Listening effectively is one of the hardest things to do. But investing in it pays off. Learn how it makes you smarter, faster, and better at your job.
From crawling to walking to uttering that first word, we develop our earliest skills by instinct. No one tells a baby to do these things. Babies just do.
But then babies morph into toddlers, and the walking and eating become less impressive. And suddenly, we adults all about telling them what to do. And what are toddlers told to do more than anything? Listen!
“Listen to me!”
“Be a good listener.”
“WHY AREN’T YOU LISTENING?!”
After enduring all that nagging in your youth, it should come as no surprise to you that sometimes your rebellious inner toddler doesn’t want to listen.
But listening—and I don’t just mean passively perceiving words and sounds but truly engaged listening—is one of the most powerful tools in your success toolbox. Listening, when done with purpose, makes you smarter, faster, better.
Smarter because you perceive more detail, more clarity, greater alignment on what needs to be achieved and addressed.
Faster because with greater clarity upfront you have less need to double back; and because listening builds empathy and rapport so you’ll have a more open door to pose questions.
Better because having clarity positions you to deliver what was asked for.
How to be a better listener at work
Listening well can serve you in many different ways—in building relationships, learning new skills, finding your next opportunity, and more. But for today’s episode, I’m going to focus on the power of listening in service of delivering a work product or outcome that will win you accolades every time.
So how can you demonstrate that brand of listening? Here are some can’t-miss techniques.
1. Begin with intention
Great listening is not passive. Engaged listening requires your attention, focus, and conscious energy. Establish a goal ahead of an important conversation and ready yourself to take in key facts, instructions, details, and opinions. And—this is key!—do this with the intent of receiving information, not responding to it.
Most successful listeners head into a conversation with a sense of what they want to learn and the intent to extract what’s essential to their goal.
In 2010, University of Ottawa researcher Larry Vandergrift published a study about listening for the purpose of learning. One of his findings was that the most successful listeners head into a conversation with a sense of what they want to learn and the intent to extract what’s essential to their goal.
So be intentional about what you want to take away from a listening experience, and keep your antenna up for the details you need. This will help ensure nothing important slips through the cracks.
This, my friends, will make you smarter.
2. Replay and reflect
Have you ever ordered a hot soy latte at the drive-through window, and then been handed an iced tea and an egg sandwich at the pickup window? So frustrating—both not being heard, and having to double back to order again. How much simpler my morning would have been if the server had just repeated my order back to me and we’d gotten ahead of any confusion.
Play back a person's ideas in your own words to confirm not only that you’ve heard accurately, but that you’ve interpreted correctly and captured the key ideas.
My advice here is to be the barista I wish he had been. Take that extra moment upfront to confirm and clarify what you think you heard. Take liberties—play back a person's ideas in your own words to confirm not only that you’ve heard accurately, but that you’ve interpreted correctly and captured the key ideas.
Though this may extend the length of the conversation by a few minutes, this approach ensures you’ve got the info you need and also inspires the listener’s confidence in you.
Now, you're smarter and better.
3. Ask clarifying questions
There are no bonus points for perceiving everything accurately out of the gate. But you do earn some additional street cred for being accountable to accuracy. Never be afraid to ask a question that confirms you’ve heard what you thought you heard.
I was working recently with a team who brought me in to help them find some efficiencies in their collaborative work. Through my assessment, I discovered a key opportunity for them—asking more clarifying questions upfront.
Never be afraid to ask a question that confirms you’ve heard what you thought you heard.
It turned out, team members were too intimidated to ask clarifying questions at the start of a project. Concerns about sounding “dumb” or of too many other items on a meeting agenda pushed them to hold their tongues. As a result, people would get a project to 30 or 40 percent completion before realizing they'd missed or misunderstood something. Now, they had to start again from scratch.
This is a common challenge in organizations. Having the courage to ask questions upfront will ensure you understand exactly what the endpoint looks like, keeping you on the most direct path to success.
This ultimately makes you faster and better.
4. Check between the lines
Listening is about perceiving more than just what’s said out loud. It’s also perceiving what isn’t being said, or the specific language chosen to express an idea. In a recent client engagement, I sat down with the CEO of a business who was preparing to announce a significant organizational change to his sales team.
As he reviewed his key talking points with me, I noticed he touched on several important topics such as changes in leadership, customer segmentation, sales tools and training, and more. Notably absent was any mention of incentives or compensation.
When I asked about this, he smiled sheepishly and confessed they hadn’t yet worked through that detail. He ultimately decided to postpone his announcement by a week to ensure incentive planning had been fully mapped out. Because I pointed out a detail I had not heard, he realized the absence of that detail might seem suspicious and create anxiety for his team.
Smarter and better.
5. Resist the urge to respond on the spot
Active listening is about taking in information—processing it, organizing it, looking for patterns and holes. One of the greatest enemies of active listening is the impulse to respond immediately. If you’re formulating a response or a point of view while you’re “listening,” then you may not really be listening.
One of the greatest enemies of active listening is the impulse to respond immediately.
Telling the speaker that you’d like to reflect on what’s been said, and then be thoughtful in a reply to come later, takes courage. But it often yields a better response. And sometimes better is smarter, and not faster.
And there you have some of my favorite tips on how to listen in service of being smarter, faster, and better at work. So, what’s your opinion on all of this?
Okay, you got me—that’s a trick question! You've been actively listening, and now you're going to take time to reflect. Full permission granted to respond and react when you've had a chance to process the new info.