30 Apr

An A+ Skill Set

Conversational styles come in many shapes and sizes and may vary due to cultural upbringing and geography. For example, you may be speaking to someone, and they nod their head and interrupt with "Yes! That exact thing happened to me! I was..." and then go off on a story similar to your own before you're ready. Or maybe they wait until you pause and offer up a list of questions so long that you can't even begin to answer. 

Depending on your personal conversation style, one may seem familiar while the other is incredibly annoying. It can lead to feelings of being ignored or misunderstood. Unfortunately, neither response is malicious in its intent; it's simply that person's way of trying to connect to you and the information you are sharing. 

Leaning into your own preferred conversational style is fine for personal relationships. However, when it comes to professional ones, it's important to practice active listening so that your conversation partner feels understood and you have a firm grasp on the information being shared. By utilizing active listening, you can bypass any miscommunications due to different styles. 

What is Active Listening?

 Active listening is a pattern of listening that keeps you engaged with your conversation partner and involves paraphrasing and reflecting on the information they're supplying without emotional input or advice on your end. It's designed to encourage respect and understanding between the speaker and listener. 

Listening is one of the most valuable skills to hone in the workplace. Active listening helps to promote effective communication and leads to success in your interpersonal relationships and more efficiency in your work. 

Active listening requires total concentration on what the speaker is saying, willingness to seek clarification about information and nonverbal cues, and the ability to withhold personal input or biases. 

Why it matters

According to Edgar Dale's Cone of Experience, people only remember 25-50% of what they hear. We can only hope to remember the most important parts of a message. By improving our listening skills, we improve what we retain and how much. Active listening can help with your ability to influence, persuade, and negotiate. You'll avoid more conflicts and misunderstandings, all of which are vital to the success of a thriving workplace. 

Active listening is often confused with critical listening. Critical listening is understanding what is said and evaluating, judging, and forming an opinion about the message. The goal of active listening is to act as a sounding board rather than add your own ideas and opinions. 

You may see benefits outside of the workplace when you incorporate active listening into your tool kit. It can be an effective device for understanding other points of view, which can help you evaluate information more effectively. It can also help you be more empathetic and approachable, encouraging communication between parties and fueling collaborative efforts. Active listening can assist in making a great first impression with new coworkers or clients, giving them confidence in your personal ability to understand them and their perspectives truly. 

How to do it

 Active listening seems like a daunting task, especially if you find yourself in a more reactive conversation style. So we've broken it down into four skill sets and included some tools to make each focus point easier. 

  1.  Paraphrasing

 Repeat the message but in different words. This is an essential skill of active listening because it demonstrates that you are concentrating on the speaker's message. 

Tools: Don't assume it will be a boring conversation or doesn't pertain to you; the speaker sought you out for a reason. Please acknowledge that you listen to their verbal and nonverbal cues; head nodding and micro-expression can convey more than words and don't require you to interrupt. Depending on the culture, offering simple "uh-huh" and "really?" can also be good interjections. 

  1. Reflect

 Reflecting on the speaker's feelings can help them feel validated. It can also serve to help you empathize with their point of view. For example, reflecting on the meaning can clarify the conversation and allow the listener to confirm understanding. 

Tools: Mirroring is a great way to reflect feelings by mimicking their subtle body language when paraphrasing their words. To reflect meaning, repeat the speaker's words- either a select few phrases or entire sentences. 

  1. Clarify

 Clarifying specific points shows not only engagement but a desire to understand. It can be helpful for any points you may not have context for and need more information on the topic or situation. For example, the spoken word is processed through short-term memory; by asking clarification questions, you allow your brain to process the information and solidify your understanding and recall the information. 

Tools: Allow the speaker to finish each point before asking questions. Interrupting is one of the primary taboos of active listening. Ask open-ended questions instead of questions that encourage only "yes" or "no" answers. 

  1. Summarize

 Summarizing helps confirm the big picture; it combines paraphrasing and reflective meaning with any clarification. Many people offer feedback or personal opinions here in place of a summary, another taboo. This is often the most challenging aspect of active listening and the most important. Summarizing can also help keep our personal bias from coloring what is conveyed. 

Tools: If the speaker makes a statement you disagree with, don't disregard the rest of their points. Utilize summative reflection to establish that you don't necessarily agree with them but still acknowledge their sentiments. "So you felt..." "So you're saying…." "What I'm hearing…" and "My understanding is you…" are great ways to recognize without relating. 

Above all else, stay engaged. You won't be able to provide any feedback if you're distracted and miss significant amounts of information. One of the most distracting elements of active listening is our own internal monologue. When we know we can't offer opinions; they become even more persistent. The only way to learn how to dismiss or table intrusive thoughts is by practicing active listening. So the next time someone comes to you with an issue, try implementing one of these active listening skills. Over time it will become second nature.