Are you (actively) listening?




Jun 7, 2021

According to Lee Howell, the World Economic Forum’s Global Head of Programming, the leaders at DAVOS need to be in “active listening mode”.

“People come to the annual meeting and they have their institutional mandate and goals they seek,” Howell said. “But they need to be less in speaking mode and more in listening mode. It’s really an exercise in active listening — to understand what the Chinese might be saying on ‘X’ topic, or what the French feel about ‘Y’ topic…The chance of a more resilient and robust solution stems from that.”

Have you ever heard of Active Listening? Well, it might just transform your conversations, develop your presence as a leader and help your team collaborate more effectively. It sounds like a critical leadership skill that we cannot ignore!

So, what is active listening and how does it improve the chances of the “more resilient and robust solution” that Howell desires?

In this 2-part article, I will endeavour to explain traditional listening – or how we listen when we don’t think about it – (part 1) and active listening – how we can listen when we do think about it (part 2).

Part 1: Traditional Listening

Howell’s comment could extend to any type of meeting or conversation. From a speaker in front of a group to team meetings to one-to-one conversations, if you looked closely at the speaker and listener roles, you might notice that people tend to fall into certain expected behaviours. The conversation is speaker focused and speaker driven – they hold the power. The listener is (generally!) focused on the speaker, picking up clues in language and visuals to help define and understand the overall message. Often, the overall effect, though, is one of the listener being a bit-player; deadpan, motionless, there to be entertained or fed information. We’ve all been in meetings or had conversations where we’ve just sat back and let the words drift over us in a haze.

As listeners, we leave little opportunity to think about how our listening is perceived by the speaker. 

When the speaker faces a passive listener, it’s not surprising that they have no idea what you are thinking – are you really interested? Bored? Away with the fairies? Stephen Covey (author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) says that “next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival – to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.” If a listener is not giving the speaker that psychological well-being, what do they do? I have felt the need to ask the audience:

  • Am I being clear?
  • Are you with me so far?
  • Does that make sense?

A hunt for feedback from the listener. And how do you respond to the speaker in return – a weak smile, a small nod of the head, a quick change of posture? A minimal gesture of feedback. More often than not, especially in larger groups, the speaker is faced with a sea of blank stares.

How do you communicate to the speaker that you are listening? 

Are we so used to technology, screen time that requires no visual or verbal feedback, that we have grown to assume that any feedback is an infringement on the speakers right to be heard, as a breach of politeness or an unwarranted interruption? Even if we are committed to listening intently, we soon run out of focus power. When losing concentration, our mind wanders, distraction and bias enter, and our conversation becomes at a distance.

For all the speaker knows, you could be:

  • In the wrong time zone – stuck back on a comment made 15 minutes ago or speeding ahead of the speaker in fast-forward mode.
  • Distracted – why hasn’t the speaker had surgery to remove the humongous mole on the side of their chin?
  • Ignoring them – I know all this already; why am I even in this meeting?

Or distracted by any one of a number of emotional, physical, cognitive beliefs, biases, thoughts and filters. All can wreak havoc on our ability to listen. I believe the average listener operates under two principles:

  1. Taking the path of least effort
  2. The topic must interest you

As listeners, we want only the relevant information, readily available and beautifully packaged, delivered to our door and right now. Only, when it comes to everyday conversations, we rarely get it that way. It’s hard work to figure out the main points from the fluff. It’s hard work to get past the accent and the funny shirt. It’s hard work to figure out the real intent behind the words.

But if you don’t do this, it’s not really a good conversation, is it?

It is time to challenge the traditional listener role and think about our listening in a more strategic manner. As an industry, we can’t keep talking about collaboration and improved quality of stakeholder relationships without adjusting our role as listeners.

We need to think of listening as a form of engagement, not a form of solitude. 

We need to start thinking about listening with strategy, empathy, and the speaker’s needs in mind. Why? Because active listening can leverage higher levels of understanding and rapport. Feedback to the speaker can greatly enhance their confidence, their assertiveness and their openness. And that feedback will simultaneously allow you as the listener to focus better – it is a major element in concentration control.

So how about we give it a try?

Part 2: Active Listening

The benefits:

  • Deepen your conversations
  • Develop your presence as a leader
  • Help your team collaborate more effectively

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

We often hear about how to improve our speaking skills but rarely talk about our ability to listen well. If we want to talk about collaboration, we need to raise our self-awareness about our listening and think about how to have better conversations.

I’m going to describe active listening as a series of stages. Depending on our needs and the situation, we travel back and forth through the stages, perhaps without much thought. But, the more practice you have at active listening, the more self-awareness you’ll have of which stage you are in and how to shift it to be more impactful.

  1. Self

For the most part, we need to take care of our own needs first, and this is centred around information gathering, for example, a meeting at work. You check that you’ve got the right printouts, that your phone is on silent, and you wonder, “what’s in it for me?”, “What is my role in this meeting?”, “What could I achieve?”, “What do I need to do before I can be fully present?”

