (or in your private life), there are steps you can take and practice, starting right now. Nance’s advice is as follows:

  • Give your full attention to anyone who is speaking to you. That means stop what you are doing, look at them, then tell them what you think they are saying.

  • Invite others to say more to you. For example, if even an offhand comment is unclear, ask for details.

  • Don’t forget important information about people’s feelings. Ask questions like, “Is everyone okay with the upcoming changes?” or “How are you doing with your team member out on leave?” Make sure you listen to the entire answer. If a person looks like they might have more to say, nod instead of rushing to respond, and there is a good chance they will say more. 

  • Tell people you will give some thought to what they have told you and thank them for their trust when they share sensitive information.

You’ll have to learn to get comfortable with silence too. Remember to pause after someone finishes speaking to consider your response instead of trying to think of something while they’re still talking. That pause indicates respect and will be appreciated by your conversation partner; they’ll know you’re thinking about what they said and are responding thoughtfully.

Read more: How Successful People Deal with Difficult People

About our source

Nicki Nance is a psychotherapist and an associate professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. She served as a consultant for seven years to displaced workers and veterans and seminar facilitator at Florida’s One Stop Workforce, a state-government operated job displacement service. For 17 years, Nance owned and operated Nicki Betts, Inc., which specialized in mental health and employee assistance services.

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