Sep 18, 2022

Upskilling active listening

When was the last time you truly listened to a colleague? Were you listening to understand them or were you wondering how best to jump in with your incredible ideas? We all do it. We all have moments when we focus more on what we want and forget to listen properly. Active listening isn’t easy but it’s critical if you want to take your business above and beyond.

The surprising magic of listening

There’s very little silence left in this world. Most of us rush around from one problem to the next barely hearing what we think we need to accomplish. Unbeknown to most people, they will forget most of what they hear. On the other hand, active listening not only helps you remember but also limits misunderstandings. 

Active listening goes far beyond simply gathering data points to then being able to repeat them. It means being fully present to understand the other person. This isn’t about jumping in with a reply. It’s about paying attention to the speaker, their facial expressions, body language and intonations.

An active listener who can take in all verbal and non-verbal cues also has strong emotional intelligence. Moreover, as this study on the Power of Listening at Work shows, top leaders use active listening effectively. That’s how they engender trust, connectivity and well-being. All these traits naturally lead to loyalty, greater productivity and improved overall performance. 

Interpersonal skills revolve around active listening. Business success demands such soft skills, as does the Future of Work. Industry trends clearly show that digital transformation is changing our lives and work. Within that world, human-centric companies will thrive in the long term. Fundamentally, with active listening, people feel valued and motivated to go the extra mile.

How can you embody the benefits of active listening and improve employee retention?

The World Economic Forum gives a useful checklist of active listening techniques to become a better listener. For example, withholding judgment and using positive body language help you create a good dynamic with other people. Moreover, these leave a positive impact on people that only adds to well-being and overall employee retention. 

Nevertheless, learning new skills isn’t always easy. You want to future-proof your business by building upskilling programs to include these critical steps:

  • Ask questions to encourage self-awareness. As this Harvard Business Review on the Surprising Power of Questions details, asking questions enables self-discovery in others and builds rapport, both of which drive engagement. The article further describes the art of combining the right level of open and closed questions. 
  • Practice clarifying and summarizing statements. These two techniques allow the listener to reflect on what they’ve understood. Consequently, they show appreciation and support for the other person in formalizing their thoughts.
  • Use curiosity. Through curiosity, we spark our natural empathy and momentarily disconnect the ego. Without the constant ego-chatter of our desires and fears, we have the headspace to truly listen and to be there for the other person. 
  • Leverage pauses. Silence can be terrifying. Nevertheless, silence shows you’re listening which builds trust because people feel heard. Moreover, you’ll get deeper insights as others often prefer to keep filling the silence. 

Improve business sales through active listening

All businesses want to grow and prosper. Of course, a key element is to define the right KPIs and OKRs. Nevertheless, without emotional intelligence, leaders can’t connect to their teams’ internal motivations. Essentially, most people don’t share their inner desires, which is where active listening comes into play.

Sales environments are particularly good examples of areas for exploring listening capabilities. Compare the salesperson who talks perfectly about their product with the one who can speak their customers’ language. As our language of leadership article describes, the more you can understand your customers’ mental distortions and mindsets, the deeper the connection and the insight. 

Similarly, an expert sales listener will pick up on the subtle cues of what their customers want deep down. With active listening skills, they can also adapt their approach and behavior to match their customers. This study on a salesperson performance further confirms that those with strong listening skill sets become trusted partners. They take their customer relationship past the transactional and into the strategic. 

Upskilling active listening needs a more tailored professional development approach because everyone experiences listening and speaking in different ways. Even now as you read this, are you aware of your inner conversation that’s perhaps agreeing or disagreeing? Managing our inner conversation is just as much part of active listening as understanding the other person. 

A leadership coach is best placed to support people to explore their inner worlds in a safe place.  People can then challenge their inner voices and learn to tame them by exploring different techniques. The more you do this type of upskilling at all levels, the more you’ll increase employee engagement, mutual understanding, and shared respect.

Six key steps to being a good active listener

Anyone can start improving their listening skills by going through these steps. Although, as we all know, there’s a difference between reading something and nodding in agreement to implementing it at a deep emotional level.

  1. Set the intention. In this first step, state your goal to actively listen without getting lost in your inner chatter. 
  1. Turn off distractions. Commit to providing your full attention with devices all put away. 
  1. Mindful body language. Provide a trusting space where your body is engaged and your eye contact is compassionate but confident. 
  1. Be curious about different viewpoints. You must suspend judgment when you practice active listening. This allows for other possibilities and options which in turn improves problem-solving capabilities. 
  1. Ask open-ended questions. Limit the use of closed questions because they drive bias. Instead, you open up the floor to people to share both their thoughts and feelings and explore possible common ground.
  1. Reflect and share. Through various techniques such as summarizing, clarifying, and paraphrasing, you show understanding both of the content and feelings. This builds rapport as you connect on a deeper emotional level. 

How to upskill active listening

Upskilling and reskilling are both parts of any good training and development program. Although, an upskilling strategy looks at closing a specific skills gap, such as listening, to enable people to improve their current job performance. Everyone needs upskilling opportunities but sometimes you need to learn new skills to change jobs. This then involves reskilling. 

In summary, upskilling is the process of gaining new competencies. Generally, it’s more cost-effective and fulfilling for teams than defaulting to external hiring. In essence, hiring externally comes with its own set of challenges. 

When it comes to improving listening skills, as mentioned, upskilling needs to cover emotional intelligence. This includes self-awareness because that’s how you connect with your inner dialogue to limit its distraction. This takes a certain mindset and behavioral change. 

Employees first need to learn what it means to pause what they’re doing without getting stressed when it comes to upskilling active listening. They then need to develop a common language to support each other. That way, they’re more likely to take the time to listen and learn together in this new way of interacting.

Such a mindset change is often best done with small and frequent interventions such as with the exercises listed below alongside blocks of coaching sessions. Adults tend to learn best by first reviewing a framework, in this case, the listening steps described above, and then practicing in the workplace. The behavior is then reinforced by reflecting with a coach, whether leadership or a language coach

Examples of active listening exercises

  • In pairs: with a conversation partner, people practice first listening to the other person speak for 3 minutes and then speaking whilst the other listens. They then share their experience and feelings.
  • Mindful grounding techniques to be present:  to fully pay attention to someone requires mindfulness otherwise we get distracted by our internal chatter. The only part of us that doesn’t chatter is the body. So, we connect to the body’s senses to keep us focused in the here and now. 
  • Explain your day without using I: active listening requires empathy and appreciation of others. A powerful exercise in shifting the viewpoint to others is to limit the use of the word I. 
  • Listening journal: a useful exercise is to reflect on the day and write when you successfully listened actively and when you lost focus. The more you understand the triggers that distract you, the more you can tame them. 

Drive business success with an active listening culture

Active listening means hearing to understand the other person’s viewpoint and feelings. Without this information, we often create misunderstandings that lead to conflict and disgruntled employees. 

Upskilling active listening involves learning the key steps alongside building self-awareness. No one can hope to become an effective listener if we can’t manage our internal dialogue that runs nonstop. Whilst this might seem challenging, it is possible through mindfulness, curiosity and reflection. 

None of those soft skills can be learned by rote. People need a safe space to review and share inner thoughts and feelings with a coach, also skilled at active listening. Only through that space can the necessary behavioral change happen where people suspend judgment, leave their egos behind and let others have the space they need to thrive. The business performance follows naturally.   


Coaching, Company Culture, L&D, Leadership, People, Skills-Based Coaching

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