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Actively listening in a busy working environment

Patrick Gallen
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“Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”              — Larry King, CNN
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If asked, most organisations will assert that they listen to their employees. They may even point you towards a suggestions box, or an annual employee survey that they use. However, what do we really mean by ‘listening’?

In my view, the purpose of listening should be two fold; firstly, to show respect for the other party and that you value their input and insights, and secondly, to learn.

Fundamentally, we do not develop new skills or improve unless we learn, and that involves not only making mistakes, but also listening, and learning from others. Practising ‘Active Listening’ is a great place to start if you want to improve your organisation

It can be easy for leaders to overlook the knowledge and insight that has accumulated amongst their workforce with busy schedules and the pressures of today’s working environment, but these people are the ones who are actually doing the work and interacting with your suppliers or customers. They may have insights about how better to serve those customers, to improve your own processes, or to improve the working environment in general.  Learning to understand is of the upmost importance, not only to make life better for your employees, but also to improve your organisation and deliver future success.

Active listening is also a very powerful tool when resolving interpersonal or inter-organisational conflicts. This can be incredibly valuable not just to organisations, but to relationships and individuals in almost any setting. It is beneficial not only to your organisation but also to the individuals within it, because being listened to and having your opinions valued is positively correlated with improved levels of self-esteem and wellbeing.

A key part of active listening is making sure the other person knows that you are doing so (we can all tell when we are speaking with someone who is just waiting for their turn to speak). Even when people do make the time to have a conversation, visual cues like eye contact, facial expressions, and body language can often reveal that they are not really listening. So, when engaged in active listening you should make a conscious effort to be truly engaged and to eliminate distractions, particularly when using virtual platforms such as Teams or Zoom - and just not just reading your emails.  Can you really be actively listening with your camera turned off?

Being an active listener is not something most of us can just do without thinking about it. We all have busy lives and busy jobs with lots of things going through our minds at any given moment.  It is a skill, and for most of us, it will take practice. A good place to start is during your next conversation, try not to focus on what your response is going to be but rather think about; what is this person trying to tell me? Why do they want me to know this? And how do they appear to feel about this? This skill will develop over time, as you become a more natural active listener, and you should begin to gain more insights from your conversations. Being a good active listener comes at no cost, and it may just give you that competitive edge, both as an individual and for the organisation.