When it comes to leaders and managers looking after their employees or team members, one of the key skills they need is that of active listening. Active listening can be used effectively in many instances – a manager may be mentoring or coaching someone, or a team member may be struggling with their mental health and describing the issue to their manager, or explaining a difficulty they are having with a task, or putting their argument forward for a pay rise. The situations are endless, yet listening, no matter how essential it is, is not something we are really taught. But, we must ask ourselves, is there any point in talking if no one is able to truly listen?
Listening is difficult. Having an open discussion with someone is almost a step into the unknown. We don’t know what they are going to say or share, or what direction the conversation might go in. We might worry that we won’t be able to help or give a solution, we worry that we might not understand – the list goes on.
Let’s use discussing mental health as an example. It can be hard to open up and talk about it, and it can leave the speaker feeling vulnerable. That is why it is important to treat anyone who is willing to talk with respect; they don’t just need people who aren’t afraid to talk, they need people who will truly listen. Remember, people want to tell their story, want to be heard.
Consider this: would you want to share your troubles with someone who was inattentive, uninterested? Probably not. So it is important that, as a listener, managers are themselves and fully present in the conversation. This means that there is no personal or professional facade, they are authentic, warm and trustworthy. It is noticeable if people are automatic or not genuine in their responses and this might result in the speaker shutting down and being unwilling to continue.
By being empathetic, managers will be casting aside their own way of experiencing and responding to the world and, instead, trying to understand the world as the speaker experiences it – ‘walk in their shoes’, as they say. By embodying this and acknowledging what the person is feeling, they can help them feel like they are truly understood.
It is often hard for people to share or admit to things if they are worried that someone won’t understand them, or will judge or turn against them. But by showing acceptance, a manager will show the speaker that they have worth regardless of what is said, done or felt, and that there is no judgement towards them. It is an act of valuing them for themselves. This can help increase their self-esteem and sense of worth.
Through actively listening, managers can help establish a connection, build trust, understand differences, and help the speaker re-experience and understand their feelings. These are all consequences that can have a positive impact on both parties. These skills will be even more effective if they use them in conjunction with the three conditions listed above.
This can play a huge part in a conversation. Research has shown that if there is conflict between what is being said and the facial expressions that support it, it is the facial expression that will be believed. Positive body language is important: an attentive and relaxed posture, interested facial expressions, steady but soft eye gaze and nodding.
This is a difficult one and we often want to jump in and fill that pause in conversation. But it is important that managers give the person time to think and to express themselves as they want. This last point is important, as it is also common to try and guess what the other person is trying to say. It can be fantastic when it is guessed correctly, but can be incredibly disheartening and frustrating when wrong, so it is best just to allow them to speak in their own time and way.
Again, this is a really tough one and one many people struggle with, as it is common for people to only feel useful if they are offering solutions. But often what is most effective is just showing understanding and sympathy towards what the speaker is going through. They often just want to be heard.
If they do want solutions or advice, it is best for the manager to form the solutions with the speaker themselves, rather than prescribe it to them. This way it is more likely to be a solution with which they are comfortable.
It is also helpful to ask open-ended questions, and reflect back and summarise what they think they are saying. The questions help aid clarity, and reflecting and summarising help to check the manager’s own understanding. Both add to a positive and meaningful conversation.
All of these, or a combination of these, will indicate that to the speaker that the manager is truly listening and understanding what is said to them. And, really, what is more comforting than that?
Active listening is just one of the many skills leaders and managers need. We cover active listening in more detail in our Coaching course, or you can check out our ILM Assured Leadership and Management Training Package which includes our full suite of courses.