The Value of Active Listening

Hold a picture in your mind of the person you consider to be the best listener you know, and then ask yourself:

Do I like this person?

Do I respect this person?

Most people who have had the good fortune to spend time with a great listener think of that person with admiration. That’s because being heard is one of the most positive and affirming experiences we can have. In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie includes “Be a good listener” as one of the most powerful things you can do to be likeable and influential. After seven decades, with over 15 million copies sold worldwide, the book is still in print and this is still true.

I'm All Ears! Photo:Ann Froschaue, US Fish and Wildlife

Providing a more recent perspective specific to the workplace, Deb Calvert, President of People First Productivity Solutions, and Korn Ferry International suggest that:

“There is one competency that may be more important than any other in the workplace. That competency, active listening, rises to the top of the list because it is a “compensator” for other competencies. As a compensator, active listening can neutralize the negative effects of a gap [in other skills].”

Unfortunately, in a world of instant messaging and 140 character limits, active listening is rarely practiced—in spite of the positive impact it has on speakers and the distinct career edge it provides to good listeners. Perhaps the value of active listening has not been effectively demonstrated, or maybe this skill, like so many other soft skills, has been a casualty of the technologies we rely on so heavily.

What is Active Listening?

The simple act of hearing is passive—it’s what our ears do, whether or not we are paying attention to the incoming signals. Listening, on the other hand, requires the engagement of our brain and involves adding interpretation and meaning to the sounds and words that our ears pick up. Active listening goes beyond hearing, and even beyond listening: it requires engagement, concentration, self-discipline, and a desire to fully comprehend the meaning of the message being shared.

Here are ten things you can do to cultivate your active listening skills:

  1. First, be genuinely interested in what people have to say – put aside your ego and the need to have your say.
  2. Remove distractions: stop working, tweeting, browsing, playing videos games, reading, etc.
  3. Look at the person who is speaking and don’t turn away, scan the room, or let your eyes wander while you’re listening.
  4. Maintain a comfortable distance between you and the speaker (watch for clues).
  5. Show you are listening: sit/stand up straight.
  6. Encourage the speaker, show interest and empathy; respond appropriately to what is being shared with nods, requests for more detail, or expressions that demonstrate understanding or impact.
  7. If you don't understand something, say so. If necessary, restate phrases to clarify understanding.
  8. Focus on what’s being said, not on what you plan to say in response (when it’s your turn to talk).
  9. If you feel your attention waning, listen specifically for what’s new or different in what the speaker is saying.
  10. Don’t interrupt. If you need to ask a question, wait for a natural pause.

What Difference Does it Make?

Active listening is about building rapport, understanding, and trust. It's about better overall communications, which is a skill in great demand in today's (and tomorrow's) workplace.

Conversely, the following habits generally stop communication cold, break rapport and diminish trust—holding back even the most otherwise competent individuals.[1]

  1. Too many “why” questions. They tend to make people defensive.
  2. Quick reassurance: saying things like, “Don’t worry about that.”
  3. Advising (without being asked to): “I think the best thing for you is to…”
  4. Digging for information and forcing someone to talk about something they would rather not talk about.
  5. Patronizing: “You poor thing, I know just how you feel.”
  6. Preaching: “You should….” Or, “You shouldn’t…
  7. Interrupting: Shows you aren’t interested in what someone is saying.

Ram Charan, a noted business adviser who has worked with top executives at some of the world’s most successful companies, commented: “Corporate leaders’ 360-degree feedback indicates that one out of four of them has a listening deficit — the effects of which can paralyze cross-unit collaboration, sink careers and, if it’s the CEO with the deficit, derail the company.”[2]

The Bottom Line on Active Listening

Listening well pays dividends, both personally and professionally. People who are known as good listeners are well liked and respected, and people who are well liked and respected advance more rapidly and are given more opportunities.


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