Ever since we were children, we’ve been told how important it is to have excellent listening skills. We heard it from our parents first. Then our teachers. And then maybe the managers at our first minimum-wage job before college professors decreed the importance of paying attention to their in-depth lectures. And as we enter the working world, we’re told, again, about the importance of having effective listening skills. But what does that even mean?
So what can you do to improve your listening skills in the workplace and beyond? Here are five tips for improving your listening skills and upping your professional game.
First and foremost, in order to practice effective, active listening you must do everything you can to eliminate the distractions around you. But what are some of these distractions? Think about:
• the conversations going outside your office door
• the screen of your cell phone lighting up with a news update or text message
• an open window that is situated right on top of the new construction of the main lobby.
All of these things cause distractions which keep you from fully engaging with your colleague. Not only does it prevent you from listening as intently as you should be, but it distracts your partner from communicating all the information they are trying to convey. Thoughts will get dropped, ideas will be forgotten, and both parties will let these things happen because they will be too distracted by the world around them. Do yourself a favor before it gets to this point. This will ensure both minds are clear, and all ears are open.
This one may seem odd, but letting the speaker know that they have your full attention will encourage them to say all they need to say, and force you to pay close attention to them. Your body language is important, and poor, slouched body language could give off the impression that you’re a poor listener. Make eye contact, nod occasionally, and smile to encourage them to continue. This shows that you are making an effort and absorbing what they are saying.
Keeping eye contact throughout also shows that you're not distracted by outside forces. You're understanding what they are saying and know how to respond. A calm and concentrated facial expression will also aid in the communication process. These subtle cues are refreshing and relaxing for the speaker to see, even if they only notice it subconsciously. But learning to engage more when listening to others is a key tip for improving your own listening skills and being a good listener.
This seems so obvious. Of course, you yourself wouldn’t want to be interrupted, so why interrupt others? It harkens back to the days on the schoolyard when you were told not to make fun of someone because you wouldn’t want them to make fun of you. But unfortunately, interrupting others is a learned behavior that most people don’t even realize they’re doing.
When people are listening poorly, they are only listening for certain words or phrases that prompt them to interject. This, however, is not a good habit to have when wanting to practice active listening. Instead of interrupting when you hear something you have questions about, don’t like, or need clarifications on, wait until the other person is done speaking. They might end up answering your questions anyway, and this way you’re not cutting them off and distracting them from what they wanted to say originally.
We all have judgments and opinions about coworkers, but in order to practice effective, active listening and prove you’re not a poor listener, you have to put these feelings away. They will only distract you from listening fully to what your colleague is trying to say. When you let your emotions get the best of you, you are cutting yourself off from new, and sometimes vital, information.
Save yourself the hassle of making a mistake, and save your colleague the embarrassment of being ridiculed for their thoughts and feelings. Practicing this empathy will ensure those feelings are reciprocated. Listen to what they’re saying and react rationally and professionally.
An important step in the practice of active listening is relaying what your colleague said back to them in your own words, and providing any questions or feedback. This shows them that you actually listened, and lets you understand their words in your own way. Get clarification for anything you might be unclear on, and make sure your interpretation of the conversation is accurate. This will ensure you’re an effective listener and an active listener, and will hopefully start a chain reaction that continues throughout the workplace.
Contrary to what we’ve been told our entire lives, there’s a difference between listening in the workplace and day-to-day communication. And active, effective listening is an essential skill not just for the years of work ahead, but a generally good skill set to practice in all aspects of life.
But, really, why is it important to be an active, effective listener? Aren’t the listening skills we practiced at school enough to make us good listeners? What more could there be to listening that we’re not doing already? The answers will surprise you.
Listening on autopilot can lead to mistakes, first and foremost. When you’re only half listening, or listening while distracted, you don’t absorb all the information or facts being presented to you. You make assumptions, which end up being wrong. And trying to explain yourself after a mistakenly sent email campaign can mean impending unemployment.
Improving your listening skills and becoming more of an active listener can lead to increased productivity and fewer mistakes. You’ll waste less time questioning your tasks and making assumptions, and more time getting your work done and meeting your goals like they should be met.
Improving your listening skills and practicing active listening also creates an open and caring atmosphere that promotes communication between colleagues up and down the corporate ladder. When your colleagues know you’re truly listening, they are more likely to open up to you and take the time to have the conversations necessary for both personal and business growth. These skills are vital up the command chain as well. Interns, new hires, managers and beyond all need to have these skills so that the environment within the workplace is that of respectful communication.
Effective listening skills aren’t just good for internal communications, either. They’re also essential for communication with customers and clients too. Building up a repertoire of open and effective communication could put your company leagues ahead of others.
The best way to improve your listening skills is through practicing active listening. And active listening takes time to learn. It’s not just about verbal cues, but nonverbal ones as well. And once you master these skills, not even the mumbler will be a match for you. Examples of active listening include:
"When you say such and such, what do you mean?"
"That sounds really difficult."
"So, you're saying that..."