Guest Post byBelinda Callin– Despite possible and quite common misconceptions, active listening is not a submissive subjugation to hours of grievances or complaints. It is not the simple nodding of a head, with a few uh-hu’s thrown in for good measure. It is not waiting silently for a turn to talk. And, it most definitely is not a parroting of what is heard.
Active listening is just what the name calls for, active participation in a conversation in which the speaker conveys a message to a listener through verbal messages. Active listening requires that the listener translate and respond to the entire message. A message that contains two parts: the content of the message and the feeling associated with the message.
When an employee comes to a manager and states: “I finished the set up for that new account,” there are two components that the manager must understand if he is to respond appropriately.
First, the content of the message is quite direct. ‘The task that I was assigned is finished.’ Next, is the feeling behind the message, the non-direct part of the communication: ‘I am ready to be assigned another task.’
To which the manager could respond, “It sounds to me like you are ready to move on to something else.”
This is a simple enough use of active listening in which the manager listened to the entire message and fed back what he interpreted.
But, imagine that the interaction had gone a little different. Perhaps the employee comes to the manager and says, “I finally managed to get everything set up for that darn account.”
The content of the message is the same, the employee finished the task he was assigned. But, here the feeling behind the message has changed. Responding to this message in the same way would not relate to the employee that he had conveyed his entire message. A message of frustration.
Utilizing active listening, the manager would instead hear that the task was difficult, or perhaps took more time than usual, responding with “it sounds like you had a hard time with that one.”
This is where misconceptions confuse the situation.
Understanding that the task was difficult does not mean that the manager has to open the door to long-winded complaints by asking why the task was so difficult. In fact, questioning the difficulties of the employee is considered one of the 12 Road Blocks to Communication (as developed by Dr. Thomas Gordon) and should be avoided.
Responding to the feeling of the message with “sounds like that was a difficult task” opens doors of communication due to the empathy and compassion conveyed in the message.
This does not mean that the employee will not move on to the next project or that it needs to be changed in any way, but it will relate to him that his message of frustration was heard and understood. He can then move on with those feelings of validation to be more productive in that next task.
Active listening is simple, but not always easy
To be successful at active listening, one must want to hear the messages conveyed. One must let go of the need to solve every problem or mend every wounded ego. One must learn to understand that the simple act of listening and validating feelings can help employees solve their own troubles.
Active listening is a method that opens doors of communication and has been proven to increase job satisfaction in both managers and employees. However, listening in this way requires an internal shift from the old habits of questioning, advising and admonishing—all things that could have happened in the above example—it requires that we first hear what is said, hear what is not said and then respond to both in a way that conveys respect for speaker and what they are feeling.
Belinda Callin is a journalist by education. She is currently blogging about and sharing her experiences in her leadership training course.
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