Active Listening: Recognizing the Unsaid

Nonverbal cues are a critical part of active listening.

Written by Heather R. Younger
Published on Jun. 14, 2023
Active Listening: Recognizing the Unsaid
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After reading many books on communication, I’ve noticed that the majority focus on communicating as a way of securing what we want from others. 

How to Use Active Listening to Resolve Conflicts

  • Ask open-ended questions to indicate you’re committed to understanding the other person’s position.
  • Lean in with compassion for what that person might be going through.
  • Recognize what they aren’t telling you.
  • Take the time to research the issue.
  • Come up with a plan of action to resolve things.
  • Thank the other person and relay your plan to make things better.

In the context of listening, that means only listening to someone to create an outcome that works best for us — for example, a manager who only listens to an employee to determine how to drive greater productivity, a senior leader who only listens to a manager to figure out why their turnover is so high, a salesperson who only listens to a customer to figure out how to get them to buy. The problem with these examples is that they reflect a transactional listening mindset that does little to recognize the unsaid.  

Recently, I was in conversation with Sarah, who explained she’d discovered that a few employees at her job had grown so unhappy, they had decided to stage a walkout. The employees felt underpaid, unheard and unappreciated. Sarah went to her manager, Kate, in confidence to let her know what was about to happen, without naming names, so Kate knew there were multiple people who felt this way. 

To Sarah’s alarm, Kate became more concerned about who was going to walk out and how it was going to affect her than about actually fixing the issue at its root.  

After I thought about what Sarah had shared with me, I realized there were a few things Kate could have done instead, beginning with recognizing the unsaid. Employees weren’t coming to Kate directly to voice their concerns, but their proposed course of action spoke volumes. She could have faced the uncomfortable truth that people were unhappy and agreed to hear them out. 

Instead, she chose to focus on her ego — not on what people needed. If she had leaned into the discomfort of recognizing the unsaid, she would have cultivated more curiosity around understanding what motivated them, without being so focused on who was involved. The decision to seek out blame prevented her from finding a positive resolution.

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How to Recognize the Unsaid

Recognizing the unsaid often starts with facing the unknown and being prepared for whatever the truth may reveal — including when we need to take action in response to what we’ve learned. 

The temptation can be to bury our heads in the sand because we don’t feel prepared to deal with what could be an inconvenient reality. Even when the truth shines a light on where we need to focus our time and energy next, it might not seem timely or convenient to do so. One lesson I’ve seen many organizations learn the hard way is the danger of avoiding feedback that’s ill-timed. I’m rarely surprised to hear leaders express how much they regret not taking the time to address that same feedback earlier. 

Art of Active Listening book cover imageIn the course of one of the employee listening sessions I facilitate for clients, one participant recounted a disappointing story. During Black History Month, she decided to contact human resources to share her opinion on the lack of support in her company for people of color. She provided some historical context, as well as a list of professionals who could conduct workshops and training on specific topics. Unfortunately, she said, the response she received from HR was full of excuses about why the company hadn’t yet made a statement of unity with Black staff members, who were feeling the strain. 

While the company did have an affirmative action plan, it was a plan and not a statement. When I asked her how this interaction made her feel, she said, “Invisible.” She felt underappreciated, as though her opinion and voice didn’t matter. “To this day, nothing has been addressed or changed.” 

This is at the heart of why active listening at work is so critical. This team member already harbored some anger around how her work place did not take a stand. The HR department then missed a huge opportunity to not only recognize that this employee was speaking up on behalf of others who were struggling, but also to improve the company’s culture as a whole. The department’s lack of acknowledgment left her feeling even angrier and more misunderstood.

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Growing Through Discomfort

Recognizing the unsaid can be an uncomfortable experience, but there is necessary growth in that discomfort. We must enter into every listening interaction with a desire to know the truth — and without assuming what that truth might be. Not only that, but once we discover the truth, we must be prepared to act on it.  

Next time you’re working to recognize the unsaid, take a moment to pause and reflect on how you feel. Can you keep an objective mind and not take things personally? The more you do this, the more you’ll build confidence in your ability to detect nonverbal cues from others that help you piece together what’s happening beneath the surface. 

Excerpted with permission from The Art of Active Listening: How People at Work Feel Heard, Valued, and Understood by Heather R. Younger. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Copyright © 2023 by Heather R. Younger.

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