How to be an Active Listener and Build Positive Relationships
When was the last time you truly listened to someone? You know; took the time and made the effort to sit listening to be an active listener? You felt 100% engaged and fully present, suspending your own judgements and opinions from creeping into your head. Not letting your mind wander to what you were planning for dinner, or whether your boss read the email you sent earlier about that project.
It’s hard, right?
Listening is hard. Unless you are a psychiatrist, counsellor or therapist, you’ve probably not been trained how to actively listen. It’s a skill. In fact, it’s an art. I’m not joking here. Listening is something we have to work at and, just like every other skill we come across in life, if we want to be good at it, we have to practise regularly.
Cast your mind back to your school days; do you remember receiving listening lessons? No, but you did learn how to read and write. How about when you first started working? You may have been trained on how to write reports or attended workshops on how to be a great presenter, but I bet you had no listening training. Would it surprise you if I said that during our school years, we only receive up to half a year’s training for listening compared to reading and writing, yet we use listening 45% of the time? Of course, we all know people who are naturally good listeners, you might be one of them. Think about public speaking. Some people just get up there, no matter whether there are 50 or 500 people in the audience and their performance appears effortless. But, as a natural public speaker, I can tell you that you still need to practice, especially if you want to be better and not slip into bad habits.
Listening at work
In the workplace, we appreciate that positive relationships are fundamental in creating a culture of positive mental wellbeing. Psychologist Martin Seligman, author of Flourish, says wellbeing comes from five pillars: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment – or PERMA.
Positive relationships between colleagues, peers, management and stakeholders are critical to how a business can thrive and flourish. The experiences I hear regularly from clients, is how their manager or colleague do not listen to them. We all know what it feels like not to be listened to; sadly, we can all relate to that situation. Can you recall the emotions evoked from a bad experience? Frustration, isolation, worthlessness, a lack of self-confidence, anger or loneliness? Did you go home and talk to your partner or call a friend and tell them how this relationship was not positive? Perhaps you asked for their opinion or advice, looking for the reassurance you didn’t receive from the interaction earlier that day.
Qualities of an active listener
Empathy – There is a difference between being empathetic and sympathetic. Empathy is finding a connection within you on the same level as the person you are listening to. You may not understand their experience, but you don’t have to; listening and being there for them is enough. For example, we are likely not to understand how everyone experienced lockdown. Some may have been in solo-isolation compared with a colleague, who has a partner and three children at home. To be an active listener, we need to be empathetic to individual situations. Giving someone space to talk through their experience without you being sympathetic which can come across as dismissive, often starting with the phrase ‘at least’ – for example “at least you don’t need to worry about having kids to look after”.
Genuine – We all know how it feels to talk to someone who is not being genuine; we see it in body language and facial expressions, we hear it in their tone of voice and the questions they ask us in response. As an active listener, you must be aware of what you are not saying when you are listening. In our new world of online communication, we have the potential to lose many of the non-verbal and behavioural cues we use to formulate awareness, thoughts and judgement. Ask yourself what signals annoy you when you feel like someone is not listening to you on a video or phone call, could you be guilty of displaying some of the same behaviours?
Acceptance – The person who is listening should be accepting of how that person feels, whether they agree or disagree, whether they would have done it differently or know of a better way or answer. Allowing the person you are listening to to have their space to talk gives them an opportunity to verbalise their thoughts and feelings and, often, allows them to devise a solution themselves.
Non-judgement – Listening non-judgmentally is hard; we must be aware of our own biases and views of the world, to be able to stand back and observe when we might be allowing our own biases to creep in. You’re only human so you won’t remove your judgements but do be conscious of how they will play out in a conversation. To be an active listener, slow down your thinking and provide a mental filter before you respond.
Top listening tips
- Allow silences: it’s the most powerful way to give someone the space to speak. In virtual team meetings, for example, allow colleagues the opportunity to reflect upon a question or statement, not for them to feel they have to immediately jump in with a response.
- Remove distractions: mobiles and smart watches are no! As many of us are still working from home, the distractions have increased, from pets making on camera appearances, to the neighbour mowing the lawn! However, please be courteous and do the basics such as switching off email notifications, closing your open tabs and moving your phone away from the screen.
- Head outside: walking meetings are a great way to allow headspace and to connect with someone. A great way to do this and still practice social distancing is to take the meeting as a phone call and walk outside. If possible, agree that you and the individual will both do this at the same.
- Ask open questions: This gives the individual an opportunity to be more open, to share and build trust with you. Open questions usually begin with the following words; when, where, why, what, who, tell me, or how.
- Check in on the person after a conversation: it demonstrates you care and, more importantly, you have listened. This will make the individual feel that you valued their conversation, you are trustworthy and they will be more likely to keep the dialogue open and approach you again if needed in the future.
Ruth Cooper-Dickson is a Positive Psychology Practitioner and qualified Coach, who has studied Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology. She is the Founder and MD of the global mental wealth people consultancy, CHAMPS, partnering with progressive organisations helping them to ingrain a culture of positive mental wealth. Ruth is a passionate runner, an addicted life-long learner, and a lover of all things cake! Follow her on Twitter