effective communication soft skills

Working from Home Can Make It Harder to Connect With & Understand Our Co-Workers. Amping Up Your Listening Skills Is an Antidote to this Challenge.

Humans are complicated. But you know that.  We all have a unique combination of energy levels, motivations, personal values, beliefs, fears, baggage, confidence levels, humility, empathy, and stressors thanks to our job and personal responsibilities. Those are a lot of human elements to try to navigate successfully.

The fact that most of us are working from home exclusively right now, without in-person, face-to-face discussions further complicates our ability to connect with and interpret our co-workers’ intentions and actions.

One antidote to this super-sized issue is active listening. The benefits of strong listening skills are vast, and it powers other critical soft skills, such as effective communication, strong collaboration, humility, problem-solving, and critical thinking. So, the benefits of active listening reach far beyond clearly understanding your teammates.

Today’s endless digital distractions and hyper-urgent work environments make it challenging to listen actively. The truth is, most of us have weak listening skills.

And, given most of our work interactions are either by phone or video while working from home, concentrating on what others are saying is more complicated than ever.

Active listening is more than hearing what is said, acknowledging someone is speaking by a physical cue, and then summarizing what they said.  Active listening is a very involved process.  It includes focusing on the complete message or all the facts the other person is communicating, withholding judgment until all the facts are presented, asking clarifying questions (respectfully), observing non-verbal cues, and more.

To clearly understand others, remain productive, produce high-quality work, and offset the additional anxiety we all feel due to COVID-19, amp up your active listening skills.

Below are the components of active listening.

To actively listen:

Remove distractions & do not multitask. Put away all digital devices, phones, computers, tablets, etc. (unless you are using them for a voice or video call) and look at the person speaking. When we look away from someone who is talking, it suggests, at a minimum, we are not interested in what the speaker is saying, and at worst, demonstrates disrespect.

Multitasking is an extreme distraction that takes our focus away from a speaker.  Research shows that our brains cannot do two cognitive things simultaneously, so when we attempt to multitask, we miss vital points a speaker is making.

Let go of your thoughts. Humans speak at about 225 words per minute, but we listen to 500 words in this same amount of time.  Our minds fill in this 275-word gap by recalling related stories, or other connections to what someone says.  We often hold on to these stories or ideas so we can share them when a speaker finishes talking.  To truly listen, we need to let these thoughts go and focus our minds back on the speaker.

The challenge here is to reframe from starting to form a response after just a few comments by the other person.  Listening is not the same thing as waiting for your turn to talk.  After only a few comments by others, we can start to draft what we want to say in our minds. This inactive listening process can cause us to miss important facts and non-verbal cues, which may lead us to respond inappropriately.

Keep an open mind, attempt to withhold judgment, and assume you will learn something from the other person. If you realize you are starting to judge what someone is saying, try to clear your thoughts and return to listening objectively. To fully understand someone, we need to withhold judgment, blame, and criticism. Instead of judging, try to understand what might be impacting the person’s opinion. Influences at work can include job responsibilities, individual goals and objectives, pending deadlines, and other stressors.  We need to understand these influences to know how they impact someone else’s views.  We can then either agree or respectfully share counter-information or ideas.

Therapist M. Scott Peck said,

True listening requires a setting aside of oneself.”  

Good listeners set aside their personal opinions during a conversation.  And they appreciate everyone is an expert in something.  So, they open their mind to learning something from that expert.

Look for nonverbal communication. Observe the body language and facial expressions of a speaker to gain greater insight into their opinions. This observation can be challenging on a video call, so an even sharper focus on a speaker is needed.

But also keep individual differences in mind. People from different countries and cultures tend to use different nonverbal communication gestures, so it’s important to take age, culture, religion, gender, and emotional state into account when reading body language signals. A colleague from a different country, one who is older, or another that is preoccupied with a mistake they made, for example, are likely to use nonverbal cues differently.

Ask clarifying questions to gain a greater understanding. Ask open-ended questions starting with who, what, when, where, how, or why.  And keep your questions short and simple.  Try not to suggest an answer, but rather let the speaker fill-in the details.  For example, instead of asking, “Is this information based on customer feedback?” which can solicit just a yes or no answer, ask, “How was the information gathered that helped to form your opinion?”

Asking a good question demonstrates to the speaker you are actively engaged, respect their views, and are interested in fully understanding what they are saying.

Build the speaker’s self-esteem. Make sure the exchange is a positive one for the speaker.  Support them even if you need to share a difference of opinion and do so thoughtfully, in a non-argumentative way.  Good conversations involve sharing counter-information and debating facts without making the other person defensive.

Be sure to stay in an inquiry tone of voice and avoid using words that sound accusatory.  For example, instead of saying, “Your data analysis is wrong.”  Ask, “How did you approach the data analysis?” or “What assumptions did you include in your data analysis?”

Good listeners may challenge a speaker, but they do it in a way that makes the speaker feel as though the listener is trying to help versus win an argument.  And excellent communicators select their words carefully to avoid sounding harsh, dismissive, or accusatory.

In contrast, poor listeners are interested in pointing out errors, which can cause the speaker to feel devalued.

Make helpful suggestions. Good listeners also carefully choose their words when making suggestions to ensure they present them in a supportive, non-critical way.  For example, they say things like “you might consider,” or “another approach might be.”

When you’re an engaged listener, not only will you better understand the other person, you will also make that person feel heard and understood, which can help build a deeper connection between you.

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