Communication skills are critical for your career. And great active listening skills can serve you in valuable ways you may not have considered.
It seems everyone spends a good chunk of their day with their eyes glued to a cell phone. Even when co-workers, spouses, or – saddest of all – kids are speaking, we’re not really engaged.
And often, even when someone is speaking to us about something important, we’re often not really listening, but instead thinking about what we’re going to say next.
Many disagreements consist of people talking at each other, rather than with one another.
Listening is an activity that requires a desire to really hear the speaker, and an effort to engage.
And even that sometimes isn’t enough.
You may want someone to give you more information, but they’re not sharing much, or what they say isn’t clear. It can take more effort on your part to get them to open up and give you more insight.
This can apply equally to kids, spouses, co-workers, or friends.
Listening is an underrated skill. But great listening skills can improve your communication skills in all areas of your life.
Communication isn’t only about sharing your thoughts but also hearing what the speaker is saying and having real dialogue. Active Listening lets the speaker know you’re focused and interested in what they have to say. Being engaged in the discussion will produce better outcomes, regardless of the situation. And these tactics can be used on everyone – from your boss to your 4-year-old.
What are Active Listening Skills?
Active listening is a way of listening that lets others know you’re engaged. It involves using words, body language, and even questions to demonstrate that you’re really listening.
But why is this even important?
Why Use Active Listening Skills?
“But I do listen when people talk,” you may be thinking.
But do you really?
Or are you really thinking about what you’re going to say next. Are you already planning your response, or the story you can tell, while the speaker is talking to you?
And even if you are listening, what’s the benefit to working harder to improve your listening skills or to make sure others know it?
Listening skills are extremely valuable in so many areas of your career. As a project manager, you’ll be listening to your team, to your customers, and to your stakeholders.
And in any leadership role listening skills are critical.
Better listening skills can help you in the following ways…
1. To understand different perspectives.
So many of us feel so strongly at times about making sure others know what we believe that we don’t take the time to listen to different opinions. Making the effort to use active listening to get more information can help. To have real conversations and understand other people’s perspectives, you have to listen.
2. To learn.
You’re only really learning something new when you’re not talking. And everyone around you knows something you don’t. So stop talking, use your active listening skills, and let yourself be surprised by what you might learn.
“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”– Bill Nye
3. To resolve conflict.
If you’re working toward resolving conflicts, active listening is critical.
If you need to have challenging conversations with team mates or anyone else, active listening helps the other person feel heard, which helps the conversation. And ensures you understand motives and feelings behind their actions.
4. To confirm you understand the message.
Crazy as it may sound, you may think you know what the speaker means by her words. But when you paraphrase back in your words, you might be surprised to hear, “No, what I mean is this.” By using active listening skills you can either confirm your understanding, or get correction where you were wrong.
5. To build relationships.
Sometimes listening is simply for the sake of providing support or building relationships. And while this applies often to our personal lives, it can apply to work, too.
7 Simple Ways to Improve Your Active Listening Skills
Here are 7 ways to improve communication through active listening. You can start using these as soon as your next conversation.
- Make eye contact and give your full attention.
Don’t multitask. Looking at your phone or email while someone is speaking sends the message that you don’t really care what they have to say. You’re telling them that other things are more important to you.
To fully listen, make eye contact with the speaker and give them your full attention.
- Don’t just think about what you’re going to say next.
Instead of focusing on what you’ll say next, listen to what the speaker is saying. Don’t let your mind wander or plan the argument you’ll make. Really hear their words, and listen for the meaning behind them if this applies.
- Let the speaker know that you’re listening.
Nodding and using facial expressions can indicate you’re actually listening. You might say “yes” or “uh-huh” as they talk to indicate you’re engaged.
- If you’re not clear on what the speaker is saying, ask for clarification.
If you don’t really understand what the speaker is trying to say, you can ask them to clarify. You can say something as simple as “can you clarify?” or “can you tell me a bit more about that?”
Even “I’m not clear on what you mean. Can you help me understand better?” will let the speaker know that you sincerely want to have a better understanding of what they’re trying to communicate.
- Paraphrase back to the speaker.
Saying phrases like “I’m hearing that…” and then restating briefly in your own words lets the speaker know you’re listening. This can be particularly helpful if you aren’t sure you understand, or if you disagree and want to present an opposing argument.
And if you want to let them know you understand their thoughts or feelings, this is a great way to do so.
- If appropriate, identify the feelings being conveyed.
Statements such as “It sounds like you’re worried we might be moving too quickly…” or “it seems you’re eager to get this moving as quickly as possible…” can both indicate you’re listening and probe for confirmation.
- Watch body language.
Sometimes you can gain insight through a speaker’s body language. If facial expressions or body language are incongruent with the message, take this into account as well. If a team member tells you they’re fine with a plan, but furrows their brow or puts their hand over their face in a manner indicating stress, this definitely sends another message.
In this case, you can point out that you’re getting mixed signals and want to confirm what they’re thinking or feeling, and ask for more insight.
The speaker will usually appreciate the effort.
How to Remember the Components of Listening Fully (AFFORD)
If you want to ensure you’re truly listening fully when someone is speaking to you – especially if the conversation is important or with someone you care about – keep the following components in mind.
The acronym AFFORD can help you remember the elements to listening fully…
Give the speaker your full attention when you speak with them. Turn your body toward them. Look at them and even look them in the eye. Don’t multitask, but rather be fully present with them. And please, please don’t look at your mobile phone while they’re speaking.
And let them know you’re listening by giving active motions or indications, such as nodding your head, saying “yes” or making appropriate facial expressions.
Focus on their message.
Focus on what they speaker is saying. Don’t think about your argument, what you’re going to say next, or your grocery list.
Identify the Feelings behind the message.
If you’re conversing about a sensitive topic that involves conveying feelings, listen for what those feelings are. Identify how the speaker feels about the topic they’re sharing with you.
Observe body language.
Check to see if the body language backs up what the speaker is saying. Does it reinforce the message, strengthen it, or is it incongruous with what the speaker is telling you. If your co-worker tells you she’s happy you got a promotion, but she’s got her arms folded, is avoiding eye contact and frowning, she’s likely not telling you the truth.
Rephrase or restate the message.
If you want the speaker to really feel heard, and you want to reinforce that you’re hearing correctly, rephrasing the message is a great way to do that. Even just summarizing and restating briefly can help.
Determine your understanding.
Determine if you understand correctly if necessary. Especially if you’re unclear about the message and need to validate your understanding. After listening to the speaker, and paraphrasing back to them, you can simply ask, “do I understand correctly?” And if you’re still not clear, you can even say, “tell me more about that.”
Listening is important in all settings and situations. Try using these tips right away to improve communications in work, home, and social settings for better interactions, better relationships, and better results.