How you listen, is so vital to effective communication and leadership!

We all know how critical listening is without interrupting any form of communication. However, unintentionally hijacking a conversation to advise, empathize, or insert ourselves in the speaker’s narrative is often done with good intentions but may lead to losing the human connection we think we are forging. We all have habitual listening patterns and our responses are also graded, which means that we may be responding in a way that doesn’t meet the speaker’s needs or address their concern.

1. Employee: “I’m worried about my presentation for the board meeting.’

Manager: “Oh, you’re doing great. It took me years before I could present without being nervous.”

2. Colleague A: “I really need a vacation.”

Colleague B: “You should go to this resort in the mountains. I just came back from there and it was the best vacation I’ve had in years. I’ll send you the info.”

3. Patient: “I’m scared about this procedure.”

Clinician: “Your surgeon has done hundreds of these. The complication rate is low.”

The employee worried about the board meeting may want critical feedback rather than reassurance, Colleague A’s statement about needing a vacation may have other problems not addressed by an itinerary, and the patient may have had relevant concerns underlying the emotions which are missed through reassurance.

Styles of Listening

Learning to listen well begins with understanding what type of listener you are. These are distinctly 4 different styles of listening 

An analytical listener aims to analyze a problem from a neutral point.

A relational listener aims to build connections and understand the emotions underlying a message.

A critical listener aims to judge the content of the conversation and the reliability of the speaker themselves.

A task-focused listener shapes a conversation toward the efficient transfer of important information.

Developing the ability to shift between these styles can lead to impactful conversations by matching the speaker’s needs with the most appropriate listening technique. This is the first step to improving your listening.

5 Ways to Improve Your Listening

Becoming a better listener doesn’t only mean understanding how you listen, it requires taking certain actions, too. Following are the 5 things that a listener can do to improve their listening skills:

1. Understand why you are listening:

There are a number of reasons we listen – to be efficient, avoid conflict, gain attention, support, or simply to entertain. When these are done repetitively or unconsciously, we lose the intensity of listening and bucket everything as per our habits. When entering a conversation, reflect briefly on what the goals of the conversation are, and how best you can listen at that moment.  The speaker might be seeking an honest opinion, an analytical reflection, or an emotional connection.

2. Be aware of how you listen:

Our “usual” listening style may be disrupting our goals. We may have received positive feedback for being consistently efficient, funny, articulate, or supportive, but the regular style being used may prevent applying different listening styles to achieve the objective. For example, time-pressured environments require task-oriented or critical listening styles to make rapid decisions. While this may be effective at work, it may well not be relevant at home, to family and friends who may need something more than rapid decisions.

3. Be aware of who is the focus of attention.

Beyond listening styles, the way we insert ourselves into the speaker’s narrative shifts the focus of conversational attention. We often assume that interjecting with our own personal stories is an empathic and relationship-building move, but it prevents hearing the whole message. It can be fun to interject and is sometimes helpful to promote connection, when done without awareness it runs the risk of taking the conversation away from the speaker without redirecting back.

When a listener is aware of the impact of interjecting and maintains curiosity about the speaker’s message, it is possible to share the focus without losing the speaker’s message by redirecting the conversation back to the speaker. This might be done by sharing a personal thought and then returning to the focus:

Colleague A: “I really need a vacation.”

Colleague B: “I just came back from a resort in the mountains, and it was so restorative. I’m curious about what’s going on with you. Feel like talking?”

4. Adapt the listening style to achieve conversational goals

With increasing stress, our executive functioning and cognitive senses are taxed, making it difficult to adjust from our default listening style. Staying focused on the speaker and the goals will help you adapt to the needs of the situation. In a patient expressing fear (which we discussed earlier ), responding with validation and curiosity may allow the clinician to capture valuable information and address the patient’s needs:

Patient: “I’m scared about this procedure.”

Clinician: “Even though the complication rate is very low it’s normal to be scared. It’s a big procedure. [Pause.] What’s scaring you the most?”

By acknowledging and exploring the emotion expressed, there’s a better chance the patient will feel heard and validated. The clinician may learn that in this patient’s last procedure, she developed a dangerous heart rhythm, or that her brother recently had a procedure that led to a stroke. In addition to helping the patient feel heard, learning of complications would change how the clinician approached the patient’s care before and during the procedure.

5. Ask: Am I missing something?

It may be hard to understand  the conversational goals if the speaker who initiates the conversation does not know what they are hoping to get out of it

Taking a couple of seconds to pause and think before an automatic response may help to understand better. If that parent has a longer-term goal of connecting and interpreting what their child is going through, they may have better success with a more relational listening style:

Child: “I am not going to school today. I have no friends.”

Parent: “That’s a tough feeling to have. [Pause] Do you feel like talking about it?

How we listen solidifies our active partnership in conversations. It expands and allows others to share what really matters to them and can actually be more efficient if we get to the heart of the matter. Through intentionally applying new ways to listen, we build relationships, understand others, collaborate and problem-solve more effectively.

Please share your comments / feedback !