If someone were to ask you, ‘Are you a good listener?’ how would you respond?
You would probably say yes, as most of us would. It’s easy to assume that because we spend so much of every day listening, especially at work, that we’re good at it.
But is this an accurate assumption?
Listening is so much a part of our life that we don’t really stop and think about how we listen. As the world around us grows busier, louder and more crowded – both literally and figuratively – it’s become harder to focus on just one thing. These days, it’s not out of the ordinary to be sitting in a meeting, taking notes on your laptop in one window, checking your email in another and working on completely separate project in a third.
So how can we filter out the noise, set everything else aside and train our attention on one thing at a time? Are we consciously engaging with what’s being said, or are we letting information pass in one ear and out the other? How can we improve the quality of our listening for better understanding and more collaborative relationships?
Active listening vs. personal broadcasting
At a TEDGlobal event in 2011, founder and chairman of The Sound Agency Julian Treasure gave a talk called ‘5 Ways to Listen Better.’ In that talk (which now has over four million views), he made this important observation about the way modern society communicates:
We’re becoming impatient. We don’t want oratory anymore, we want sound bites. And the art of conversation is being replaced by personal broadcasting…We’re becoming desensitised. Our media have to scream at us with these kinds of headlines in order to get our attention. And that means it’s harder for us to pay attention to the quiet, the subtle, the understated.
Hey! Listen up! I did something I think is cool and I’m going to shout about it on the internet for a while!
With the prevalence of social media – platforms that are essentially centred on this idea of personal broadcasting – we’re collectively moving in a direction that’s more focused on immediate reactions rather than true reflections. The faster we react, the less time we have to fully understand and engage with what’s being shared in a meaningful way, and this can have negative repercussions. Not engaging in active listening could create many problems in the workplace: expensive delays to a client project due to miscommunications, tension between coworkers due to misinterpreting a situation, even feelings of burnout or isolation if an employee feels they are habitually misunderstood by their manager or colleagues.
Active listening, or making the conscious, complete effort to listen to what someone else is saying, is an underrated – and surprisingly difficult – skill and helps avoid these complications that arise when we’re not completely focused. When was the last time you had a conversation where you didn’t become distracted by something else (the ping of a notification on your phone, remembering something you meant to do earlier, planning what you’re going to say when they’ve finished speaking, etc.)? Have you had a conversation today where you focused all your attention on the conversation and nothing else?
Developing your active listening skills will help improve your relationships, increase overall productivity and help avoid costly misunderstandings.
The Ladder of Inference
He is NOT thinking about the mountains of laundry he has to do tonight.
In order to improve our active listening skills, we need to first understand how we process information on a basic level. There’s a useful visual for this, and it’s called The Ladder of Inference1. It is a widely-used model to describe this process, and can be useful in identifying any barriers to open, honest, effective communication.
Imagine a three-step ladder standing up in a pool of water. The pool of water represents actual data – the thing as it actually is. The first step of the ladder is our ‘select data,’ or how we see that pool of water. The second step of the ladder is our assumptions based on our select data about the pool of water (i.e. it’s cold, it’s deep, etc.). The third step of the ladder is the actions we take based on what we see and the assumptions we’ve made (i.e. it looks cold therefore I’m not going to jump in), and those assumptions continually feed back into what data we select.
The whitepaper ’From Conflict to Consensus: Three Critical Tasks for Leaders’ by Patty McManus cites how the Ladder of Inference can help us check our assumptions in order to improve our listening:
How we perceive our relationships with others is significantly affected by our unconscious selection process. These unconscious choices can cause conflict in and damage to our work relationships, particularly when we act as if our perceptions are the truth. Remembering the Ladder of Inference can help us to make explicit the unconscious assumptions and self-generating belief systems we hold, allowing for more open and honest communication.
Now that we understand how we process incoming information, we can start to question how that’s influencing our active listening.
The five key elements to active listening
Attentive posture, slight smile, eye contact: she is actively listening.
When discussing this act of active listening – as opposed to passive listening or simply ‘hearing’ – there are five main elements involved:
- Paying attention
- Demonstrating that you’re listening: assuming an attentive posture and offering up cues that you’re listening: nodding, short comments of encouragement, smiling, etc.
- Giving valuable feedback: asking thoughtful questions, asking for clarification and paraphrasing/summarising.
- Having an appropriate response grounded in honesty and respect
- Withholding personal judgement
Julian Treasure gives us an easy way to remember this: the acronym RASA, or Receive, Appreciate, Summarise and Ask. It might take a bit of time to get into the habit of actively listening, but like any other skill, you can get better at it with practice.
Active Listening Skills Exercises
Here are a few simple exercises you can incorporate in your routine to improve the quality of your listening and help you become a more active listener:
He hears next door’s children fighting about a jumper, the sound of pigeons cooing outside his window and a faint siren in the distance.
1. Start noticing your own behaviour. How many times do you interrupt the other person in a conversation? How often do you check – or even think about checking – your phone? It might be helpful to get someone’s help with this one: tell your partner, close friend, colleague or anyone you talk to regularly that you’re practising your active listening and they can help you start to notice those little things you may not even be aware that you’re doing.
2. This is another Julian Treasure tip: take three minutes out of every day to sit in silence. Now, for many of us living in big, noisy cities, it can be a bit challenging to sit in complete silence. But the point of the exercise isn’t to try to block out these noises; just sit there and listen to them. How many different sounds can you pick out happening at once? Are there any noises you can hear, now that you’ve stopped and focused, that you haven’t heard before?
3. Pretend like you’re going to be tested on the conversation. Listen out for important points and take mental notes, like you would for an exam. Also, if you’re sat in a particularly boring situation – perhaps a death-by-PowerPoint presentation or a meeting where you aren’t one of the main speakers – try repeating what the speaker’s just said over in your head to help stay focused.
1 From Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning by Chris Argyris
For more resources on active listening techniques, here’s a list of valuable articles and videos to help you learn more.
9 talks to help you be a better listener – TED Talk playlist
From Conflict to Consensus: Three Critical Tasks for Leaders by Patty McManus