It may seem obvious that when building relationships with colleagues and customers at work, listening is vitally important. You may think that listening is an innate skill; something we are born to do, rather than something we learn along the way. But the fact is that listening is much more complex. Whilst we may be able to hear without much effort, truly listening, to understand beyond the simple words, pick up the subtle emotional inferences, demonstrate our empathy and build rapport, is a learned skill.
Unsurprisingly, the key to great, active listening, is in learning to manage yourself. You need to not only listen, you need to show you’re listening, and then respond. When talking to someone it can require effort to concentrate fully, but try not to be distracted by outside noise. It may help to mentally reiterate what’s being said to make sure you caught the meaning. Summarise or repeat your understanding to the person you’re talking with if it helps.
Look at the body language of the person you’re talking to, and mirror it back to build rapport. Nod, smile and keep your own body language as open as possible to encourage the conversation to flow. If you find that you’re confused about the meaning of what is being said, or feel like here may be more to the conversation than the surface level meaning, then questions like ’it sound like what you’re saying is...’, or ’would you say that you feel...’ may help you to probe deeper.
As well as needing to manage your physical responses and concentration, you also need to watch your mental processes when working to listen more actively. Think about listening to understand not respond - this can be extremely difficult, as half the time when we listen, we are mentally preparing a response whilst the other person is talking. This doesn’t allow us to properly hear or understand the content, and damages the quality of the conversation.
Whatever the conversation is about - and even if you have a strong gut reaction to the topic, defer judgment. Focus on what is being said and quiet the voices in your own mind.
Often we stop actively listening when tired or when our attention is wavering. Notice your own energy levels before you drift - in meetings, for example, don’t just sit back and observe, even after you’ve got what you want out of the session. Challenge yourself to keep actively participating.
Give actively listening the time needed; and if you don’t have enough time to have the conversation, say so - it’s much better than half listening and being distracted by worries about getting to your next appointment. Schedule a mutually convenient time to pick up the conversation again later.
Finally - practise at home to hone your skills. Try to recall what actually happened in the last half hour of TV you watched - you might well realise you’ve not been paying as much attention as you could have!
Summarise back what has been said in your daily conversations, reflect the emotions present, and describe what you see, hear and think the other person is feeling. It might feel awkward at first, but using these skills regularly will mean that they become second nature, and your ability to actively listen at work will flourish.