We’ve all been there. When you’re talking to a colleague, and the colleague is so clearly distracted – maybe they are typing, checking their watch, or only listening to interrupt with stories of their own. As a team member, we know this behavior is distracting and disengaging. But – what does it mean to really listen? Listening is often described in two different ways: active listening and passive listening. Passive listening is your distracted colleague. Active listening is a learned skill, which distinguishes hearing from listening. “Hearing becomes listening only when you pay attention to what the person is saying and follow it very closely. To do that, you need to stay aware of which of the two noises you’re listening to and consciously redirect your attention back to the speaker when you get off track” (Vistage).
To hone the skill of active listening, it will take dedicated practice by every member of your team. In fact, the human brain will fight against active listening. “When someone talks to you, your brain immediately begins processing the words, body language, tone, inflection, and perceived meanings coming from the other person. Instead of hearing one noise, you hear two: the noise the other person is making and the noise in your own head” (Vistage). We’re wired to constantly be thinking and reacting, so trying to focus takes work. Be aware of your surroundings when you’re having a conversation that requires active listening. If you’re scheduled to have an important conversation in a busy restaurant, consider asking to relocate your meeting to a quiet office space to ensure you can truly engage.
To help you focus on what your team member is saying, start by consciously not interrupting. Allow a person to express a complete thought and resist the urge to jump in. Better yet, demonstrate your attention by being aware of your body language. “People can tell when you’re not paying attention, so use your body language and gestures to let them know you are locked into what they’re saying” (Vistage). This might include consistent eye contact, the occasional nod to acknowledge or agree, as well as a posture that conveys openness and approachability. When appropriate, respond or ask clarifying questions to show true engagement in what’s being discussed.
In order to encourage active listening in your team, you must start by leading by example. As a leader, make it a priority to listen, not just hear, what your team members are saying. During team meetings, “reflect what has been said by paraphrasing; use language such as “What I am hearing is ___” and “Sounds like you are saying ___.” Ask questions to clarify certain points. “What do you mean when you say ___?” “Is this what you mean?” Periodically summarize the speaker’s comments” (Michigan State University). Demonstrating this level of engagement will make the speaker feel heard and encourage similar behavior across your team.
You might also consider implementing listening exercises during team meetings. You could make it a practice to ask a member of your team to summarize what they’ve just heard after someone has spoken. “By clarifying and summarizing what you heard, you can ensure that everyone is on the same page and avoid miscommunication or assumptions that can lead to disagreements or dispute” (LinkedIn).
Setting an expectation that your team should be actively listening, responding and providing feedback will go a long way in ensuring understanding and resolving and preventing team conflict. It will also promote healthy relationships among team members, promote productivity and enhance collaboration.