Diagnosing and Improving Your Active Listening Skills – Part 1

In the last post, I introduced the importance of having empathy and using active listening to encourage and facilitate relevant employee feedback, which is part of a foundational leadership skill set.  Sometimes empathy and sympathy are confused; understanding the difference will help streamline your ability to glean helpful feedback and better lead your work force.

If you are expressing empathy, you are trying to put yourself into the other person’s shoes to more fully understand their point of view.  This is in contrast to sympathy where you are often feeling sorry for that person and perhaps even identifying with similar feelings of your own.  You will likely have difficulty actively listening if you are expressing sympathy instead of empathy.  Keep this distinction in mind as we continue.

In order to improve your active listening skills, it is important to review what it means to be an effective listener. Let’s take a look at some natural tendencies to overcome when working toward mastering active listening.

  • While you are having a conversation, do you rehearse what you are going to say when it is your turn to talk?

If so, you are paying attention to your own thoughts rather than to what the other person is actually saying. You have stopped actively listening to the other person.

Practice observing give and take during conversations to become more aware of this dynamic. Stop and take notice when you are talking to someone to see if you can tell when the person is actually listening to you or if they seem a little distracted. Perhaps they are already thinking about how they are going to respond to you!

If this is something you find yourself doing as well, try to be more intentional and listen closely to what is being said. Do not contemplate what you are going to say, rather try to respond naturally.  Practice this technique in your daily conversations until it becomes more second nature. You will find that when you are present and less distracted, the other person is more likely to respond in kind, facilitating a more genuine exchange.

  • Do you like to rush in and fix things with good advice?

If this is true for you – stop.  Unless the person you are talking to is actively asking you for help or advice, don’t offer your two cents.  When someone is telling you about their problems, more often than not they are only seeking someone to listen and perhaps validate them.  As an active listener you want to avoid quickly providing solutions because those solutions are what you would do. A leader needs to be able to hear from different sources and “fixing things” before hearing another perspective decreases the likelihood you will receive helpful feedback.

Every problem has multiple answers; what works for you may not be the best solution for someone else.  If you want someone to feel that you are really interested in them and that you are available to help problem-solve, ask them what solutions they are considering.  If they only have one potential solution, you can help by asking to brainstorm more options.  Practice this the next time someone comes to you with a problem.  It will make your conversation partner feel that you really heard them and lead to more viable and effective solutions.

Next week’s post will continue on this topic as we explore more listening skills and how to enhance them.

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