The Dalai Lama once said: “When you talk, you are only repeating what you know; but when you listen, you learn something new.” If you are always airing your views – which is the case with many people – you don’t even grasp the essence of what is being discussed. If you listen carefully, the other person has the feeling of being heard and is therefore more willing to listen to your viewpoint. Active listening is key – meaning that you focus your full attention on the other person.
The Gallup Engagement Index, which has been carried out since 2001, assesses the quality of workplaces in Germany based on 12 questions about the workplace and working environment. In 2019 – like in prior years – one of the survey results was alarming: Only 15% of employees had an emotional tie to their employer. According to Gallup expert Marco Nink, the main reason for this is that employees don’t feel valued by their line managers, they receive too little feedback and their ideas are not considered. Individuals who were dedicated to their work at first subsequently become “resisters” – the term Nink uses to describe disenchanted employees.
A survey by The Alternative Board (TAB), an association of 600 owners of medium-sized German companies, reveals that 91% of the managers surveyed believe that when making fundamental decisions, they should listen to their employees and take their views and wishes into account. In reality, however, managers rarely take the time to do so. Every second person surveyed spends at most a good hour per week on staff meetings, while one in four devoted less than 30 minutes to discussions with employees.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that bosses talk too much themselves during these discussions (the higher up in the hierarchy they are, the more vocal they become) instead of letting their employees have their say. This negatively impacts on the financial success of the business. In fact, 54% of TAB business owners admitted to having made the wrong decisions and incurred losses because they did not listen to their employees. According to www.people-foerst.de, the three main reasons for them failing to listen are: A shortage of time, no internal capacity (they are preoccupied with other matters) and a lack of interest.
Conscious active listening
People need attention and appreciation in order to feel good and perform their work well. In a survey carried out by the German market research institute Allensbach, a very large proportion (80%) of participants acknowledged that listening is one of the ingredients of a good discussion. This is why listening well is not a ‘nice to have’ but rather one of the essential components of successful leadership. Listening is ‘good’ when it is performed actively. This includes:
- Concentrating fully on your discussion partner
- Remaining attentive and focused
- Observing the other person (what they are saying as well as their body language, e.g. rocking in their seat nervously, running fingers through their hair) and making sure you are ‘listening’ with all your senses
- Asking questions (find out more about this below)
- Maintaining eye contact
- Nodding occasionally – but don’t overdo it or the gesture will appear forced
- Looking at your smartphone or repeatedly glancing to the left or right
- Avoiding eye contact when discussing sensitive topics
- Interrupting (verbally or with gestures)
- Finishing the other person’s sentences
- Offering advice or interpretations that are well meant but sound you are lecturing the other person – motivated by a desire to promote your own viewpoint
To use an apt but unattributed comment: “The greatest communication problem is that we don’t listen to understand – we listen to answer.”
Advantages of active listening
What are the advantages of good, active listening? They can be summed up as follows:
- Employees feel like they are being heard and understood; this makes them more motivated and loyal, which boosts their productivity.
- You learn more, since 85% of our knowledge is acquired by listening; this allows you to make better decisions.
- When engaging with clients and suppliers: Harvard Professor William Ury was able to prove that people who actively listen can achieve better outcomes in negotiations.
“Good listeners also ask good questions,” according to an apt observation by the www.karrierebibel.de, since this allows you to query any points that you have not understood. In addition, you learn more – as mentioned – and your discussion partner feels like they are being heard. And if you ask a question, it gives you time to organize your own thoughts or – if you are upset about comments made by the other person – to calm down before you communicate your own position. A further advantage is that misunderstandings are avoided. For example, you can ask:
- “So, you believe that …?”
- “If I understand you correctly, you are saying …”
- “Could you elaborate on that point?”
- “What makes you say that?”
It is also advisable to paraphrase what your discussion partner is saying – e.g. by stating: “You said that …” If the other person wanted to communicate a different message, he or she can say so – thus preventing misunderstandings. Alternatively, you could reinterpret what has been said by stating: “I understand your comment to mean that …” Here again, your discussion partner could say whether you have understood the message in the way it was intended. After all, when one person says ‘A’, it is sometimes taken to mean ‘B’ or ‘C’ by the other person.
As a final point, I want to emphasize that active listening is not a technique that can easily be learned and applied. It is your behavior and empathy that form the basis for really effective listening, since your discussion partner will immediately sense whether or not you have a genuine interest in what he or she is saying.
© Claudia Kraaz