How often do you really listen to what your colleague or team member is saying to you? Faced with multiple deadlines and demands, it can be easy to hear what you expect to hear and seek to move on down your list of tasks, rather than taking the time to listen to what is actually being said.
Crucial information is often missed by people who are focusing on formulating their response instead of listening to the message being conveyed. The habit of finishing other people’s sentences for them is a common obstacle to communication.
An exercise in active listening: Active listening involves getting away from our own agenda for the conversation or meeting, listening to other people, and really trying to understand what they are communicating, said Clare Haynes, founder of UK-based training provider Wildfire.
The following exercise helps participants understand how hard it is to resist interrupting and to realise how rarely we listen actively. Try it in a team meeting or with a friend:
- Ask everyone to get into pairs and decide who will listen first and who will speak.
- For three minutes, person B speaks about his or her experience, and person A does his or her best to listen actively. That means no interrupting, no interjecting with “I totally agree” or “that happened to me once …”, no preparing a response. Simply hear what it is that person is trying to convey.
- Once the time has elapsed, person A recounts to person B the points he or she made. Then listeners and speakers swap roles.
What you can learn, just by asking (and listening): In a leadership role, active listening is a crucial part of employee engagement. If employees feel that they are listened to, and therefore that their insight and opinions are valued, they will be more engaged and more willing to put ideas and suggestions forward.
Many managers avoid asking for feedback about a project or situation because they wrongly assume that if they do so and ultimately can’t resolve the problem or issue raised, employees will feel that they have wasted their time. But, Haynes explained, “We don’t necessarily expect someone to fix stuff for us. We just want to be heard.”
So asking for feedback, suggestions, and concerns at the beginning of a change project can not only flag up any areas for improvement, but is also the most efficient way of getting people on board, Haynes said.
Likewise, asking their reports the following questions can provide managers with a sense of their engagement levels and what kind of changes might benefit both them and the organisation:
- What matters to you in the job, and what doesn’t?
- What upsets you? What causes you stress?
- What would you love to change right now if you could wave a magic wand?
Going through this process and listening to the answers can generate some useful insight. Once people have had the opportunity to vent and be heard, let them know which are the areas you can fix, or act on, and which you can’t and why.
Building influence: Active listening is the bedrock of emotional intelligence, Haynes said. Leaders who demonstrate emotional intelligence make people feel valuable, part of the team, and that they play an important role in the organisation. They make employees feel as if they have the support and backing of their leader.
This recognition and security allows employees to perform to the best of their ability and gives them the motivation to do so – all of which ultimately gives the leaders greater influence and ability to get things done.
—Samantha White (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.