Focus, Engage, And Seek To Understand
As machines become increasingly more accurate and intelligent, we humans will need to sharpen our cognitive skills. One of your primary responsibilities as a Learning and Development leader is to ensure that you empower the workforce to develop the four sets of skills that are critical to thriving in 2030. To make your job easier, a series of ten articles, “eLearning Skills 2030,” (of which this article is one) explores all the skills. This article explores the art of active listening, why it is a critical skill, and how to sharpen it.
What Is Active Listening?
In their “Active Listening and Reflective Responses” course at MIT Sloan School of Business, Professors Lori Breslow and Terrence Heagney define active listening as an approach to listening that “helps you gain more information, improve your understanding of other points of view, and work cooperatively with superiors, subordinates, and peers .” Research by Harvard Business Review reveals that the art of active listening has two key components . The first component of active listening requires listening attentively while suspending judgment, which means you focus on what the speaker is saying instead of evaluating what they are saying and prepping a response. The second component of active listening is fostering a listening ecosystem that broadens your responsibility as an active listener. You must take in information across all the sources you are listening to and discern the signal from the noise.
Why Is Active Listening Critical?
Active listening is critical because it can make or break an organization. A great example is that of the former CEO of Amgen, Kevin Sharer, who was a terrible listener in the early years of his tenure at Amgen . Because he was the CEO, he felt that he was the smartest guy in the room: he cut people off, finished their sentences, and rushed them because he “already knew” the answer. When a crisis hit Amgen, the stock tumbled. He had a moment of reflection and realized that he was not listening to his employees. After changing his approach and modeling better active listening skills, he created a culture of active listening in the organization which helped everyone pinpoint pitfalls early and detect the warning signs of trouble before it snowballed into a full-blown crisis. Active listening also helps build trust, collaboration, and cooperation amongst speakers and listeners. Apart from a critical personal skill, active listening is essential for an organization and has a practical impact on business outcomes.
How Can You Sharpen Your Skill Of Active Listening?
Active listening can be difficult and certainly takes deliberate practice to improve and master. Below are six tactics to help you improve your functional learning and listening skills.
It is easy to be distracted in an era of information and stimuli overload and working remotely. During active listening, it is essential to focus. This means that you must put down your phone, pen, and, yes, your thoughts. Stop fidgeting and try to make eye contact with the person speaking with you. This is tricky if you are meeting online; one way to remedy this is to look straight into your computer camera. As you focus on their words, think about what they are saying and why and observe how they seem to feel when speaking and what they are trying to convey. At this juncture, you are still focusing, so avoid the need to formulate your response. Focus and listen to what the speaker would like you to hear.
2. Convey Interest In The Speaker
There are a few ways you can show that you are interested in the speaker, including making mental notes about what the speaker is saying, making eye contact, nodding, and using sounds such as “uh-huh” and the word “yes” to encourage them to continue speaking. Your body position and facial expression must convey interest instead of weariness. As you make mental notes of what the speaker is saying, you will understand the point they are trying to make and remember more of what they said later. By conveying your interest, you can encourage the speaker to communicate more extensively and clarify and expand on thoughts and feelings.
3. Do Not Rush, Interrupt, Or Try To Finish The Speaker’s Sentences
Try to listen and do not interrupt out of enthusiasm or interest; don’t try to finish the speaker’s sentences because you agree with what they are saying. Also, do not rush the speaker, which may be difficult sometimes, especially if they are monopolizing the conversation. Importantly, try to control your urge to respond right away to really hear and understand where the speaker is coming from. Try to listen, and when you answer, begin from the speaker’s point of view first and then add your own. Listen for clues on how the speaker feels, in addition to what the speaker is saying.
4. Ask Thoughtful, Open-Ended Questions
When the speaker pauses, you will have the opportunity to offer a thoughtful response to add to the conversation. A better approach is to ask open-ended questions, which will encourage the speaker to continue expanding on their thoughts. As a rule of thumb, asking open-ended questions that start with “how,” “why,” or “what” can lead to more expansive answers, elicit follow-up questions, and foster more extended conversations which may increase your learning and help sharpen your analytical skills.
5. Foster A Listening Culture
By practicing these tips discussed above, you can improve and model your active listening skills, which can help inspire your team to do the same. More broadly, you must also focus on creating an environment of psychological safety where people can feel comfortable sharing their ideas, bringing up challenges, and asking tough questions without fear. According to a Harvard Business Review article by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, active listeners create a supportive environment that makes others feel supported and understood, a crucial element of inclusion. Active listeners serve as bouncing boards or trampolines rather than sponges. Just like trampolines, active listeners encourage the speaker to bounce ideas off them and so empower them to expand on their ideas and sharpen their position.
By modeling active listening, you foster a listening and learning ecosystem where your employees and team members also do the same, resulting in an organization that listens to each other, learns from each other, and as a result, makes sounder decisions to drive better business outcomes. Active listening skills are essential today, tomorrow, and leading up to 2030 and beyond, for individuals and organizations to thrive.
 TEACHING NOTE: ACTIVE LISTENING AND REFLECTIVE RESPONSES