Fully engaged, ‘active’ listening is hard work for beginners. It requires first a strong desire to hear what the other person is saying. This requires you to be genuinely interested in other people; not for what you can get out of them but valuing them as fellow human beings. It also requires great concentration and patience and, in certain situations, empathy. To demonstrate to your colleagues that you value them, you need to listen to them attentively, only asking questions to truly understand their point of view.
There will be occasions when a colleague is expressing a high degree of emotion, even anger. When that happens, try to listen to them empathically. This means stepping into their shoes and feeling the situation as they are feeling it. You do not need to agree with what they are saying.
Be aware of where your attention lies – be totally present and still your mind. This is the greatest gift you can give your colleague. As Gandhi said, ‘The greatest need of the human soul is to be understood’. Identify your own emotions about the situation and consciously put them on the back burner so that they don’t interfere with your listening.
As a crucial component of relationships and productive work, listening must be a top priority – which means finding time to make the mental space for conversations and whatever new insights, perspectives, information, and creative solutions they may bring. You’re probably thinking that time is the one thing you don’t have at work. On the other hand, if you’re caught up in constant activity, how will you ever find the time to listen to your colleagues properly? Good listening does not lend itself to multi-tasking.
Making time for listening doesn’t have to mean putting aside hours for long conversations. Being fully present with the other person to listen in a five-minute conversation can be more meaningful, and have greater impact, than two hours of exchanging what Margaret Millar refers to as ‘monologues in the presence of a witness’. All it requires is that you ‘clear the space’; set aside what you are doing and your preoccupations at the time, clear your paperwork away, mentally disconnect from your mobile, tablet or laptop screen, shut yourself off from the surrounding noises, turn around and give the person who is speaking your total and undivided attention.
When you are listening with undivided attention you are showing interest and demonstrating in a very real way that the other person is being recognised and heard. Without saying a single word, attentive listening shows the other person that you think they are important and that you value them as another human being. As Mary Angelou said, ‘I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’. Wow!
Richard Fox is founder of The Learning Corporation LLP – a pan-European firm of leadership and career coaches, business mentors and facilitators. He is the author of the award winning ‘Making Relationships Work at Work – a toolkit for getting more work done with less stress’.
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