Active Listening: practice now and don’t miss out

Meiyun Chang-Smith, Ph.D.

Global Listening Centre

Effective communication is vital for successful leadership and listening actively is a prerequisite for effective communication. It sounds simple and logical enough: if we cannot listen fully to what the others are saying, how can we gather critical information for decision making; connecting and engaging people; building consensus and teams; inspiring and influencing others? The list goes on. And yet, we see how often people listen with the intent just to reply but not to understand. I myself am not immune to this common pitfall.

I had always thought that effective communication is one of my key strengths. Last year, upon invitation, I joined the non-profit Global Listening Centre as Board Director because I genuinely believe that the world will be a better place if we all listen to each other more. Two months ago, I embarked my Executive MBA journey here in Sydney and I was astounded during our first residential camp to realize how easily my radar for “active listening” goes off when it should be on! Life is busy and we are constantly under time pressure: multi-tasking, helping others and delivering goals. Still, it is frustrating when you realize you are overlooking the basics.

I decided to design a feasible routine for myself and to practise simple and mindful “active listening” regularly with my co-workers and family, in order to sharpen up my listening skills again. My practice routine comprises of 5 tasks: (A) paying full attention to the speaker – trying to use plenty of eye contact, resisting the urge of racing onto other topics or planning what to say in return without receiving the complete message, (B) showing I’m listening by using body language such as nodding, smiling etc., (C) providing feedback by paraphrasing (both contents and emotions), asking questions etc., (D) avoiding interrupting the speaker by deliberately closing my mouth and making notes, and (E) setting aside any judgments about the speaker or content. Additionally, I also try to review my active listening effort during the day, reflect each evening and jot down reflections on my listening efforts.

Being simply conscious and conscientious about key principles for engaging in active listening enables one to make notable progress – I certainly started to listen more, speak less and interrupt less during conversations (including those with my teenage sons!).

I believe that effective communication and active listening are vital in all facets of our professional and personal life. It is not hard to resonate with the concept and importance of active listening: translating that into deliberate practice however takes conscious effort. The better we are at listening, the more informed, insightful and ultimately successful we can be. Mindful practice of listening can pay significant dividends in our career and strengthen our bonds with family and friends.

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