Updated: Oct 5, 2022
What's the difference between listening and hearing?
We can’t control what we hear. Hearing is second nature. Listening requires focus. Imagine you’re standing in line at a coffee shop while music plays overhead. Everyone in the shop hears the music, but only a few of them might be listening to it.
Who are our listeners? Most likely, the patrons in line with nothing else to do except wait will be listening. The busy barista can’t focus on the music, so they aren’t listening.
The same is true of the many conversations we have at work.
If you’re prone to multitasking while talking to your colleagues, I have some bad news for you: you’re probably a bad listener.
But I have some good news, too. You’re capable of improving your listening skills to become an expert at active listening. Here are 7 tips you can take with you throughout your next work day.
1 - Give the speaker your full, undivided attention
It can be tempting to continue a task when you’re in the zone, even when someone approaches you or you begin a meeting. But, this can come off as disrespectful if you haven’t communicated expectations regarding your multitasking.
Multitasking also pulls our attention away from the speaker and into the task at hand. Instead of focusing on two things at once, our brains are really switching back and forth between two focal points. The consequences of this are that you only receive pieces of the conversation—and your work is likely to suffer as well.
So, if you’re interrupted at work, choose one of two options: give your full attention to the person who wants to talk to you or set a boundary by asking if you can have the conversation at another time. That might be in one minute once you’ve finished your task or in 3 hours when you have free time to chat.
If you want to be a better active listener, you need to put down your phone, stop reading, or let go of what you’re working on when someone is speaking to you.
2 - Engage in the conversation by asking powerful or insightful questions
A conversation is not a presentation. When you’re actively listening, you’re engaged. You’re getting involved. You’re collaborating. You’re thinking deeply. You’re asking questions.
Insightful questions can lead a conversation in the right direction. They can help your colleagues get to where they need to go, grow new ideas, and build relationships.
Engaging in conversation also shows the person you’re speaking to that you’re interested in what they have to say. Asking the right questions can help them feel seen, heard, respected, and valued, which we know are important elements of the trauma-informed model.
3 - Clarify what was just said
Sometimes, in conversations, we assume. Without communicating our assumptions, the conversation can get off track, and conflict can arise from miscommunication.
When we fail to actively listen, we tend to miss important details and lose sight of the big picture. To compensate, we might make incorrect assumptions based on context clues.
Instead of doing that, we can try to remedy the situation from the start by clarifying where we’re at in the conversation. My favorite way to accomplish that is by sharing, “This is what I’m hearing,” and then asking, “Is that correct, or am I missing something?” This prompt is great when we think we understand what’s being said.
If we’re feeling confused, that’s a good sign we don’t completely understand what’s being said. In this situation, you can ask, “Can you clarify what you meant when you said…” or “I’m confused about… Can you expand on that?”
Understanding is a core part of active listening, and asking for clarification is a great way to come to mutual understanding.
4 - Stop waiting for your turn to talk
The most common distracting thought when we fail to be active listeners tends to be what we want to say next. Instead of listening, we hyper-focus on our point.
Sometimes, the underlying reason is that we don’t want to forget our point. Other times, we may have different motivations, such as feeling eager to share or hoping that what we have to say will impress or help someone.
Regardless of why we’re distracted, when we spend time simply waiting for our turn to talk, we often jump in as soon as we see an opportunity.
And sometimes, in those crucial moments between when we have our thought and when we get our turn to speak, we’ve lost the main point that the other person was trying to make. We fail to fully understand what was being said.
So, this piece of advice is to stop waiting for your turn. If you’re afraid to forget your point, then tell yourself it’s okay to forget. If it’s important, you will come back to it.
Your points in a conversation often become distractors, and being mindful of this fact can help you become a better active listener.
5 - Leave room for silence
There’s another reason that we might quickly interject in a conversation. Many people feel uncomfortable when silence enters a conversation. To diffuse any tension, we speak—even if we don’t know what it is we’re trying to say.
The problem with this trauma response is that silence is a powerful tool for active listening. And when we shy away from it, we do ourselves and others a disservice.
Silence opens the door for reflection, internal thought, and mental processing. A pause in conversation isn’t always a sign that the conversation is going poorly—it can be a sign that the conversation is productive and thought-provoking.
So, rebrand those awkward silences as thoughtful silences, and see how that shifts your mindset about them.
6 - Reflect on the details
Either during or after a conversation, take some time to silently reflect on the details of what was being said. If you can recall some or most of the details, that’s a good sign you were actively listening.
If you struggle to remember what the conversation was about, it could be a sign that you weren’t actively listening.
Self-reflection after a conversation can be a good measure of where you’re at in your active listening journey. It can also provide a space for you to consider what was said, think through your opinions, develop solutions, make conclusions, and more.
7 - Own up when you’re not listening
It’s common for us to struggle with our listening skills. The world presents many distractions, especially at work, where we’re balancing various projects, deadlines, and meetings on top of our personal thoughts and feelings.
When you fail to listen, it’s okay. Be kind to yourself. You should also be kind to others by owning up to your mistakes. You can acknowledge that you weren’t listening, apologize, and move forward with a clear understanding rather than pretending that you were listening.
Holding yourself accountable in this way is a great way to practice trauma-informed values, model desired behaviors, and build a culture of responsibility and safety.
Owning up to not listening is as easy as saying, “I’m sorry, I zoned out for a second. Can you repeat that?” If you weren’t emotionally present during an entire meeting, you can also address that issue by apologizing, asking for what you need, and offering support to your team members.
Learn more practical trauma-informed skills with Chefalo Consulting
Active listening is a life skill that will improve your professional relationships, create an atmosphere of safety at work, and empower you to thrive as a trauma-informed leader.
If you want to learn more trauma-informed skills, be sure to keep up with Chefalo Consulting’s latest blogs. Every Wednesday, we release a new blog, and you can receive them straight to your inbox when you subscribe to our email list down below.