Imagine that you're in the midst of a spirited debate with your workgroup.
Maybe you're at your desks or in a videoconference. Outside, the sun's shining. You definitely have an opinion on the discussion topic; in fact, you're passionate about it. Someone else is talking right now... maybe they share your opinion, maybe they don't. Now, freeze this moment in time, and look inward.
What are you thinking about? What are you hearing? Are you listening to your colleague and processing what they're saying? Or, are you waiting for cues that you can add your input and considering what you want to say?
My name is Becca, and (among other things) I'm a Learner Experience Consultant with SAP Ariba Learning. I've been involved with learning & development at SAP Ariba since 2011, and I'm pursuing a Coaching certification through Erickson Interational.
Listening -- active listening, specifically -- is one of the fundamental skills required of a coach. In fact, it's becoming one of the essential professional skills of the future workplace.
It helps people reach deeper levels of understanding and communication. It helps managers engage with their employees. It helps project teams conduct productive working sessions, and product managers understand client needs better. All super-important in today's dynamic, fast-paced world.
To prepare for this post, I decided to bring the topic up during a conversation with my mentor, a Senior Program Manager with SAP's Global Diversity and Inclusion office. (Shoutout to @StephanieRedivo!) Here are some of the interesting points that came up from our conversation, along with a little research of my own.
So, what is active listening?
According to BusinessDictionary.com, active listening is: "The act of mindfully hearing and attempting to comprehend the meaning of words spoken by another in a conversation or speech..."
So far, that makes sense, right? It's making a conscious effort to truly hear and understand what someone else is saying.
But could this be an oversimplification? To me, sometimes it seems that active listening is quite... strenuous! (It shouldn't be such a surprise, should it, considering that the word "active" is in the title?)
Steph agreed that active listening can be difficult. It takes a lot of energy to do well, and it can feel unnatural or exaggerated, at times. May I submit, for your consideration, the second part of BusinessDictionary.com's definition for active listening (emphasis added):
"...Activity [sic] listening is an important business communication skill, and it can involve making sounds that indicate attentiveness, as well as the listener giving feedback in the form of a paraphrased rendition of what has been said by the other party for their confirmation."
While these active listening signals ("sounds that indicate attentiveness" and paraphrasing) aren't wrong, both embody the very elements of what makes active listening feel unnatural and exaggerated. It even feels unnatural and exaggerated to read!
It's not all about passively hearing, nodding, making an "uh-huh" sound, and parroting back what someone just said--or putting it into your own words--it's much more nuanced.
What's the speaker's tone? Their body language? What does their word choice tell you about their perspective or experience? These non-verbal cues are just as important as the content of the message itself.
If it's such a hard skill to master, then how can one improve their capacity for it? The answer lies within! Look inward!
I have to admit, I was really jazzed about the trajectory of this part of my conversation with Steph. Months beforehand, when this Coach's Corner post was a mere twinkle in my eye, I whiteboarded some ideas.
I kept coming back to the notion that practicing self-awareness and mindfulness is a massively important step on the journey to deliberately honing one's active listening skills. Interestingly enough, that's exactly where Steph started when I asked how she thought people could "practice" active listening.
Without being able to notice your own triggers for inattention (hello, self-awareness!) and subsequently self-regulate that behavior (hello, mindfulness!), active listening is impossible.
So, how self-aware are you? Do you know what causes you to lose attention? If you do, then do you have a tactic for bringing focus back to where it belongs?
I'd like to leave you with two quotes to ponder.
When it comes to self-awareness: "spend less time thinking about how things affect you, and more time thinking about how you affect things". (Wise words from an artist I follow on Instagram.)
And, when it comes to active listening...
"Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk." - Doug Larson