Active listening is considered a way of listening and responding to another person. There are three components of it. It includes empathy, congruence and unconditional, positive regard.
Don [00:00:15] My name is Don Rheem CEO of E3 Solutions and author of the book, “Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.”
Don [00:00:24] I speak across North America on the neuroscience of engagement and I’m passionate about helping leaders at every level create engaging workplace environments where employees feel safe, recognized and valued. Employees who feel safe are happier, healthier and more productive.
Don [00:00:42] Each week, my team and I take on topics impacting managers and we offer solutions to your biggest workplace challenges. And, you’re listening to Thrive By Design, a podcast created by E3 Solutions to give managers, CEOs and leaders the tips strategies and tools needed to create an engaged, culture at work.
Kelly [00:01:06] Welcome. I’m your host Kelly Burns, vice president of client experiences at E3 Solutions. As always, we tackle critical workplace themes each week with our resident expert and CEO Don Rheem.
Kelly [00:01:19] Welcome Don and thank you for taking the time to be here with us.
Don [00:01:22] It’s my pleasure Kelly.
Kelly [00:01:24] As we heard at the top of today’s episode this week’s focus is on active listening.
Kelly [00:01:28] When a leader actively listens engagement goes up. Why? Active listening is a critical component in building an employee’s communication, confidence and self-esteem.
Kelly [00:01:38] It is one of the most vital yet overlooked skills a leader can have because it’s considered a soft skill to many active listening doesn’t always get the attention it needs. But there’s one industry study from 2016 that assessed thousands and thousands of leaders that found the most critical driver of overall employee performance was the ability to specifically listen and respond with empathy.
Kelly [00:02:02] There’s a difference between listening and active listening. Don, what does active listening mean and how is it connected to employee engagement?
Don [00:02:10] Active listening is considered a way of listening and responding to another person. There are three components of it. It includes empathy, congruence and unconditional, positive regard. Which is sometimes called, a person-centered attitude.
Don [00:02:25] When it’s broken down in the research, they break it down into two, key components, listening attitude and listening skill, as two different subsets of what’s happening.
The listening attitude refers to the person-centered attitude again based on empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard. So you’re listening in an open way that feels safe to the recipients, safe and validated. The listening skill refers to the way you respond and the techniques that you used to promote and continue that conversation. So you’re listening thoughtfully, openly but you’re also continuing the conversation, your ability and your skill to maintain a conversation, so the person continues to feel heard.
Kelly [00:03:08] I think this isn’t something that many people are good at. It happens to hopefully all of us, certainly to me, when I go up and meet somebody new and introduce myself or I get introduced to somebody and the second they tell me their name, I cannot remember for the life of me what they said because I am processing what I’m about to say to them and how I’m going to introduce myself to them.
Kelly [00:03:30] We’re not naturally good listeners. How do we demonstrate active listening, especially as leaders to our team members?
Don [00:03:38] Well it isn’t something that comes natural to most people, so you have to practice. You have to understand the components and you have to create some muscle memory around doing it.
Don [00:03:46] The first thing is to recognize as you just have that you’re self-aware of what you’re doing in a conversation. And it’s very natural in a conversation for the brain to be thinking about what am I going to say next.
Don [00:03:59] This whole notion of being conversational being social. Part of it is aligned with being popular and being seen as effective and someone that is going to be compelling to others, that I’m a good conversationalist, that I can get into this conversation, I can maintain it, I can be a part of it. I’m not a wallflower and professionals know how to engage in conversations.
Don [00:04:18] Actually this raises a bit of risk inside the human brain and when the limbic system triggers threat or risk for some people, one of the first places that gets flooded are the speech centers of the brain. We lose our ability to talk and speak quickly. I find active listening is actually a way of reducing that risk.
To really listen, not focus on what you’re going to say but say the first thing I’m going to do is I want to understand this person. What are they saying? What does it mean to them? How is this important? And that actually makes it easier to continue the conversation because I actually now know something about them and what’s important to them.
Don [00:04:56] The other part of the conversation in active listening and this notion of continuing the conversation is don’t just jump back with, well what I experience or that something similar happened to me. What a lot of people do is they immediately put it into their own reference and they want to essentially say, hey, me too, I felt that way as well. Don’t interject yourself, keep the focus on the other. Get them to talk more so that they feel even more and more heard.
Kelly [00:05:21] You’re exactly right, Don. A good active listener listens for context, intent and feelings of the speaker. It’s not just the words they say but where are they coming from and how are they saying it to you, that you need to be listening for as a strong active listener.
