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[Skills of the future] Active listening

Scientific research suggested more than three decades ago that the average listening effectiveness is about 25% (1) and this is, generally, known to the speaker(s) as they can pick hints from the listener’s replies and body language.

Active listening is conscious listening, 100% focused on what is being said, and is different than the usual listening which is just focused on hearing the sounds around us. It is also a difficult endeavor necessitating not only consciously deciding to concentrate on listening, but also finding the energy to remove noise from the internal and external environments. Each time when, during a conversation, we can’t wait our turn to speak while somebody else is speaking, we are just thinking about what we’ll say, we aren’t actively listening. We don’t even live in the present, but in a (hopefully very) near future when we’ll speak. The inability to live in the present moment is internal noise. Thinking of all the things we need to do, all the deadlines coming fast, or the ones we couldn’t keep, is also internal noise. When - to save time, we generalize, considering the speaker has a similar personality to somebody else we met in the past, or what they talk about is similar to a past situation and we rush to apply the same solution, we fall prey to internal noise.

Phone notifications, a new email landing in the inbox, and a new chat conversation are a few examples of external noise.

While active, conscious, and empathetic listening is beneficial to every person, not practicing and exhibiting it as a leader leads to a big price to pay.

In a study published in 2006, Alfred Pelham (2) claimed that leaders with ineffective listening skills: hinder the creation of a knowledge-sharing organization, are not as effective as leaders with effective listening skills, make more avoidable mistakes, and have fewer opportunities.

In their book, “Interpersonal Communication: A Goals-Based Approach” (3), the authors demonstrate that leaders seen as compassionate listeners have an increased probability of achieving strategic objectives and motivating and developing employees.

More recent studies found managers’ active listening skills contribute to their effectiveness and productivity as leaders (4) as well as to being seen by their staff as successful managers (5).

Active listening is also the single most important contributor to effective communication (6) and we all know how many implications bad communication has.

Being so obvious we should listen better does not make active listening to be a skill that is very often encountered mainly due to our inability to remove the noise I mentioned before. While there is no easy way to become an active listener, there are a few things that can be done:

- Find a quick and simple routine that works for you to clear your mind before any conversion, meeting, or planned encounter. It can be a breathing exercise, a few steps walk, or a specific act you associate with resetting yourself.

- During the conversation/meeting, do not allow any notifications (in fact, having no notifications at all will do you much better and help you get more disciplined).

- Be genuinely interested. If you are not, why be there and spend your limited time this way?

- Be curious and learn, rather than judgmental and willing to hear yourself speaking.

- Don't try to multitask. Active listening requires all of your bandwidth.

- Delegate everything that needs to be delegated, allowing yourself more time to think, listen and do new things.


(1) Husman, R. C., Lahiff, J. M., & Penrose, J. M. (1988). Business communication: Strategies and skills. Chicago: Dryden Press

(2) “Do consulting-oriented sales management programs impact salesforce performance and profit?”, Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing. 21. 175-188.

(4) Henrico, A. & Visser, K., 2012, “Leading”

(6) Longweni, M., & Kroon, J. (2018). Managers' listening skills, feedback skills and ability to deal with interference: A subordinate perspective. Acta Commercii, 18(1).

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