One day my wife Lisa was sharing her thoughts on a topic that I seem to be having some difficulty practicing. As she was sharing her thoughts, she stopped, looked at me, and said, “Were you listening to me?” I responded, “Yes, I heard what you were saying.” “No, that’s not what I asked you, I asked you if you were listening.” Now, I have heard her say that to me many times over the past several years, this time for whatever reason I looked her at and said, “No, I was not actually listening.” Insert bad partner face here. This was a learning opportunity to understand what it meant to be an active listener, something I have to practice every day.
Communication is a crucial skill everyone needs. Communication is an umbrella word that houses all aspects of ‘performance communication’. Yes, I said performance. I have discovered over the years that many people including me simply perform the act of communicating especially the act of listening.
5 +1 active listening skills
Stephen Covey said, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” This is what I mean by performance listening. We appear to be listening when in fact we aren’t listening, we are thinking about what to say as soon as the other person is done talking.
I have read many articles on the topic of active listening with the hope of understanding what active listening involves. Here are the most common skills I found and I facilitate the use of these six active listening skills when working with everyone, not just leaders.
- Give your full attention.
- Hold your thoughts and comments.
- Be aware of nonverbal language.
- Ask questions to expand the conversation.
- Understand what is being said.
- Bonus active listening skill – Be still, and use silence to encourage dialogue.
When I go over these six skills with the staff I usually get someone who says, “Well, these are really basic skills, we already do these.” I thought to myself the same thing when I first heard this until I deliberately practiced these skills. Then I discovered, I was not using them at all.
I give the learners an exercise to do, they come back after two weeks of practicing and journaling their experiences with their observations of themselves. What they found was the same as I found, nope, I don’t use these basic skills at all. Some of them said they started out doing well but eventually slid back into old behaviors.
In the last five years of facilitating communication, I have had only one leader come back and say she was proud that she uses most of them consistently. So what did she do with that knowledge? She actively taught the skills to her team. She made a point for everyone on her team to practice these six skills. She said until she actively observed herself using the skills she didn’t realize she was doing it and she also realized her team was not. Since working with her team on these skills, the team’s communication has improved.
1. Give your full attention
One day I had a question for my CEO. I went to his office, and his door was open, which meant he was available, so I stuck my head in and asked if he had a second for a quick question. He motioned me in and asked me to wait until he finished his thought on an email he was writing. About 30 seconds later he stopped typing, swung his chair around from his desk, faced me, and asked how he could assist. He made eye contact with me and I totally forgot what I came in there for. I didn’t expect his full attention, but there it was.
If you think you can type an email, cook a meal, text on your phone, or watch TV and listen to every word of a conversation you’re having with someone in your office or at home, stop, and do one thing at a time. You can’t multitask it is impossible to give your full attention to two events simultaneously. Our brain is not wired to do that. Margaret Heffernan’s video titled: Two Things That Impact Your Critical Thinking at Work will tell you sleep deprivation and multitasking will hurt your performance every time.
We can multi-switch tasks that require our brain to turn off from one task and turn on for the other task every time we switch our focus. The more you do this the more mentally exhausted you are by the end of the day. So instead of trying to do multiple things at once, focus on one event at a time until you’re finished, you’ll discover you get more done and your conversations will be more engaging and informative.
2. Hold your thoughts and comments
Now that you’re listening, let’s work on holding our thoughts and commenting until the other person is done speaking. It’s the ability to listen without thinking of what to say next, removing preconceived biases, suspending judgment, or forming your own opinion before the other person is done. It’s the ability to listen with curiosity to viewpoints other than your own.
3. Be aware of nonverbal language
Before humans developed verbal language to communicate, nonverbal language was the source of truth to understand someone’s behavior, actions, or reactions. Our primitive brain relied on nonverbal language to let us know what was about to happen when we came into contact with others, part of our self-preservation directive as humans.