Kelly [00:05:38] A key part of this active listening is not just what you’re doing mentally inside by focusing on them but it also involves body movement and facial expressions, direct eye contact is a key part of this showing interest in the speaker’s words.
Don [00:05:53] Providing some verbal encouragement like, yeah, just little, little things that you say that say keep talking, keep telling me more. And then something else called in the literature called attentive silence. That is, you don’t have to be always saying something but you’re attentive, you’re using your eyebrows, you’re looking at them, you’re turning your head and it really shows that you’re interested and learning. That’s a key part of it.
Don [00:06:19] And you can also do a little bit of summarizing what you’ve heard or drop in a statement of empathy like, wow, that must have been amazing when that happened.
Kelly [00:06:28] You do a lot of communication training for different organizations and I know that you talk to them about the key aspects that make up a strong communication or conversation. Could you go into a few of those aspects?
Don [00:06:40] Well it does apply a bit here I think to active listening and this was work that was done by Dr. Albert Mehrabian at UCLA in the late 60s early 70s and he was doing research really on the congruence of the message. And he divided that communication process into three channels of data, or information, if you will.
Don [00:06:59] One channel is your word choice, that is, what you’re actually saying. Another channel is your voice tone, how you’re saying it, you know, whether you’re in a high pitch and this is really funny or a low pitch, this is so serious.
Don [00:07:11] And then it was your body language. And I think that the vast majority of body language is from the neck up. It’s what you’re doing with your face and what Mehrabian wanted to find out was, what if the words you use send a particular data stream and message but your voice tone in your body language send a different message?
Don [00:07:29] So imagine, someone is talking to you in a conversation but they’re looking over your shoulder. Clearly, it’s something else, somewhere else. They might even be indicating with their hand a little wave to someone else or their gaze is moving laterally to the left or the right as they’re following someone else.
Don [00:07:45] Meanwhile, you think you’re in a conversation with this person. The question that he wanted to find out is, if the voice tone in the body language sent a different message than the words, what do people believe?
Don [00:07:57] And the data was was pretty alarming. The word choice counted for 7%, the voice tone accounted for 38%, and the body language counted for 55%.
Don [00:08:06] Now his research has been misinterpreted, I think, in hundreds of books about communication because they just looked at the numbers and sometimes people say that 93% of communication has nothing to do with the word choice. That would be incorrect.
Don [00:08:21] He was looking specifically at congruence and if the word choice is in disagreement that’s when these numbers come into play.
Don [00:08:30] So another reason why direct eye contact, providing lots of visual clues that you’re zeroed in on this person and you’re not looking at anything else in that moment of active listening, you want them to feel like they’re the only person in the room with you.
Kelly [00:08:45] Another interesting thing that I’ve heard you say in communication workshops is that we tune into W.I.I.F.M. And, we all naturally do this and W.I.I.F.M. Is?
Don [00:08:56] Stands for: What’s In It For Me?
Don [00:08:59] If I’m in a conversation with someone and it becomes clear to me that they’re only listening to me to find out what’s in it for them, that’s a problem. That’s not a sign of active listening and there are all these you know jokes and canards.
Don [00:09:11] We’re in Washington, right outside of Washington D.C., Kelly, but I used to be up on Capitol Hill. I was a technical consultant to the House Science Technology and Space Committee and you would go to social events, cocktail parties or events on the Hill and people would ask you, so who do you work for? It essentially was all about, how important are you? And, if you weren’t important enough to them, they would move on.
Don [00:09:34] Boy, that is a great test of communication and the opposite of active listening.
Kelly [00:09:39] What a cut-throat environment I don’t want to be in. The, what’s in it for me, is such a natural thing for all of us. We’re always attuned to that exact frequency and that’s why active listening takes so much practice because it’s not about what’s in it for you, it’s listening to the content, intent and feeling of the speaker and then coming back to, how do you respond. Not thinking the whole time they’re talking, how am I gonna respond to this? How to feel about this? What am I about to say next? Or, when is this conversation over so I can go back to whatever I was doing before.
Kelly [00:10:13] A leader has to practice critical components that facilitate strong active listening. Don, what are some of those critical components?
Don [00:10:22] In the research, one of the ways they’ve broken it down and what they call, subscales. They’re five subscales and at least one piece of research.
Don [00:10:29] First one is avoiding interruption. Don’t interrupt the person. Let them speak. Don’t just keep interrupting with your own ideas or what this means to you.
