Being a good listener is a skill that continues to stand the test of time. There’s a reason why: being a good listener builds trust, ensures you are getting the full picture, makes others feel happy and is simply a way to be a fully formed, good human. But it’s also really difficult to be a good listener.
As a certified leadership, career and life coach I do a lot of listening. In fact, if you’ve ever wondered what coaching was all about — a good chunk of it is listening, helping someone process their own wants then helping them find an actionable way to make their desires a reality.
There’s a coaching concept of deep listening that I subscribe to. It essentially is about going beyond surface level listening and tuning into the whole conversation so you can focus on nonverbal cues, environmental noise and more. I’ve spent several hours of training on this which, if nothing else, highlights that listening is a difficult skill that you need to spend time growing.
But why should you care about this? How does listening impact our performance at work?
If you ever spend a minute on the phone at work or interact with any other humans, you know that listening matters. In my day job, I run a marketing program for a Fortune 100 company. I do this remotely, which means I spend a lot of my day on the phone. It’s an art to be present and engaged in a 10+ person meeting where most people are in person and you’re remote. It's also an art to be on a 10+ person meeting where everyone is remote, or even a one-on-one conversation over the phone or in person. These all require a tremendous amount of listening.
Let's explore being in a meeting from afar. It’s likely obvious why it’s difficult to stay plugged in and engaged: you miss the nonverbal cues, you’re missing the conversation before and after a call, not to mention the conversation when the room is put on mute. Frankly, it can be awkward to chime in, ask questions or offer your point of view; it always seems that the other remote attendees want to chime in at the exact same moment, resulting in the uncomfortable, "no, you can go." Listening helps with all this.
It also helps when you're leading a meeting, since you want to be conscious of what others are thinking and whether or not people are following along. Pausing regularly to check if there are any questions (especially if people are dialing in), paying attention to non-verbal cues and gut-checking to ensure your participants are tracking are aspects that listening can help with.
Now that we have a couple instances where listening can impact a typical nine to five, how can you become a better listener without a formal training course? Here are nine tips:
1. Pay attention to and pick up on cues.
Whether you’re in person or remote you can pick up on cues: voice intonation, pace of speech, someone’s engagement and mood. All of these things matter. Consider: if a colleague is normally vivacious and enthused but changes her tone and gets quiet right after you make a comment, she may have felt shut down for one reason or another. Listening and tuning into tone will help you notice this.
It's also important to pay attention to body language. While your focus should be on listening, pay attention to the facial expression and other non-verbal cues your colleague portrays. By paying attention, you may find that you're not fully understanding what your colleague is saying because their body language doesn't match their words. This is a great opportunity to utilize top-down processing and communication skill, so take advantage of it.
2. Ask questions — and listen to the answer.
Let’s keep following this example of a colleague shutting down after a comment you made. To be an active listener, you can't just observe this but rather, you must learn when to tactfully comment. Perhaps it’s not in the moment, especially if you pick up the cue in front of a large group, but the next instance where you have one-on-one time. Bring it up. Ask her about it and listen to her answer.
Try something like, “The other day I noticed you really shifted your tone about the Smith & Co. deal after I commented about the timeline. What happened there?” Don’t lead with your feelings or defend your comment, but rather give her the space to answer your question and listen to her response.
3. Put down your phone.
Also known as: stop drafting an email, sending a Slack message or thinking about what you’re making for dinner. Whether intentional or not, focusing attention on something other than who you're speaking with is a cue that you are not tuning into her; you're ultimately saying that she doesn't matter. Over time, this will build up and make this person feel like she doesn’t matter to you. If you really want to pay attention to someone, stop multi-tasking and pay attention.
4. If possible, maintain eye contact with the person.
You don’t need to stare them right in the eye, but you do need to be actively engaged with her. This means focusing your energy and attention onto her. This is a strong form of non-verbal communication that will help strengthen your relationship and show that you're actively listening.
5. If you can’t look at them, think about them.
Aside from teaching a university course, all of my work is remote. Exclusively talking with and listening to someone on the phone is challenging. One trick is to think about the other person, especially if you’ve worked together in person and are familiar with her workspace. Imagine you’re in her office or you’re sitting down at the coffee shop across the street from her office.
6. Let her finish her thoughts.
Sometimes, we get excited and really want to get our thoughts out. But this turns into interrupting. You need to find a healthy balance of not letting someone ramble and go on a 20-minute tangent and allowing your colleague to finish their thoughts. If this is a bad habit of yours, work to be open to a slower pace of conversation. Pauses and silences are your friends. You don’t need to fill every moment with words or cut anyone off. Even if you're simply excited about an idea, cutting someone off is a surefire way to give the cue that you are not a good partner and listener which undermines your excitement and ambition. You do not want this.
7. Catch your mind wandering and pull yourself back.
You’re a human with a wonderful, complex mind. These minds wander! Your mind will wander and that’s okay, but if you want to be a good listener, you should aim to observe and adjust this tendency. Pay attention to your own tendencies — do you get distracted when you’re hungry? How about when someone starts to ramble or talk about stories from their “past life” at another company? Figure out what triggers your distraction then come up with a way to revert your attention. It can be as simple as telling yourself, “Ah — I’m distracted again, time to refocus” or noticing that you're always distracted before lunch and re-scheduling the meetings you have then (or bringing snacks or eating earlier).
8. Make thoughtful comments.
When honing our listening skills, we also need to make sure we're communicating our acknowledgement of what other people say. This can include bringing up a comment a person once shared with you or simply repeating back what you’ve heard. If somebody asks you an open-ended question, ask a clarifying follow-up question to ensure effective communication. People like to feel validated and restating what you're hearing can achieve this.
9. Offer an idea only if you are asked for one.
In a professional setting, we want to make proactive offers. We also need to be good at listening and not jumping in to solve all issues and problems, especially when we’re engaging with someone one-on-one. This applies to our personal lives too; think about how frustrating it is when your partner, sister or best friend is always attempting to solve your problem when really all you want is to be heard and empathized with.
Sometimes, this skill is neglected at work. Interjecting unnecessarily makes you appear like a poor listener or someone with a short-term memory who can't focus on the big picture. If a colleague comes to you and starts venting about a project or program, just listen. Just like you wouldn’t start throwing solutions out to your best friend at happy hour, don’t do that here either. Let your colleague get some things off her chest and then assess what she’s looking for from you. If you’re unsure how to navigate this, ask! Say, “This sounds intense. I want to be sure I’m clear, though — do you want to bounce ideas off me? Are you looking for me to provide a suggested solution? Or do you just want to vent?” Just like our personal lives, a lot of times a colleague just wants to vent. Part of being a good professional is knowing this and just simply listening.
Now that you know how listening can improve your performance at work and you have these nine tips to become a better listener, what’s next? Practice! Pick a few of these that speak to you and commit to implementing them for two weeks. Then reflect. What was it like? What did you learn, both about the people you work with and yourself?
Maybe you're already a great listener. Excellent! But we can always get better. Keep doing what you're doing, but pick a few things to really focus on and become better at. We all slip up on listening at times. When do you slip up? What are the opportunities for you to minimize these moments?
Listening skills are like a muscle, and like any muscle, we need to pay attention to growing and maintaining our strength. So practice, pay attention and above all — listen.
Jane Scudder is a certified leadership, career, and life coach, facilitator, and workplace consultant based in Chicago, IL. She helps individuals and group navigate their careers, teams, and personal lives. Find out more at janescudder.com.