The Art of Active Listening...by Jeff Haltrecht

In our lead article of this month’s digest, Colin encounters a maddening situation in the shipping department that most of us can relate to from our own experiences.

He chooses to confront the situation head-on and literally attacks his employees with verbal questioning.  To his chagrin and even deeper disappointment, not one of the four individuals responds.   As the article progresses, we understand why – the more emotional we are, the less rational we become and are adversely affected from thinking of effective solutions.

What could Colin have done differently?  A number of approaches exist, of which ‘active listening’ would have been at the top of the list.

Active listening is the art of dialoguing with an open mind, being focused on the world of the other individual, and asking open-ended questions to better understand his/her situation.

When active listening is performed correctly, the other individual feels respected because you heard him/her and are considering his/her points-of-view.  With this approach, everyone’s mind is open and thinking about possibilities.

There are three elements to active listening, with all of them present and inter-woven during the conversation:

  1. Verbal communication
  2. Non-verbal communication
  3. Framing

Let’s take a closer look…

VERBAL COMMUNICATION
Whether you are approaching your team for a group discussion, or a person has sought you out for a conversation, apply most of your energy to gain an understanding of the other person’s perspective.

If you use non-judgmental, open-ended questions, you’ll bring out alternative points-of-view.  Listen to what is said and then clarify what you don’t understand or what points need expanding.  Lastly, follow-up with a summary of what you heard.  If you can do this with empathy, even better!


Questioning examples – also referred to as ‘seeking to understand’

  • What happened?
  • How did things unfold?
  • What is the customer’s point-of-view?
  • When you said the trucking company came and left early, what explanation was provided?

Clarifying examples – also referred to as ‘expanding upon’

  • You mentioned the new software does not accurately tabulate the data.  Do you mean none of the data is captured, or just a portion is missing, and if so, what impact is it having?
  • You mentioned the budget for the Georgetown project is $450K.  Is this just infrastructure costs or does it also include labour and general expenses?


 Summarizing example – also referred to as ‘confirming’

  • Thanks for the great work.  If I understood you correctly, your team’s assessment suggests an 11% return on capital over a 10-year period, a 15% reduction in defects and an increase in order fill rates from 94% to 96%.  The equipment is made in Canada, has a 3-month lead-time and it will take a further four weeks to install.  The supplier is ready to begin work next week, with a live date of November 1st.  Is that correct?

NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION
Your body language and tone will say more about how you are listening than any words you choose.

  • Posture - Sit or stand confidently without crossing your arms, have an open upper-body posture, and mimic the individual’s behaviour (within reason).
  • Eye contact - Maintain eye contact as a means of offering respect and saying ‘I’m listening’.  Don’t shift your gaze and pay attention to other activities in the area.
  • Tonality in the words - This deals with the subtleties of how you say things.  Was your voice harsh or soft?  Did you use complex words in your question, or kept it simple?  Did you question in a pointed accusatory manner or an open seeking-to-understand way?

FRAMING
It is very easy to pre-judge, frame, or assume certain aspects of a conversation before it begins.  Resist this urge and go in with an open mind focused on the other’s reality.

Before the conversation starts, ask yourself if you are:

  • in a positive vs. negative mind-set
  • seeking to understand vs. reject the position
  • discounting their view based on assumed levels of expertise

At some point during active listening, you will be able to move things forward and find a win-win solution or make a process oriented decision.  Still using your questioning technique, have the individual think through the situation and make recommendations.

He/she will be able to respond because you have not put them under pressure.  To the contrary, you have made this person feel important and valued, leading him/her to want to contribute to making the situation better.

If you like what is suggested, go with it.  If you need to build on it, do so with his/her permission and the knowledge and trust the employee values your input.

Coming back to Colin and the shipping department, we could imagine what non-verbal communication signals he was sending, let alone that he framed the situation before he even asked the first question.

Had he calmed down, sought to understand, and asked for solutions in a non-judgmental manner, he surely would feel better about his team and would have leveraged a bad situation into one of building trust for the future.