Kelly [00:10:37] I haven’t heard the rest of them but that might be the hardest one on the list already.
Don [00:10:41] The active listener, this is what I talked about before, sort of, effective attentive silence. You know, it’s your ability just to listen and learn because you’re trying to understand not just the what that’s being said, but you want to understand the why they’re saying it.
Don [00:10:54] Get to understand more about the person, what motivates them, what drives them. It’s also where a manager can learn wonderful things about employees experiences outside of work that they can use as a part of how they lead.
Don [00:11:06] Another component is postponing evaluation. That is, don’t judge.
Don [00:11:10] I would like managers in a conversation to lead with curiosity rather than judgment. Don’t judge a person on what they’re saying, or their grammar, or their word choice or vocabulary. Just listen. What are they trying to convey to you? What are they trying to share with you? And, just take that in.
Don [00:11:28] Maintaining interest as you’re listening. Can you stay interested with them even if they’re going on a little longer than feels comfortable for you? How well do you maintain interest, is a third element.
Don [00:11:41] Your ability to show interest is also important. Are you showing interest? Again facial expressions, your eyebrows are going up, you’re turning your head, you’re saying something like, that’s interesting, that’s amazing, haven’t heard that before, that’s remarkable, that must have been really exciting for you, just little points of understanding and empathy would be great.
Don [00:12:02] And, then the fifth one is to organize information. And, this is something that many managers do. Someone speaks and then they organize that information in the way that they repeat it back to make sure that they’ve understood it. So what I’m hearing you saying Kelly is and then I’ve organized that information because people don’t always speak in a very organized way.
Don [00:12:23] So the active listener because their active listening can actually step back and try to make sense of what sounds like chaos in the message but to climb in altitude and come up with some organizing principles or thoughts for that person but also to convey that you actually heard.
Kelly [00:12:39] I really like that one of the easiest ways to show that you’re actively listening is to ask the question, this is what I heard you say, is this correct? Because you need to know what you’re missing. What did you filter out when you were tuned into W.I.I.F.M instead of tune into exactly what that employee saying? Get clarification and then respond to it.
Kelly [00:12:58] This is so critical for driving employee engagement because when you don’t listen well people don’t feel heard. And, when people don’t feel heard, they don’t feel valued.
Kelly [00:13:07] There was an article that came out in Forbes last year that said one of the top 10 reasons people quit is, simply, because they get tired of being overlooked or ignored.
Kelly [00:13:15] How can managers and leaders tell if their active listening strategies are making an impact and employees are feeling heard?
Don [00:13:21] One way, this is what we do, we measure engagement and it gives us a sense of whether or not they’re doing it well and when they do do it well, when they give time and attention to active listening, they build trust and commitment with their team. They’re getting the best advice from that team. The relationships and the quality of relationships inside the team are better. They have less drama. They’re more likely to hit goals when it gets done.
Don [00:13:46] This is the one that’s the most important to me. Employees perceive that they have a more supportive leader. So when we have an active listener we feel we feel more heard, which means we feel more supported. We feel more known, more validated in what we’re doing. And that’s incredibly important.
Kelly [00:14:05] Leaders who don’t listen are going to be ultimately surrounded by people who don’t talk. Employees aren’t gonna be willing to speak up because they’re not going to feel heard. It’s going to disenfranchise your team members. People are going to feel disconnected if you are not listening to them and demonstrating true, active listening, not just hearing with your ears but responding with the true intent of the speaker. Then you are going to lose so much credibility in your team and so much engagement in your team by not helping your team members feel valued.
Don [00:14:36] So, I’m going to ask a question of you Kelly. I’m going to turn the tide here in this interview. One of the biggest impediments or barriers to active listening in the workplace that I have seen in the work we’ve been doing over the last eight years, is time and lack of time. And that managers just feel so stretched. There’s just no time. I don’t have time to sit and listen to someone talk to me. So I want to ask you, you’re an incredibly busy person and everything you do at E3 Solutions. How do you convince yourself that you need to slow down and actively listen? What are the cues for you? Do you know if you’re doing it? How do you make it work for you?
Kelly [00:15:13] The most important thing that I think we all have to keep in mind as leaders is that people are more important than projects and plans and processes.
Kelly [00:15:21] And, if we have goals and targets we need to hit and deadlines and we’re ignoring our people, we are causing so much more damage than the extra 10 minutes we get in our day by not listening, by not attending to the needs of those around us. And, that’s one of the most important things that I have to keep in mind as somebody who really values efficiency, accomplishing things getting things done as quickly as I can. I long learned the lesson that if I don’t slow down then I am doing more damage, more harm than good over time.
