Learning to Listen by Alison Love, Managing Director of Resolution at Work

November 30th, 2017

It constantly amazes me that we are taught to speak, taught to read and taught to write and yet we are not taught to listen. This is despite listening being a vitally important and difficult skill to really master. As the saying goes, “God gave us two ears and one mouth as listening is twice as hard as speaking”

Listening skills are crucial for effective communication. Our failure to listen properly can lead to all sorts of difficulties; communications are not heard as they were intended creating misunderstanding, dangerous assumptions are made and we miss a lot of important clues as to meaning and how people are feeling. A feeling that you have not been listened to can create strong emotions such as feeling undervalued. Conversely when we feel listened to we feel valued and become engaged and encouraged to provide further clarification and richer information. We do not remember the words that people speak but we do remember how we felt. In the context of conflict resolution deep listening skills are the most important skill to master.

The lack of importance given to listening skills was highlighted to me recently in a chance conversation with a journalist who had previously been lecturing at a University. We got into a discussion about how important listening skills are for a journalist and yet it is not seen as something important enough and indeed there had been resistance towards including this as part of the degree programme. I find that astonishing; maybe it explains the rise of “fake news”?

I wish that I had been taught to listen prior to doing the work that I now do. Previously, I thought I was a good listener and I now realise that I was not. I have had to work hard and continue to work hard to improve my listening skills; it requires sustained concentration and effort. Here are some key elements of what effective listening entails: –

  • Concentration; you cannot truly listen unless you give your full attention.
  • Listen with a view to understanding rather than with a view to replying. Give space and allow the person to finish speaking and then pause; refrain from jumping in with questions or clarification.
  • Listen to more than the words, listen empathetically. That is listen to the emotions underneath the words by listening to tone of voice and paying attention to body language.
  • Take care of your own body language. It is important that you maintain appropriate eye contact, facial expressions and relaxed open posture.
  • Demonstrate listening by responding to what has been said and that you either understand or are seeking to do so. For example, verbal prompts, questions, summarizing and paraphrasing etc.
  • Silences are important. Let them run; 9 times out of 10 something important will follow as people are often further reflecting or thinking during a silence.

The value of mastering deep listening skills should not be underestimated. It is an important management skill impacting on motivation and engagement, creativity and innovation and effective employee relations. When dealing with difficult conversations or conflict resolution it is vital that those involved feel that they have been listened to and understood. If that can be achieved it will help individuals to move forward towards future solutions. For more information about our conflict resolution and associated training see here.

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