Listen to This

"Uh, just a second, I need to take this call. . . Okay, so what were you saying again?"

Sound familiar? In the middle of a conversation, the person listening to you is distracted by some interruption and loses the thread of what you were saying. This can be frustrating. You’ve probably had to interrupt other speakers as well on occasion, creating similar frustration for them.

Listeners don’t generally mean to be rude, but they may be subject to a number of distractions, especially if they’re multi-tasking. Any of us can slip into that mode, just to manage all of the activities that seem to demand our attention.

The listening task, though, doesn’t lend itself to multi-tasking. The problem is that it may seem like a passive activity, but in fact it requires our full attention. It is not enough to lend someone our ears, while our eyes are busy checking e-mails and our mind is thinking about next weekend’s trip to the wine country.

When we’re in the listener role, distractions can cause us to:

  • Miss valuable information that comes from the speaker’s body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. If we don’t focus on the whole person while we’re listening, we lose an important part of the message.
  • Deprive the speaker of useful feedback signals. Our own body language and expressions allow the speaker to gauge the effect of what he or she is saying. Without our reaction, the speaker can feel disconnected and ill at ease.

How, then, can we be better listeners?

  • Put other tasks aside momentarily, as challenging as that may be
  • Put cell phones or other devices on mute or in vibration mode
  • Engage fully with the speaker; don’t “pretend” to be listening
  • Make eye contact
  • Maintain a non-judgmental, interested expression
  • Encourage the speaker by nodding and by interjecting an occasional “uh-huh,” “sure,” or “I see”
  • Confirm our understanding by summarizing and repeating back what the speaker has just said
  • Acknowledge the speaker’s feelings or attitudes 

Let’s say you’ve been listening to a colleague talk about some difficult conversations he has had with members of his team.   You could say:

“So you’ve talked with everybody, and people seem divided on the workability of the plan. It sounds like you’re concerned about how you can bridge that gap.” 

In this case, you’re re-stating both the speaker’s main idea and your impression of his feeling about it, without judging whether this is good or bad. This lets your colleague know that you’ve really heard what he has said. 

Another way to engage with the speaker is by asking questions that express sincere interest and don’t feel like an interrogation.  To elicit specific information, we can ask direct questions, such as:

“When are you planning to talk to Bob?”
“What information did they give you?”

On the other hand, if we simply want to encourage the speaker to continue talking, “yes/no” questions provide more gentle prompts.  For example,

“Are you planning to talk to Bob in the near future?” 
“Did they give you the information you needed?”

In either case, to get the best information, it’s a good idea to use questions sparingly and allow the speaker to follow a natural train of thought.

Once speakers feel that they’ve been able to express what’s on their mind and believe that their point has been acknowledged and understood, the conversation process can be much more satisfying and fruitful on both sides.

Of course, this intense level of listener engagement may not be necessary for every routine workplace interaction.  But conversations that involve complex ideas, opinions, or sensitive issues do require us to listen carefully and completely.  In the end, this saves everyone time, gives us better information, and even helps us build more comfortable, productive relationships.

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