Building better relationships through active listening
The way we listen to others impacts business results
What is active listening? Think about it this way. “Hearing” is simply being present when words are being said. In contrast, active listening involves giving those words (and their speaker) full attention, with a mind free of distractions, allowing people to fully express themselves without interruption. It requires us to consider the speaker’s wider agenda, ask clarifying questions, avoid making assumptions and analyse impacts and outcomes before forming our own opinion and providing a response.
Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but applied properly it will always benefit your relationships and is a vital part of healthy communication.
Why Communication Skills Matter
Communication skills are one of the most critical elements in building strong relationships. The cooperation and alignment created by new connections provides team members with the skills and support to challenge and push one another – and deliver amazing results. When we assemble teams of disparate backgrounds, we naturally push the boundaries of what is possible by developing healthy competition and taking advantage of differing opinions.
The consequences of poor listening skills extend well beyond initial conversations. If listening skills aren’t encouraged in emerging relationships, it can lead to costly damage to both parties, cause personal frictions and damage long-term prospects. But when fostered carefully, listening skills can transform a seemingly simple idea into a group-wide best practice, driving long-term relationships and mutual respect.
Throughout my leadership career across a number of sectors, I’ve witnessed many breakdowns between groups of people that can be blamed on poor listening skills. Both sides in the relationship may have been capable of achieving great success: they just had to work together to accomplish it. In the case of teamwork, I believe the old saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
What Happens When Communication Breaks Down
Poor listening skills can often be the true cause of relationship breakdowns, cost overruns or failure to meet delivery targets – but this is hard to pinpoint and rarely identified. When disconnects occur, both parties tend to switch from active listening and move towards hearing what they want to hear in order to validate and strengthen their own viewpoints. Upon conclusion, this can leave both parties assuming that they left the conversation with mutual agreement, but actually having no consideration of what the other party was trying to convey.
Both parties will probably blame one another for the disconnects, try to recoup their losses and inadvertently extend the rift. Not thinking about listening, and failing to train people to leverage this basic but valuable skillset, will result in similar repeating results plaguing relationships.
A lot of companies are too slow to acknowledge the importance of good listening skills. I haven’t found many firms that are willing to provide sufficient training and tools to build listening skills – until something bad happens, that is. In situations when communication breakdowns are identified, listening skills are sometimes temporarily given consideration, then rapidly forgotten.
Pinpointing a listening failure should be a trigger for training, to help people learn and to achieve success for the business. But all too often it’s just used as an excuse to usher someone out the door.
The Misinterpretation Pitfall
Simply hearing rather than active listening is a natural response for most people. We try to find synergies in opinions and tend to merge concepts presented to us, apply our own interpretation and realign the parties as soon as possible. It is a fundamental need for people to feel aligned to a group: by merging differing opinions into one, they walk away feeling like they have added value. Misinterpreting information is a dangerous result of poor listening.
While there are exceptions, we can accept that most of the time a misinterpretation is accidental. Even if it results in a serious issue, it is unlikely that this was the intention; the confusion probably could have been averted through basic clarifications and active listening techniques.
Failure to identify misinterpretations can result in people aligning to concepts that are disconnected. This occurs when someone misses key nuances or fundamental impassés in the process. What’s more, it can be exacerbated if both parties are making opposing assumptions without clarifications.
Even with the best intentions, a disconnect can lead to the destruction of the relationship and prevent any future reconciliation attempts. If it’s allowed to continue without intervention, it can lead to distrust between the parties, and events that will likely repeat and grow in magnitude. I have seen that misinterpretation tends to occur more often when two parties either don’t speak the same mother tongue or have only recently met – so they must make more of an effort to avoid misalignment.
The Active-Reflective Listening Combination
I have sometimes slipped into poor habits when I’m trying to expedite others’ conversations, but have found that reflective listening is a tool that I can use to mitigate the chances of misinterpreting meaning while also allowing me to continue my active listening method.
By repeating the concepts back to the initial speaker in my own words, I have found that I’m able to quickly identify gaps and ensure a common understanding. This reflective listening activity provides me with multiple benefits: it helps ensure that I understood the original concepts so I can align to them, and it also lends me extra time to fully digest and weigh up the impacts and consequences prior to providing a measured response.
How To Fix A Communication Breakdown – For Good
To get to the cause of a breakdown and find a lasting solution, I try to find out if the people involved were actively listening or not. Did they just choose to ignore what they heard? Or were merely hearing what they wanted to, and jumped to conclusions in order to show “progress”?
Once the root of the issue has been identified, it is normally a case of then helping realign the teams involved and guarding against future communication breakdowns through arbitration and training. That training generally focuses on active listening.
But it’s not easy to continually apply active listening skills. It’s human nature: people have their own opinions and agendas which they want to add into the conversation as soon as possible. This challenge can get even tougher: maybe one party involved is a supplier, or the groups don’t know each other well, or they represent different functions. Counterparties are loyal to their own company goals, leadership agendas and success criteria (and there may even be a commercial arm with a commanding voice).
While some people show natural aptitude in active listening, it is a skill that often lacks true appreciation and requires continual and conscious training and effort. Without a concerted effort and mentored approach, active listening can be a difficult skillset to train and may never become second nature – which it must be if we’re going to use it every day. Active listening tends to feel unnatural and cumbersome when practised by the uninitiated – it can feel like it disrupts the flow of the conversation. But that’s all the more reason why it should be trained in an ongoing manner.
So the message is – don’t take it for granted that people are actively listening in conversations. If communication is breaking down, consider the fact that poor listening skills might be to blame, and commit to ensuring it can’t happen again.
The benefits of active and reflective listening provide lasting results, even if only one side uses them. While active listening can take more time when having a conversation, the results will reward you and your counterparty immensely and will ultimately lead to better results through better relationships.