When did you last time have an intense feeling of connection during a discussion with someone else – either at work or privately? Maybe you had dinner with your spouse and you were looking into each other’s eyes and absorbing what the other one talks about. That feels very good for both sides.
Looking beyond the romantic side of such dates, there are many more benefits of active listening which are important both at work and in your private life. Only through listening can you learn something new from the other person. You can understand the emotions from both verbal and non-verbal cues. For me, active listening at work is about engaging not just audio but also visual channels. This is one reason I keep emphasizing the importance of using video during virtual meetings as much as possible.
When we listen carefully, we can learn about the goals and constraints of the other side. This is vital information, if we want to convince someone about our ideas. Whenever I want someone to act on my ideas, I start by asking questions to customize my arguments to their goal and their situation. If someone has a high interest in keeping budget and timelines, I will emphasize the impact on these and not speak about how innovative the novel approach might be.
If you listen and act according to the information you get, the other person will feel that you care about their needs. This helps to build trust – the most important part in a relationship. Unfortunately, most of the listening in our life is casual listening, where we are not fully present to concentrate fully on the other side. This makes active listening so special. You stand out from the crowd if you make an extra effort.
So how do you become a master in active listening? First, remove everything that makes it harder for you to concentrate on your counterpart. Get rid of distractions such as other open windows on your screen or notifications of programs (you hardly need them anyway). Also put aside your phone.
For my virtual meetings, I love to have only the video with the other person directly below my camera open. In addition, I may have only a screen showing my notes for the meeting. Placing the camera directly above the picture of the other person ensures that I have direct eye contact without looking weirdly into the wrong direction. If your video program allows for it, also stop your own video after you checked that everything looks fine. Seeing yourself can be a big distraction, too.
I take notes during my conversations, but I avoid taking these with my PC. I appreciate that people would like to have everything in electronic form, but I realized that I too easily get distracted by other programs, if I take notes electronically. In face-to-face meetings, the other persons cannot distinguish you writing an email from you taking notes for the meeting. For important customer meetings, we even had the rule that only one dedicated note taker could have the laptop open. All others took notes with pen and paper. This had a dramatic improvement on the communication – especially the listening ability of everybody. Yes, not only the company’s internal people were less distracted. Also the customers were more likely to leave their laptops closed given the overall set-up.
Finally, you need to train your brain. Have you ever more concentrated on what you want to respond, than what the other person is saying? This is another bad habit of casual listening. We focus on us rather than the other person. It takes a lot of effort to keep concentrated on what the other side tells me. Try to focus only on the other person for your next meeting and you’ll realize how hard it is. But achieving this focus makes a big difference and you’ll become better as you practice.
When you do respond, first paraphrase what you have understood from the other person. As a German I often need to put my UK counterparts’ nice words into something more direct for me to understand it.
So in summary:
- Listen with your ears and your eyes
- Fully concentrate on what the other person tells you
- Remove any distractions
- Paraphrase what you have understood
We don’t become masters in active listening over night. But continuously practicing it, will definitely give you a great return on investment. Especially as you have lots of opportunities for practicing and it “just” requires you to change your habit. Get started with your next meeting.