3 ways to become a better listener in the workplace

Updated: Jul 16, 2018

On a scale of 1-10, how important do you rate listening to your professional success? A former client of mine recently said that they had not realized how important listening was and upon further reflection acknowledged that about 80% of their effectiveness was based on how well they practiced the activity of listening.


People have a universal need to feel heard, to feel as though they matter and know that what they say is important and has value others. Today, without a doubt, the activity of listening is one of the key skill sets to obtain a level of mastery.


Steven Covey, American Educator, identified in Habit #5 from his famed book entitled 7 Habits of Highly Effective People; seek first to understand before being understood. He went on to say, “most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply”.


On a scale of 1-10, how hard is the activity to be an effective listener? Most people I ask say and acknowledge the importance of listening and the difficulty it is to do it well.


Physiologically, we are not hard wired to listen well. We can hear what our speaker is conveying however truly understanding the message is a greater task.


In Understanding Human Communication, the authors note that although we are capable of understanding speech at rates up to 600 words per minute, the average person speaks between 100 and 140 words per minute. Thus, we have a great deal of mental “spare time “to spend while someone is talking.


All sorts of distractions can derail us from listening well. For example, as the speaker is talking various senses will be triggered:

** the rumble in your belly,

** a smell that is pleasant or maybe not so pleasant,

** your phone lighting up and buzzing,

** a fly you see in your peripheral vision,

** a problem that your speaker is making that you have solved in your head within two minutes,

** a related experience that you had,

** or something they said that you gravely disagree with and all you are thinking about is what you want to say and voila you are in the throes of being listening challenged.


All the above are examples of ways that as the receiver in the conversation, you can take in 5-10 times the amount of information compared to what the speaker is able deliver. In other words, our physiological design makes it challenging for us to listen well.


So how can you do this activity better? Below is a three-tiered process to help you listen more effectively. But I will warn you …. It takes practice.


Step #1 Ask

Ask. Yes, ask the speaker what is important to them to feel heard. Each individual person has their own preferences and requirements that will show them that you are truly listening and make them feel heard. Find out what is important to them.


You should ask the person this question. For you to feel heard, what must I do?


You may find that by just asking this question you are sending a message that you care about what is important to that person. The question, in and of itself, will lay the foundation for better listening.


Step #2 Take Note

The responses that you obtain will be varied from person to person. I learned that some of my clients wanted and needed my feedback, while others just needed an ear and wanted all the air time. They were not interested in my story, my opinion or perspective.


After you ask and uncover the ways that you can demonstrate the person that you are really listening, make mental or physical note of what they say.


Jot down in your head or on paper their answers. Ensure that you capture the elements that are important to them.


Is eye contact important to them? Is it important that you verbally acknowledge that you have heard them or nod your head? Should you repeat and rephrase what they said so you both clarify and confirm you are understanding them fully?


Step #3 Respond

The last step is probably the most important. You must respond and follow up with the speakers requests if it is reasonable and doable. Carry out their requests. Show the person that they matter and that it is important to you to listen to them in the ways that are important to them.


You may have to restrain yourself from interjecting verbally with an opinion or personal story and redirect your focus on the speaker. Remind yourself that this conversation is about them. You may repeat words or short phrases that they say to keep yourself engaged and to let them know you are verifying to ensure that you heard correctly. You may also check your body language and ensure that you are sitting and/or standing facing the speaker. This communicates with your body language that you are tuned in on them and their message.


Make your best effort and carry out their requests for a tailored listening approach to the best of your abilities.



So here is a homework challenge: I want you to think of someone in your professional or personal world that you have been a bit short with lately. Maybe you have been somewhat frustrated with them. Since this relationship is important to you, I challenge you to acknowledge your recent impatience and let them know you want to change that and walk through these three steps; Ask, Take Note and Respond. Find out how you can be a better listener and test it out.