Active Listening

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Hugh MacDonald

An essential human resources skill for leaders is the ability to actively listen to others. Hearing is one thing, listening—really listening—is quite another. Active listening requires our focused attention. It’s not enough to listen and be focused on what people are saying. People need to know you are listening to them. You need to show your attentiveness when others talk.

People who meet leaders described as "charismatic" often mention that, even in a room full of other people, it seemed as if the leader was completely focused on them and what they were saying. If you want to gather a bit of this kind of charisma for yourself, here are six key ideas:

  1. Look at the person speaking to you. Attend to him. Don’t stare, however, as this may be interpreted as intimidating. The idea is to show respect by looking in his direction and establishing intermittent eye contact. Part of showing respect is not reading e-mail, talking to other people, walking around the room, fidgeting or engaging in any other activity that sends the message that you are only partially paying attention.
  2. Listen with attention. We hear noise and other sounds. Listening, however, implies attention. Pay attention to his words. It is sometimes helpful to repeat what he is saying with your inner voice. You need to understand what he is saying as he says it.
  3. Use minimal encouragers to signify that you are listening and that you want him to continue. Minimal encouragers include "mmm," "uh-huh" and phrases such as "I see," "go on," "tell me more," "then what?" and so on. Another way to encourage the speaker is the judicious use of facial and other gestures that conveys interest and support.
  4. To communicate that you understood what the speaker said, you should, at regular intervals, paraphrase or summarize what you heard.
  5. During pauses, when appropriate, you should ask for more information or obtain clarification using open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered with "yes" or "no" or with a simple statement.
  6. Perhaps the most important aspect of listening is to avoid interrupting and stop yourself from taking the spotlight away from the speaker. You should hold off from cutting in with your opinions or with your own competing narrative until he has finished and you have fully understood what he has to say. Responding might be very appropriate, but consider it from a strategic perspective. When should you do it, and how? Unless your goal is to get into a debate or argument, your first job is to listen for understanding. You can’t understand anyone if you’re just waiting for him to stop talking so that you can start.

Want to know more? Visit HR MacDonald Training and Development.