  1. Focus

Put away the phone, stop thinking about the last meeting or worrying about the next deadline and be 100% present. This way we can bring that awareness outside of ourselves and direct it towards the speaker.

“What could this person teach me?”

“What does the organiser wish the outcome of this meeting to be?”

We show that we are listening by orientating ourselves towards the speaker and making eye contact. The trouble is, we can’t sustain this for long and lose our focus easily. We start thinking about lunch, start doodling in our notebook and slouch back in the chair. The average person talks at about 225 words per minute, but we can listen to up to 500 words per minute. Our minds love to fill in those other 275 words! No one is immune to thoughts creeping in, and we must let them go, bringing ourselves back to 100% focus.

  1. Response-ability

As listeners, we are not really defined by the message we receive, but how we react to it, and our focus can easily turn into judgement, reaction and rebuttal. By setting aside our own agenda, we can, instead, become curious. This is especially important for those who think they have little value to offer or don’t know anything about the subject. A shift from “will I be wasting my time here?” to “what could I learn from this conversation?” will increase your presence in the room immediately.

The hardest part of active listening involves the suspension of self-needs; that is your burning desire to deliver your opinion, your advice, and your solution! Instead, be prepared to stay with the unknown. Listen to assess the meaning or intent behind the words; the body language, the tone of voice, the pace of the dialogue. Listen for energy, emotion, values; what makes the speaker come alive and what makes them shrink back? You may also have information about the group, the wider system and the culture to keep in mind too. Don’t forget to use your intuition and senses. Even the environment around you is giving you information above and beyond the direct message.

“In response to this information, what options do I have?”

As listeners, you have a right, if not an obligation, to let the speaker know how much of the message you have received and its effect on you (the speaker can let you do this by offering up an occasional pause!). But what information do we respond to? How will we respond? What impact will it have on the speaker? We might worry that any response we give will be seen as an interruption or viewed as impolite. Knowing how to respond is one thing but knowing when to respond is another. This takes courage as well as tact.

“What response will my feedback elicit?”

“Will my response forward the speaker’s thinking?”

  1. Feedback

Giving feedback is a great antidote to a lack of focus! When you give the speaker more feedback, you do several things:

  • You will be able to concentrate for longer and you will remember more,
  • You will feel more involved,
  • The speaker will feel safer.

It’s a win-win situation. Your feedback provides ‘psychological safety’ and validation to the speaker – these are two basic human needs and are intrinsic to creating trust. When feeling safe, the speaker will be more inclined to dive deeper into the conversation and are more likely to express themselves more authentically and fully. If you want a better conversation, then it is your job as the listener to help the speaker feel safe – an act of inclusion.

At a basic level, we give the speaker feedback with behaviour: a nod of our head, changes in posture and making eye contact or verbally. The speaker, though, can’t always read the intent behind an “mmmm”, so we must step it up!

Clarity and concreteness – Ask open-ended questions to help obtain more specific information e.g., “You mentioned this point as crucial – can you explain further?

Summarise – Clarify the speaker’s point by articulating your understanding of what is being said e.g., “Are you saying that Clara will be the only point of contact for the project team?”

Empathy – Make an effort to show that you understand what the speaker’s issue is e.g., “I can understand, after all your late nights, why you would be angry about this latest design change.”

Confront in a neutral manner – Expand the speaker’s perspective or shift attention by noticing and pointing out discrepancies in what is being said versus what is being done. Mirror back to the speaker, patterns and themes e.g., “I notice that you are agreeing with me but also grunting in reluctance – can you see something that I can’t?”

We are effectively shifting the power from the speaker into a more collaborative zone where both the listener and speaker are contributors to the conversation. The listener is not a passive receptacle for information but an active participant in enabling the speaker to dive deeper. Giving feedback signifies our commitment to the conversation.

On the whole, travelling through these stages requires thoughtfulness, reflection and respect. If you can remain focused on the speaker, suspending your own needs or agenda, you can advance the speaker’s thinking further:

  • Remain silent and give them the space to think
  • Give them respect by holding the belief that this person is capable of resolving issues on their own
  • Remain emotionally stable and neutral
  • Allow the speaker to vent without judgment
  • Build on their ideas and suggestions

With self-awareness and regular practice, we can all appreciate a higher level of listening quality. The success of leaders hinges not only on speaking well but on the ability to listen attentively and to respond appropriately.

An active listener maintains focus and listens with deliberate intent, whilst the traditional listener is fixated on themselves.

An active listener curbs the urge to take over and keeps the attention on the speaker.

When we learn to blend focus and feedback as both participant and collaborators, then our conversations become more open to genuinely expressed feelings and emotions. The speaker and listener become more at ease with each other, and our conversations are elevated.

The next time you have a conversation, base your listening on strategy, not reaction.

Karen Fugle

Karen is an Executive Coach (Personal and Business Coaching Level 7)  with over 20 years in the Architectural, Engineering & Construction industries. She is a Professional Certified Coach with the International Coach Federation and a certified facilitator of the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method and materials.