Active listening is a critical component in building an employee’s communication, confidence, and self-esteem. It is one of the most vital skills a leader can have, yet it’s often overlooked because it’s considered a “soft skill” to many.
When done well, active listening validates and empowers employees. In daily interactions, this sense of validation helps deepen relationships and foster employee engagement. In tough conversations, active listening can lower defenses for a more productive conversation. It also establishes a felt sense of safety because the employee can share his or her perspective without worrying about being judged for it.
There are three parts to active listening: being present (fully in the moment—no distractions), understanding (seek clarity, nod in affirmation), and being responsive (validate, emphasize).
Follow these five guidelines to improve your active listening skills during a formal conversation with one of your direct reports:
Create the Right Environment
Talk with your employee in a quiet area with no distractions. Set your cell phone to silent and put your computer on sleep mode to ensure there will be no disruptions during your conversation. Let other colleagues know you will be unavailable while you have the conversation if you think they will try to connect with you during that time. Removing any opportunity for interruption sends a clear signal to your team member that their time and this conversation is valuable to you.
Put aside personal or work thoughts as best as you can to give the employee your full attention. Before the meeting, jot down any tasks or thoughts that might prevent you from fully focusing, so you won’t be worried about forgetting them. As you turn your attention to the conversation with your team member, run through the facts you already know and avoid making assumptions. It’s likely you don’t know everything about the situation you’re planning to discuss. It’s important to stay open-minded and curious when processing new information. Unconscious bias is difficult to detect in ourselves, but it is always there. Jot down any question you want to ask to uncover more about a situation.
Listen Closely to the Message
Let your employee talk without interruption. Be aware of when you want to interject or make an assumption and let it go. Simply listen objectively to what the employee is saying.
Analyze the Message
Evaluate the credibility of what you’re hearing from your employee by determining if they made any assumptions and determining what is opinion versus fact throughout their message.
Assess the employee’s body language along with what he or she is actually saying. Are they sending physical signals that align with their message? Are there any “filters” (such as age, culture, or life experience) you might have that could influence your interpretation of the message?
Ask the employee to clarify anything or add more context if needed. Use language like, “I think I heard you say… is that correct?”
Respond to the Employee
What type of response is most appropriate for the information the employee gave you?
- Brainstorming new ideas
- Deciding between multiple options
- Practical or emotional support
- Guidance (try not to offer advice unless directly asked)
- Straightforward answer
When responding, be respectful, honest, validating, and empathetic. Avoid judging, criticizing, and demeaning. Respond with phrases, such as “I see your point” (validation) and “I would be angry too if that happened to me” (empathy).
It is perfectly fine to acknowledge the employee’s opinions or feelings without agreeing with them. Be sure to understand first and resolve second. If you don’t feel well-equipped to manage the conversation, consider including a trusted colleague or suggest another person for the employee to talk with.
- Strong active listening skills are essential for a leader to cultivate an engaged workplace.
- Active listening creates a felt sense of safety because employees can share their perspectives without the fear of being judged.
- Your active listening skills can be improved by preparing both physically and mentally for the conversation, listening to and reviewing the employee’s message, and responding to the employee in a respectful and honest manner.
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