Communication is key.
That’s especially true in the workplace, where effective communication is essential to a fully functioning working environment. But communication isn’t simply a necessary skill among employees who are working together to achieve a desired outcome. It’s also a skill that every leader needs to master.
After all, leaders rely on communication in almost every aspect of their roles, whether you’re giving a presentation, communicating in board meetings, vision casting sessions, emails, or performance reviews.
When leaders lack efficient communication skills, it very often impacts the workplace. Employee engagement may see a dip, for instance, since team members will struggle to understand what’s needed from them. This naturally leads to subpar performance and work output.
But communication can also impact the general wellbeing of a workplace. In the absence of healthy communication practices, an office can often feel stagnant or rife with tension. When employees don’t feel engaged, heard, understood, or validated, it can also lead to job dissatisfaction and low morale.
Fortunately, there’s one communication skill in particular that can effectively combat this: active listening.
What is active listening?
“[Active listening] is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, the complete message being communicated.” –www.mindtools.com
Many leaders excel at communicating their point of view, but listening is just as much an essential component of effective communication.
When you master the art of active listening, not only will you be able to solve any disputes or conflicts in the workplace, but you’ll also be able to help employees deal with stress and frustration while also allowing them to feel respected and heard.
Below are some tips to help you strengthen your active listening skills:
1. Pay close attention
Have you ever been in a conversation where you wondered if the other party was even listening to you? How did it feel? If you’re like most people, it was most likely a frustrating or disheartening experience. When we’re speaking but feel as if our intended listener isn’t paying attention, we can instantly feel as if our words are unimportant.
You never want to convey this idea to your employees, especially when dealing with high emotions, so the first part of active listening requires that you demonstrate your attentiveness. Here are some easy ways to do just that:
- Maintain eye contact so that employees feel you’re engaged with their words
- If appropriate, smile or use other facial expressions
- Nod every so often to demonstrate you’re following along with their words
- Going along with the above tip, you can also verbally acknowledge that you’re attentive with brief prompts to keep the conversation going (“I understand,” “I see,” “Oh?” “Uh-huh”)
- Maintain an upright posture (slouching to one side or shifting your weight from one foot to the other communicates that you’re bored and want the conversation to be over)
- Make sure your body language is open and interested (crossed arms, for instance, communicate that you’re closed off from a person)
2. Seek understanding
Once you’ve heard an employee out, don’t jump into a response just yet. It’s absolutely essentially that you withhold judgment, especially in situations where emotions are running high on both sides.
Our own personal filters and judgments can often distort what we hear. As an active listener, however, it’s your job to seek understanding.
The Center for Creative Leadership says, “As a listener and a leader, you need to be open to new ideas, new perspectives and new possibilities. Even when good listeners have strong views, they suspend judgment, hold their criticism and avoid arguing or selling their point right away.”
What you must do at this point is bring together everything you’ve learned from the other party to check for understanding. For example, “So it sounds to me as if…” or “What I’m hearing is…” or “It sounds like you are saying…”
But if you need further clarification, don’t hesitate to ask questions. Never assume that you’ve correctly understood the other party. Instead, paraphrase what they’ve said so that you’re both on the same page and ask for more information where it’s needed, i.e. “What do you mean when you say…?”
3. Respond with respect
Finally, it’s time to respond. Active listening is all about respect. Even if your opinions differ from the other party, it’s possible to express your opinions respectfully and treat the other individual with grace.
For moments where you find your emotions swelling, you might want to take this advice from Mindtools: “If you find yourself responding emotionally to what someone said, say so. And ask for more information: ‘I may not be understanding you correctly, and I find myself taking what you said personally. What I thought you just said is XXX. Is that what you meant?’”
Psychcentral also speaks to the importance of validation in such conversations: “Acknowledge the individual’s problems, issues, and feelings. Listen openly and with empathy, and respond in an interested way — for example, ‘I appreciate your willingness to talk about such a difficult issue…’”
Remember, active listening is all about understanding the other party and validating their experiences. Once you can clearly see their perspective, you can then introduce your own feelings, ideas, and suggestions. This allows both parties to communicate on common ground, and with respect, maturity, and understanding.
Communication is an important part of any workplace. When it’s missing, employees often experience job dissatisfaction and low morale.
But when a leader takes the time to improve communication through the above strategies, you’ll often find that employees are happier and more engaged with their work because they feel validated, respected, and understood.