The shortfalls of Active Listening

January 31, 2017


There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about Active Listening. That is, listening that’s focused on the speaker, making sure they feel heard and understood. It uses verbal and physical affirmation from listener to speaker, and is commonly used in areas like counselling, training, management, conflict resolution, community consultation, and even journalism.

I think the intention of this originally was to come into your listening interaction from an empathetic stand point – to show your speaker that you’re with them and you understand. The elements of active listening differ a little depending on what you read, but essentially at its core it’s about understanding, remembering and responding to what the speaker is saying.

Unfortunately over time, things have become a little cloudy – many articles now focus on the verbal and physical response techniques (e.g. mirroring, eye contact, “yes, I understand”, “indeed”, posture, etc), which alone can be irritating and frankly useless if they don’t come from an intention of genuine empathy and understanding. It can be all too easy to get caught up in the tasks and lose authenticity (some refer to this as simply “reflective listening“).

If carried out properly, Active Listening can still be a useful style for situations that are about that moment, when the most important thing about the conversation is supporting the speaker. For example, this is the kind of listening you might use when supporting a friend through a break up. The detail is less important than your friend feeling heard, loved and supported.

It might also be a good style to apply if you are a HR professional dealing with a conflict resolution – but here’s where it gets interesting. Unlike the break-up, in this situation there is a larger listening context than just the speaker and the listener.

Where Active Listening falls short is in interactions when the information the listener receives has a practical application beyond that specific interaction.

Let’s take the HR conflict resolution as an example. While it is absolutely necessary to enter that situation practising an empathetic style of listening – ensuring the speaker feels heard and that you’ve understand what they’ve said – there’s more to this story. The speaker is not the only stakeholder in this conversation. What needs to happen as a result of this interaction? On who’s behalf are you listening (e.g. your boss? the rest of the staff? the other party involved in the conflict?)? How will this information be used? What are the important elements of the conversation to remember, and how are you capturing them?

There’s a whole listening universe out there that needs to be taken into account to ensure your listening skills are not only coming from an empathetic place, but a useful one.

There are countless examples for where this style of listening applies – a project briefing with a client, attending a conference, a doctor’s appointment, a planning workshop… Any situation where the information needs to have a greater lifespan than just from speaker’s mouth to listener’s ears.

This is what I call Practical Listening. It’s an outcomes-based approach that focuses on who and what you are listening for, and how to best tune into, capture and remember what’s important.

By taking the time to put yourself in the shoes of the end user, identifying what’s important to them, and setting some intentions around what you’re listening for, you’re able to give the speaker’s voice the utility and longevity it deserves.

Up next: Practical Listening – Three steps 

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Why you need to be a better listener

January 23, 2017


The world is changing quickly.

We know that technology is progressing at an exponential rate. That there’s been a shift in customer / client / employee expectations, and that automation is leading us to a knowledge-based economy. In the new world of big data, robots, the internet of things, and whatever comes next… Our human skills are more valuable than ever.

Young people entering the workforce today are expected to have 17 different jobs in 5 different industries in their working life. What were once thought of as “soft skills”, like problem solving, adaptability, collaboration, and of course – listening… are now key skills to leadership and success in the future.

We know that we need to be better listeners to succeed in an ever-changing world.

The rise of social media, the shared economy (e.g. Uber, AirBnB) and peer-to-peer ratings (e.g. Yelp, TripAdvisor), have all impacted on the power shift that has seen everyone from grass roots organisations to international conglomerates talking “customer centricity”. Instead of telling customers what they want, there’s now a platform to actually listen to what they need, and respond.

Never before have organisations been able to get this close to their customers – to live in their everyday worlds, to talk to them one on one, to receive honest feedback on their products and services. This can be either an incredible opportunity or a nail in the coffin, and it all depends on how well we choose to listen.

The way successful companies are listening internally to their employees is changing dramatically, too. As the world starts to move away from hierarchical workplace structures, things like idea jams, hack-a-thons and innovation competitions – originally led by innovation leaders like Google – are now becoming more common place in variety of organisations. This is recognition of the fact that all the good ideas don’t sit at the top, and anyone could have a valuable contribution to make.

If we don’t invest in developing solid and practical listening skills, who knows what gold nuggets of value we’re missing out on from our customers, employees, and the world around us.

Stay tuned for the next article on Practical Listening, and why Active Listening alone doesn’t always cut it.

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