Employees are all ears during meetings at MediaCrossing, a digital advertising firm based in Stamford, Connecticut. That’s because managers practice active listening and encourage it across the firm. “Our teams rely on strong communications skills to be agile and provide quick turnaround times on projects,” said Alexis Sheehy, director of growth marketing and a two-year MediaCrossing veteran. Sheehy actively listens in client meetings to understand their objectives and foster cross-departmental collaboration. “Active listening allows us to be better coworkers, employees and leaders within our own organization,” she said. “Often, active listening promotes greater collaboration and new ideas emerge from this increased connectivity.”
At SPR, a Chicago-based tech modernization firm, active listening yields internal and external benefits, said Justin Rodenbostel, vice president of solution delivery. “Internal in that communicating with an active listener often results in you having a better understanding of how you’re feeling or what you were originally trying to communicate, and external in that you leave a conversation with an assurance that what you communicated was accurate and well-understood by both parties,” he said. In addition to imparting a feeling of emotional connection and support, the accurate communication of ideas translates into less wasted time, a higher-quality work product, and an empathetic, happier and more productive team, he said.
What is Active Listening?
OK, so what exactly is active listening? An alternative adjective might be “intentional” listening, as it’s the practice of truly leaning in to absorb what speakers are saying. Active listening doesn’t come easy in this era of distracted multitasking; it requires practice and a commitment from all levels of an organization. Here, tech professionals who use active listening offer seven tips for the practice.
Nothing disturbs active listening like an urgent email, a DM from a colleague, even breaking news. “We’ve taught our managers that it is extra critical to proactively remove distractions so online video meetings, especially one-on-one meetings with their direct reports, can be focused,” said Matt Mead, CTO at SPR. That means shutting down email, Slack, web browsers and other distractions before a meeting starts. One easy way to accomplish this: Enable “do not disturb” functions during meetings.
“If you are actively asking questions, you are listening to the response,” said Rob Henrikson, head of operations at MediaCrossing. “Then you’re gathering information, intelligence on how to better work with the person that’s across the table from you.” As for the questions, open-ended rather than those that would elicit “yes” or “no” work best in active listening. “You want to get the person talking as much as you possibly can to uncover either the root of what’s being asked of you or that person’s perspective,” he said. Open-ended questions, for instance “How do you see this situation unfolding?” or “What is your view of the problem?” allow the speaker to expand on the topic and also give the chance to gain that person’s perspective, which Henrikson said plays a big part in active listening. “If anyone’s struggling with an interpersonal relationship in an office, there’s a good chance that they don’t understand the other person’s perspective,” he said. “The only way you get there is asking questions.”
Get Comfortable With Silence
“We will sit through the most uncomfortable silences you could possibly imagine,” Henrikson said. After asking a question, sitting in silence can be the most effective way to elicit an answer. “With silence, you are telling a person that it’s their time to speak,” he said. Silence is so crucial to MediaCrossing meetings that, sometimes, on phone meetings with vendors or client (no video, obviously), Henrikson or his CEO will raise a hand in a “stop” motion to keep an employee from interrupting a silence “when we absolutely need an answer,” he said.
Be Prepared to Spend Time to Save Time
A paradox? No. A meeting might last an extra 10 or 15 minutes in order for the questions to be asked and the silences to be met with answers. That extra time “saves hours on the back end, because you don’t have to re-address something because you weren’t on the same page,” Henrikson said. The real time waster is not asking the right questions, neglecting to gather the necessary intelligence and otherwise lining up all that’s needed to go forward, he said.
Curb Your Instinct to Offer a Solution
Devin Johnson, CEO of Kennected, a marketing automation firm, once thought that the best way to solve a problem was to offer an employee a solution immediately. No more. “It’s better to leave some dead air as I consider what someone is trying to tell me instead of jumping into potential solutions,” Johnson said. Taking time and reflecting before offering a solution “doesn’t show managerial incompetence,” Johnson said. “It shows emotional maturity and care for the problem at hand.” He added that practicing meditation each day has helped him reset his brain and remain more present in meetings, a key asset in active listening.
Be Aware of the Stress Factor
Stress can hamper active listening for even highly functional teams, said Caitlin Collins, an organizational psychologist and talent development consultant at Betterworks, a New York-based provider of enterprise OKR and performance-enablement software. “The behavior of actively listening to others turns to a behavior of needing to be heard,” she said, and that quickly devolves into a battle of being heard, with teams talking faster, talking over each other and offering curt responses. When this happens, Collins finds a moment to acknowledge pressure or stressors and ask how everyone is feeling. “Sometimes it takes a moment for the first person to share — and it’s important that I don’t share first — and that this becomes a moment for everyone to hear how everyone else is feeling and to reinforce trust and safety in the team,” she said. The key is focusing on self-reflection, rather than tossing blame or being aggressive. “Once everyone has shared, the team starts to come back together, everyone is able to take a deep breath, and we’re able to listen more attentively,” she said.
Practice Active Listening
“It’s a muscle that has to be exercised,” Collins said, adding that, like any skill, active listening is tougher for some people. She offers a few hints for practicing: Ask for feedback to make sure the other person felt heard; apologize when you’ve talked over someone, then allow them to continue; write down your thoughts so you can keep them organized; and ask follow-up questions and paraphrase what was said so the other parties know they’ve been understood. “Be patient with yourself and genuine with others,” Collins said. “Being great at this takes time.”