Be a better listener: 4 ways to improve workplace communication

When you’re thinking about the tools in your leadership toolbox, what comes to mind when you think about improving and honing your skills? Many of us would consider doing a corporate training or working with an executive coach to improve our executive presence, empower your people, or even our conflict-resolution abilities, but we rarely make an effort to improve our listening skills.

When “I just want to be heard” is one of the most common statements in the modern workplace, we really should be thinking about how we can take better note of what is truly being said. If you want to get ahead, learn to listen. Read on for my guide on making your discussions more about what you hear, than what you say.

Listen without agenda

Most often, workplace conversations start with a specific intent -– a need to convey feedback or instructions, or the desire to get a particular piece of information. Rarely do we enter into a conversation intending to allow the other person to guide the flow of dialog, especially not if they hold a junior position in the organization. To be a good listener, not only do you have to focus on being present and fully engaged in what the speaker is saying, you also need to set aside the urge to be busily framing what you’ll say next. Put down your preconceived ideas on the topic at hand, and just focus on understanding and absorbing what you are being told, from the speaker’s perspective.

Ask questions

When I’m struggling with staying in the moment and focusing on what I’m being told instead of framing how I want to react, I find it helps to concentrate on the questions I will need to ask in order to fully understand the situation. What points do I need elaborated? What is the main issue? What does the person I’m talking to suggest as a course of action? Are there other options? What are the pros and cons? What are the impacts?

Focusing on the questions and keeping the other person talking can be an excellent way to get to the heart of the matter without inserting your own preconceived notions. It can also be a powerful tool in establishing trust with others. People want to know they are being heard, and asking for more info is an excellent means to demonstrate interest.

Recap

When you’ve asked all your questions -- a good rule to start is to ask a few more than you think you really need -- it’s time to recap and confirm with the speaker that you have correctly heard what they’re saying. This is your opportunity to show the speaker that you are present in the discussion, and really care about the topic at hand. Reframe and rephrase the discussion, and allow the speaker to give feedback on your assessment. Resist the urge to rush through to your own conclusions; try to state the facts as they were given to you. Wording here is important -- be careful of allowing your own opinion to slip in via the phrasing you use. Work to collaborate with the speaker until you are generally in agreement with your summary.

Reflect

Before you offer your thoughts on the subject, take a moment to reflect on your own emotions and bias. Ask yourself some questions: Am I personalizing this? Did I have an immediate reaction to this topic? What about this situation might be triggering me? If you need to, tell the speaker you need some time to think on the conversation, or to do some research. This can be especially useful if you need to carefully craft a response.

Allow yourself some time to reflect and form your opinion, but set a timeline and a date to regroup and discuss again; leaving the conversation open-ended leaves too much opportunity to procrastinate or never give a response at all. Be fair to the speaker and make a plan for a timely resolution –- this will build your reputation as a thoughtful leader who listens.

Only once you’ve taken the time to immerse yourself in each step of listening should you take your turn to speak -– whether it’s to offer your opinion, suggest a solution or inform the speaker of others’ perceptions of the situation. You will find that this can lead to a much more open dialogue when you’ve allowed space for the other person to feel truly heard. Use these listening techniques with both your superiors and your subordinates and you’ll discover that the habits will quickly become second nature, if practiced consistently. This will build your reputation as a fair, thoughtful and open-minded member of your organization, which will go a long way in getting ahead.

 

Joel Garfinkle is an executive leadership coach who recently worked with an senior vice president struggling with 360 feedback about his listening skills. Garfinkle laid out these four-step listening technique to help the SVP improve relations with his team and increase his rapport with other business units. With coaching, the SVP was able to effect change that was reflected strongly in his next review. Garfinkle has written seven books, including "Stop Avoiding Difficult Conversations: Practical Tactics for Crucial Communication." More than 10,000 people subscribe to his FulfillmentATWork newsletter. If you sign up, you’ll receive the free e-book 41 Proven Strategies to Get Promoted Now!

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails on leadership and career development, among SmartBrief's more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.