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Active listening: The lifeblood of great communication

Bob Milligan for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 July 2019

Think of a recent time when someone – employee, colleague, partner, family member, friend – was not listening when you had something important to say. Now think about how you felt, and describe your feelings in one word.

In workshops, I often hear responses with the following feelings:

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  • Frustrated
  • Ignored
  • Angry
  • Unimportant
  • Upset

To avoid situations where we leave others with these feelings, we need to become better listeners.

Our tendency is to view listening as a passive activity. Active listening is a very proactive way to enhance communication with employees and others. The listener is now taking “active” responsibility for understanding both the content of and feelings behind what is said. An underlying theme is for the listener to use active listening to help others solve their own problems.

Let’s look at an example. An employee approaches you and says, “The deadline to finish bedding the calves is not realistic.” The typical response would be to insist the deadline is realistic. An active listening response, however, could be: “It sounds like you are concerned about whether you can meet the deadline.” The advantage of this response is twofold. First, you show understanding for the employee’s position: empathy. Second, you and the employee can now talk about both the employee’s feelings and the practical issue of meeting the deadline. Active learning opens the door for effective communication, reducing the likelihood of a confrontation.

The following contrasts our usual approach to listening with the active listening approach:

  • Our usual listening: Listening to the other person to respond to what they are saying, often to use what they are saying against them in an argument.

  • Active listening: Listening carefully to truly understand what the other person is saying and how they are feeling about what they are saying.

An open communication climate is created through active listening. The listener better understands what a person means and how the person feels about situations and problems. Active listening is a skill that communicates acceptance and increases interpersonal trust between employees and you, their supervisor.

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We have often talked in this column about the importance of fairness. The chance of an employee leaving a conversation perceiving they have been treated fairly is heightened using active listening.

Think about all of your communications – employees, co-workers, partners, friends, family. In those communications, what percentage of the time would you categorize your listening as:

___ 1. Pay little or no attention.

___ 2. Listen, but you are also thinking about or doing other things.

___ 3. Listen, but you are also thinking about how you are going to respond to what is being said.

___ 4. Listen with nothing else in your mind. Only after he or she has finished speaking do you begin thinking  about how to respond.

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We normally think of Level 3 as good listening; the problem is that, not unlike Level 2, we are multitasking as we are also thinking about how to respond, distracting us from fully – actively – listening.

Active listening might suggest the last choice should be 100 percent. That is unrealistic and unnecessary. My challenge to you is to establish a realistic goal for the percentage of time you will make that choice – listen with nothing else in your mind. Now, work to meet your goal.

Many, perhaps most, of us do not fully listen to what is being said, nor do we then ask follow-up questions to elicit greater understanding or additional information. Usually, when someone – an employee, a partner, a customer, a friend, a spouse – initiates a conversation, they have spent time thinking about the idea, the issue, the concern or the situation. Interjecting off-the-cuff ideas and responses before they completely explain their thinking and feelings both lose the fruits of their time and diminish the quality of the communication.

The following are two communication practices to assist you in becoming a better listener:

1. Pause one to two seconds before replying. This practice has three advantages:

  • It shows you are carefully listening.

  • You avoid or at least reduce the risk of interrupting.

  • You hear the other person better.

2. Ask questions for clarification. I find these two to be especially helpful:

  • “What do you mean?”

  • “Tell me more?”

The one- to two-second pause is especially helpful on the telephone, where interrupting is an even greater danger. In addition to being rude, interrupting often renders the conversation ineffective.

I find the “tell me more” phrase to be extremely effective, especially when listening to someone who is quiet, has difficulty expressing their thoughts or is not certain whether I am interested in what they are saying.

The consequences of failing to allow others to fully express ideas, opinions and feelings, or to not fully listen, are often threefold. First, the current conversation is not brought to a successful conclusion. Second, you have communicated the message that you do not want to listen. Third, useful ideas, concerns and feelings may never be communicated.

I encourage you to set a goal to become a better active listener.  end mark

Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University.

Bob Milligan
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