Don [00:15:58] Does this apply do you think at home as well?
Kelly [00:15:59] I was about to say that my husband taught me that more than anybody else.
Kelly [00:16:05] Yes. I have learned that lesson very well from him. He’s a very thoughtful person who knows the right time to slow me down. And one thing that he’s always said and I think this is true in the workplace, as well, that it’s more important to be connected than to be right.
Kelly [00:16:22] And maybe it’s not necessarily right in the workplace, though, that is certainly something that can be true. But maybe it’s more important to be connected than to be productive, or to be connected than to be whatever it is when you’re trying to hit your goals.
Kelly [00:16:36] The people around you are the most important assets in any organization and the more strength you have in your ties in your relationships, the more productive and profitable and positive your entire organization is going to be.
Kelly [00:16:52] That’s the whole role that we play at E3 and what we measure at E3, is the strength of relationships correlates directly to the bottom line of an organization. And it’s more important to be connected to your employees, to listen to them, to support them than then pretty much anything on your to-do list. And it requires some practice and some humility to do that all the time but it’s a really important approach to take as a leader.
Don [00:17:17] Do you find that you have to employ active listening when working with your daughter?
Kelly [00:17:22] My 2-year old?
Don [00:17:23] Yes.
Kelly [00:17:26] Well yes. Mostly because I don’t understand anything she babbles yet. But I see a huge overlap between active listening in the workplace and relationships both in terms of your partner and your children, as a parent.
Kelly [00:17:41] Helping people feel valued. Looking them in the eye. Paying attention to them. Looking up from your phone or your computer screen. That’s not part of the study from the 60s that you’re referencing but such a part of the world that we live in today.
Kelly [00:17:54] It’s too easy for us to keep clicking away on our keyboard or typing on our phone or scrolling through whatever feed we’re reading instead of looking up and making eye contact.
Kelly [00:18:03] And eye contact is one of the most important aspects about active listening that we can employ to make somebody feel valued. And that’s really what it all comes down to. It’s not just, are you hearing what they’re saying and are you attending to their needs, but are you hearing what they’re saying and then are you attending to your relationship?
Don [00:18:20] We don’t think about the fact that, for homosapiens, the majority of our developmental years we didn’t speak. That is, that the ability to talk and communicate was developed fairly relatively recently if you look at the full length of time for homo sapiens.
Don [00:18:36] To understand, this comes back to one of our underlying pieces of science and that is, adult attachment an attachment needs.
Don [00:18:44] Listeners could go to youtube and type in, still face experiment, still face experiment, and see this research with an infant, about how important, what you were just talking about, the facial expression, the looking directly at the other and what happens when in an infant too young to be socialized. But this is again that demonstrates that this is part of it’s in our genome. It’s in the blueprint. It’s hardwired in us to be seen in a way that demonstrates active listening. Even in an infant is incredibly important. It’s amazing.
Kelly [00:19:20] Just to bring it at the two-year-old level again. She knows when I am just saying something to move the conversation along or to not ignore her. But I’m still over here distracted on my phone or trying to get more work done on my computer. She knows the difference in that and when I put devices away turn and sit down and have a conversation with her or play with her face to face. It’s an absolute 180 experience in the way that she reacts to me and continues to push forth her agenda and our relationship in the way that we play and interact together, when I am looking at her sitting with her versus just trying to get through accommodating what she has to say so I can keep working.
Don [00:20:08] And the typical response is protest when we don’t feel that we’re getting the full attention of the other. That hardwired need that starts in us as an infant and stays with us for the rest of our life. That’s one of the reasons why the manager who has the ability to act of listening is actually sending a very clear message to each of their direct reports and their peers. I’m here for you. I’m supportive of you and you can count on me to provide you with the information and clarity that you need to be successful at work.
Kelly [00:20:41] That’s it for today. I’m your host Kelly Burns and thank you for listening.
Kelly [00:20:45] Tune into next week’s episode on the art of questions.
Kelly [00:20:49] Are you looking for science-based solutions to increase employee engagement and retention? Are you ready to measure key drivers of high performance? Do you want your team to look forward to coming to work? Don’t wait. Check out e3solutions.com right now.
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Kelly [00:21:22] Thank you for listening and subscribe wherever you enjoy your podcasts. See you next week.