Communication is the most important tool we have when it comes to teamwork.

Listening sounds so simple, right? Hearing what the other person is saying is one thing, but really listening — listening for meaning, and how the other person is feeling — is difficult. For managers, the first thing you think after hearing a problem is often, “Let’s solve it,” but that’s not necessarily the way to go. In these moments it is really important to understand the other person. Sometimes, they’re not even sure how to say what they need to say. How can you be sure that what you actually heard is what they meant?

Conversations are a tricky thing — especially when it comes to difficult topics, like receiving and giving feedback, or talking about something very personal. As a manager, this is the real work.

This is where I’ve learned to apply active listening.

What is active listening?

Actively listening means fully concentrating on the other person, trying to understand not just the words being said but also the emotion behind them, responding appropriately, and then also remembering what was said. Active listening creates the foundation to a clear exchange and a shared understanding. It centers on empathy, which requires our full attention to understand the whole message.

There are three methods I’ve used in conversation to improve on my active listening approach.

1. Paraphrasing to enhance understanding.

If you do this correctly, you can express the feelings of the other person in your own words.

The best way I’ve learned to paraphrase is to try and repeat what I heard in my own words, showing that I understand and asking at the same time if I missed anything. You can always end with the question, “Did I get that correct?”

I might also ask questions that focus on specific things I heard, like:

  • What the other person observed: “Are you referring to the number of days I was off in the past two weeks?”
  • What I think the other person is telling me they feel: “Do you feel you are not getting enough recognition for your work?”
  • What the other person requests: “Would you like to hear the reasons why I said that?”

Even if you aren’t 100% correct with a paraphrase, that’s OK. It signals to the other person to clarify even more, which results in greater understanding.

Paraphrasing also has the great side effect of giving the other person time to reflect and listen to their inner voice again more accurately. You are acting as a mirror, helping the other person to gain more clarity about their own situation.

2. Banning these reaction phrases from my vocabulary.

I noticed a couple of different phrases that stop me from engaging in active listening. Most of them come from me wanting to solve instead of listen:

  • Giving advice: “I think you should . . .” “Why don’t you . . .”
  • One-upping: “That’s nothing, listen what happened to me . . .”
  • Comforting: “It wasn’t your mistake; you tried your best . . .”
  • Telling stories: “That reminds me of a time . . .”
  • Cutting someone short: “Come on, just hang in there . . .”
  • Pitying: “You poor . . .”
  • Interrogating: “When did it begin?”
  • Giving explanations: “I would have called, but . . .”
  • Revising: “That’s not how it went . . .”

Just having that list written down is a big help for me. Whenever I want to go for one now, I try to stop and reflect if I can answer in a better, more authentic way.

3. Signaling that I am listening.

That means not fiddling around with other things, turning off the phone and closing down all other distractions.

I’ve found that keeping eye contact and signaling that I’m following along with small signals like saying “yes,” “ah,” “hm,” and other phrases is helpful, as long as it happens in a natural way. Especially in remote work with video and phone calls, it is important to show that you are present.

Of course not everything is suddenly super easy when actively listening. These are some of the challenges I had to overcome.

1. Embracing “no solution.”

I always want to solve the problem. To sit with someone’s problem or challenge without solving it immediately is hard.

But the best solutions don’t always happen within one conversation. They can take much longer, especially when personal and interpersonal challenges are in the mix. Even when it’s hard, it is important to explore all of the context before moving toward a potential solution.

I’m still working on my problem-solving habit. Something I try to repeat in my head during every conversation is, “Ask before you give advice or comfort.”

2. Working through tough emotions.

When personal topics come up, emotions play an important role. Tears or other strong emotions are often a sign that you’re talking about a crucial topic. Although the first impulse might be to smooth things over (“It’s okay, don’t cry”) or even change the topic, it’s key to embrace the emotions and stay with them.

Most of the time, just making that small change is enough. To sit with someone else’s strong feelings, without trying to come to an immediate solution, is powerful. Sometimes we are too embarrassed to learn how to cope with moments like this. In my experience, letting those feelings be heard and understood leads to unexpected positive outcomes.

3. Being okay with silence.

To be silent in a conversation is often seen as an embarrassing thing. But after a lot of reflection and learning, l realized that it can also mean that someone is just busy figuring out how and what to say. This is very likely to happen with active listening, as you put more focus on what you will respond with.

It is hard to push through, but enduring that silence for a couple of seconds can really help. If the silence is getting too uncomfortable, you can also ask “What’s on your mind right now?” The answer will give you a hint if you are too impatient or if the other person really doesn’t have anything more to say.

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