Good News: Active Listening is a Learned Skill
In a fast-paced and increasingly remote and digital world, communication has taken various forms, from texting and email to video calls and social media. With the rapid evolution of our work environment, communication needs to be seen in the prism of the art of active listening. We engage in conversations daily, but how often do we truly listen to what others are saying? How often do we listen to respond, not to understand? Active listening, the skill of hearing words and fully comprehending and responding to them, is vital for building meaningful relationships, effective problem-solving, and personal growth. It is essential in a hybrid work world. Intentionality is the key to practicing active listening successfully. First, let’s be clear on what Active Listening is:
- Active listening is more than just hearing words; it’s about understanding, interpreting, and responding to what someone is saying.
- It requires undivided attention, empathy, and a genuine interest in the speaker’s message.
- When you actively listen, you do not formulate your response or think about what to say next; you are focused on the speaker’s words, tone, and non-verbal cues.
Where Does Intentionality Fit in the Art of Active Listening?
Intentionality is at the core of active listening. Without a deliberate and conscious effort to listen actively, our natural tendency is to drift into passive listening or wait our turn to speak. It is a learned skill that, like any skill, needs to be continually practiced. Here are some reasons why intentionality is crucial in active listening:
- Is the Core of Building Strong Relationships: Active listening fosters stronger, more meaningful connections. Trust is built when we intentionally engage in conversations and demonstrate that we value the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. People will open up and be vulnerable when they feel heard and understood.
- Makes for Effective Problem-Solving: In professional and personal settings, active listening is essential for solving problems and making informed decisions. When actively listening, you gather more accurate information and assess situations more effectively. This leads to better problem-solving and conflict resolution.
- Creates Personal Growth: Active listening is about understanding others, learning, and personal growth. When you practice the discipline of consciously listening actively, you expose yourself to new ideas, perspectives, and knowledge. It’s an opportunity for self-improvement and broadening your understanding of your situations and the world.
- Allows Conflict Resolution: In conflict situations, intentionality in active listening is critical. It helps de-escalate tension and allows for more productive discussions. When people feel heard and validated, they are more willing to find common ground and work toward the “and” in the either/or debates.
- Avoids Misunderstandings: Miscommunications are common when we do not listen with intention. By actively listening, you can clarify misunderstandings, reduce assumptions, and prevent unnecessary conflicts or confusion.
Practical Tips for Intentional Active Listening
- Put Away Distractions: Minimize distractions like phones, computers, or other competing tasks when conversing. Give the speaker your full attention. I have developed the habit of silencing all my alerts and notifications on my computer, tablet, and phone to prevent these intrusions from distracting me.
- Maintain Eye Contact: Eye contact demonstrates your engagement and focus on the speaker. It conveys your genuine interest in what they have to say. Even on a Zoom or Teams call, eye contact is essential. Don’t focus on your image or notes; look at the camera. During one-on-one remote conversations, I have found it helpful to place the photo of the person you are speaking with directly below your camera on your computer screen.
- Show Empathy: Try to understand the speaker’s perspective and feelings. Reflect their emotions, acknowledge their experiences, and respond with empathy. The beauty of intentional listening is when we listen to understand instead of simply answering, it naturally creates a climate of inquiry. Instead of just giving one-word responses, we are more inclined to naturally ask curious, open-ended questions, encouraging the speaker to share more.
- Summarize and Paraphrase: Periodically summarize what the speaker has said to ensure you’ve understood correctly. This practice of checking in for understanding reassures the speaker that you are actively engaged.
- Avoid Interrupting: Resist the urge to interrupt or interject your thoughts. Let the speaker finish before responding. For some, myself included, this effort to avoid interrupting requires discipline and patience. I have made it a habit to pause for ten breaths before speaking, and often, the urge to interrupt disappears.
- Use Non-Verbal Cues: Your body language and facial expression, such as posture, nodding, and smiling, will convey that you are actively listening and supportive.
Active listening is a skill that will profoundly impact your personal and professional life. However, it does not happen passively or accidentally; it requires intentionality. When we approach conversations with the deliberate aim of truly understanding and connecting with others, we can reap the benefits of stronger relationships, effective problem-solving, personal growth, and better conflict resolution, even on a Zoom or Teams call. So, the next time you find yourself in a conversation, remember that it’s not just about hearing words; it’s about listening with intention and an open heart and mind.