Today, that directive of self-preservation still exists within our brains. This suggests that we tend to believe what we see rather than what we hear. How many times during a meeting when someone is talking you sense that something isn’t right, or what they’re saying is not really true, or just half the story? Check their nonverbal language, you may not be paying attention to it but your brain is. If the person speaking isn’t aware of their nonverbal language they could be unconsciously transmitting their doubt about what they’re saying. So when you’re listening to someone make sure your nonverbal language is listening too.
4. Ask questions to expand the conversation
Part of active listening is asking questions to encourage and support conversations. Try to limit the yes/no response questions and use more open-ended questions to expand the conversation. Here are four types of questions, there are a lot of similarities but each type has its purpose.
The probing question
Conversations can get convoluted when many facts or ideas are presented. Using a probing question can help wade through the noise.
- What do you mean by__________?
- What other ways did you try?
- Can you identify what worked in the past in this situation?
- What specifically is happening?
- From your perspective, what are we not seeing?
The clarifying question
This question helps to cut through the noise as well. It helps you to understand what exactly is being said.
- What I’m hearing you say is _______________, is that right?
- What specifically is holding you back from______________?
- Can you tell me more about_________________?
- What does that look like to you?
- Is there another way to look at this?
- Tell me more.
The focus question
Sometimes the rabbit hole can go deep so you need to bring the conversation back to the original intent.
- What’s the desired outcome you are looking for?
- What exactly are you proposing?
- What else do we need to consider?
- What benefits would you like to see from____________?
The ‘what else’ question
A critical step in asking questions is to make sure you have covered or uncovered everything. How many times have you been in a conversation and you feel the real issue has not surfaced? This is where you use the bonus skill of silence. Ask the question, then wait… for them to answer.
- What else?
- Tell me more.
- What did we not cover in our conversation?
- What else do we need to address?
- What will you do with the information we talked about?
- What are your next steps?
- What do we need to do to move forward?
Many of these questions are interchangeable and can be used in multiple situations. The point is, to ask questions, then listen with the intent to understand.
5. Understand what is being said
This is where you deliberately practice giving your full attention, holding all your thoughts, and asking the right question at the right time. Be sure you can understand how other people see or perceive things. Your view of the world will always be different from everyone else, make sure you understand what they see and hear.
6. Be still and use silence
Silence is one of the most powerful and uncomfortable listening skills to use. This is a good skill to get people to talk and good practice for us to silence our thoughts when listening to others. Silence works well after these types of questions or statements:
- Tell me more about_________.
- What don’t I know about the situation?
- What is your view of what happened?
- What part of this change is challenging to you?
- How could you have done it differently?
Silence can be used after almost every question we’ve talked about. Silence gives the speaker a bit of time to think about the conversation from their perspective, gain the courage to say what was not said, and acknowledge that they were heard.
Generative listening – the next level
We usually listen to gain information and move on. Sometimes we listen to understand how to influence a situation or we are just waiting to get our thoughts heard as soon as the other person is done talking.
Generative listening is the ability to become so engaged in listening we often forget what our point was. We clear the mental slate, suspend our biases, judgments, and personal opinions, and truly listen. It’s the art of being curious, the ability to understand something in a completely new or different way. This is the hardest listening skill to develop and maintain because it requires us to put aside our personal agenda and open ourselves to new possibilities that we never saw from our viewpoint.
Exercise | Deliberate practice
The assignment is to pick one or two active listening skills and practice them every time you have a conversation with anyone. Write down the skills you are practicing in your journal then record how well you did or didn’t do and keep practicing. For these skills to become habits you need to repeat them over and over again.
Once you feel comfortable with your two skills, choose two more and practice all four of them. When you feel you have developed some amazing listening skills, go for the big one, generative listening. This is the optimal leadership skill when it comes to encouraging healthy dialogue in a safe space among your staff, peers, leaders, and family.
The skill of active listening is a life-long practice skill. There will always be a person or a situation that will test your ability to listen waiting around every corner. Be aware of the situations that trigger your emotions and before you speak silence yourself, clear your mind, and ask, “What don’t I know?”
Don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow never comes. What you have is today and this is the best time to begin anything.