We all know that effective communication is important in the workplace, but we typically only talk about one side of that coin: conveying our own ideas. Rarely do we talk about the other half of communication: listening.
Communication is a two way street, and listening is just as important to communication as is speaking. And there is much more to listening than nods of the head and simple, “yeah’s.” In his book, People Skills, Robert Bolton breaks down active listening into three categories.
Attending skills are essentially the nonverbal component of listening. It is your ability to show the person talking that you are listening and paying attention without actually having to tell them. Generally, people can tell whether or not you are listening, so having effective attending skills is important if you want the speaker to feel comfortable.
When listening, control your nonverbal behavior to show the speaker that you are paying attention. Have a professional and square posture and avoid moving around too much. Tapping your fingers or fidgeting your feet may make the speaker nervous or show that you are uninterested. Additionally, look towards the speaker and make eye contact. According to Guide to Interpersonal Communication by Joann Baney, a listener who looks away for more than 20% of the time indicates a lack of involvement. When you focus on the speaker, you show that you are involved and interested.
It is also important that you pay attention to the nonverbal cues from the speaker. Their nonverbal behavior may reveal unspoken messages that are important to the communication. Pay attention for whether their facial or hand expressions, posture, eye contact, or vocal expression reveal how they are feeling. Do they look visibly upset? Do they sound nervous? Are they sitting in a relaxed manner? Their nonverbal cues will help you engage with the situation.
You should also eliminate all distractions when listening to the speaker. While this one seems pretty obvious, speakers deserve your undivided attention, especially when it comes to the more serious matters. Put away your phones and your work and focus on listening. If you are expecting the conversation, choose an appropriate place to meet that lends itself to eliminating the distractions.
To be an effective listener, you have to do more than look like you’re paying attention. That’s where following skills come into play. Following skills are essentially what you do to interact with the speaker.
When opening a conversation, make the speaker feel comfortable by letting them know that you are interested and ready to listen. The opening can be as simple as, “Hey, what’s up?” or “Do you want to talk?” The most important thing is that the opening statement is inviting, even in a more formal situation such as an interview. These interactions might begin with, “I’d like to hear your thoughts” or “Tell me about your goals.” Nonverbally, gesture towards a chair, or in a more formal interaction, extend your hand. Your behaviors should make them feel welcomed along with the opening.
When the speaker begins talking, encourage them to continue by following along using your attending skills and paying attention, but keep them to a minimum. Verbally, you can express short phrases such as, “I understand,” or “Uh-huh.” Nonverbally, you can smile or nod to show approval or frown to show sympathy. Both your verbal and nonverbal behavior should show the speaker that you are following the message and are interested in what they are saying.
When making comments, avoid criticizing the speaker or offering judgmental responses. Your interactions should always be encouraging and inviting and they should follow the conversation. Do not divert, take over, or offer unsolicited advice.
Asking follow-up questions is also helpful in showing the speaker that you are interested. Ask them what happened next or how they felt during the situation. However, keep these infrequent and completely relevant to what the speaker is saying or feeling. Do not ask questions to take control of the conversations.
Finally, an important following skill is the ability to stay quiet. While you may feel compelled to jump in at any time, wait for the speaker to finish speaking. In order for you to practice active listening, you must let the speaker talk while you remain quiet. Interrupting may discourage the speaker, so don’t take control of the conversation.
Reflecting skills allow you to clarify the message that the speaker is giving and show the speaker that you understood what they said. As a listener, you want to ensure that you are on the same page with the speaker, as messages can get lost in translation.
Paraphrase what the speaker says to help you clarify their message for both the speaker and the listener. Paraphrasing is a simple restatement of the message in your own words. If you accurately paraphrase their comments, you will better identify the key concepts and retain that information after the conversation.
When you learn active listening skills, you enable yourself to build effective communication both in and out of the workplace. Follow these three categories the next time you are listening to someone to improve your skills.