By: Caroline Dowd-Higgins
The human attention span has decreased from twelve seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2022. Goldfish have a nine-second attention span. Ponder that.
The over-stimulation of too many meetings and not enough process and creative time have exacerbated the situation. The good news is that active listening is a learned skill we all can hone.
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Can you hear me now?
We’ve all been in situations when the person to whom we are speaking is zoning out and not fully grasping what we are saying. It’s frustrating and has been accelerated with multi-tasking, the constant tether to our smart phones, driving meetings, and camera-off Zoom calls without eye contact. It also happens in face-to-face scenarios, so we can’t blame it on remote work or digital communication alone.
In a Work Life article by Kat Boogaard she gives a compelling definition of active listening as follows:
Active listening means listening to someone else with the intent of hearing them, understanding their message, and retaining what they say. Think of active listening as the most engaged and committed form of listening to another person. Beyond just hearing them, you’re giving them your full attention while signaling to the speaker that their message is being received and comprehended. It also helps you, as the listener, to engage with and understand the message more effectively.
The gift of your undivided attention.
Boogaard goes on to say that. “…you may only need your ears to hear, but you need your whole brain to listen.” Giving someone your undivided attention is a true gift. The unconditional focus on what they are saying takes time, concentration, and respect. You must remove distractions and listen to understand.
Empathy is also part of active listening. Put yourself in the speaker’s shoes and try to understand their point of view. You need not agree, but you should honor the speaker’s opportunity to share a point.
Introverts and extroverts.
As an extrovert, I am energized by people, I often think out loud and on occasion have to revise what I say since my mouth can engage faster than my brain. My executive coach encourages me to:
This has been a game changer for my active listening and liberated my extroverted personality to take a beat and listen more and talk less.
My introverted colleagues, friends, and family members take time to process what they are hearing before they speak. But there is a cultural bias towards extroverts since they tend to be the first to speak up or ask a question. Extroverts can also be the first to interrupt, which is the exact opposite of active listening.
I’m on a mission to be more aware of this unfair bias and honor the silence as I continue to hone my active listening skills. We can celebrate both personality types as active listeners and be cognizant of how we offer visual cues of acknowledgement — think head nods, smiling, or eye contact — when someone else is speaking. Active listening requires self-awareness of our own behavior in how we engage with the person speaking.
Active listening takes us to a deeper level of understanding and can offer the listener a chance to ask for clarification.
Try rephrasing what the other person said to reassure the speaker that you are listening and provide an opportunity for clarification.
For example: “What I heard you say is…is that accurate?” Meaning can often be lost in delivery, or interpretation, so better to align in real-time than to let a missed message gather dust.
Charlotte Beers, former CEO of Ogilvy and Mather offered this wisdom decades ago that is still relevant today:
It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.
A tactical approach.
If you are game to polish your active listening skills, here are the basics to get you started channeling the work of MindTools.
- Prepare to listen. Reboot your attention and focus on the other person with a fresh start and an open mind. This also works in a group setting, or if you are an audience member listening to a speaker.
- Observe the verbal and non-verbal cues. You must listen with your eyes and your ears, since 55% of communication is non-verbal. Remember that your non-verbal cues are equally important as the listener. How are you showing your undivided attention with your body language?
- Engage in two-way communication. Providing feedback, questions, or rephrasing key points not only helps you retain what you heard (taking notes also helps), it shows the speaker that you are engaged.
Why active listening matters.
- Improves relationships. We can all relate to a time when someone we care about was not fully focused on our important message. The term “intermittent listening” makes me bristle. Consider how you feel when someone gives you the gift of their full and undivided attention. It boosts your self-confidence, you feel valued and recognized, and it enhances trust in a relationship.
- Better understanding. Let’s not ignore the obvious that active listening allows for deeper understanding and comprehension. There is an advertising paradigm that states people need to hear something at least seven times before they grasp the concept. Perhaps we can reduce that number if we engage in more active listening.
- Bias reduction. The spotlight is focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace and the awareness and mitigation of bias — conscious and unconscious. Active listening helps us step outside of our own point of view and see things from the speaker’s perspective. It reduces assumption and allows for a deeper understanding when we truly listen to listen.
Prepare to listen.
As you work towards becoming a more active listener, consider setting the stage for success:
- Mitigate distractions. Put down your smart phone, turn off the message prompts and audible pings on your devices that can pull your focus.
- Check your emotions of the day at the door. Begin the conversation with a clean slate so you can listen with an open mind. Turn off the monkey chatter in your brain.
- Have clarity about your actual attention span. While a nine-second meeting isn’t realistic, if you can hold focus for 30 minutes, be clear with friends and colleagues that a shorter engagement will lead to a more meaningful interaction with you.
- Don’t jump to solutions. Sometimes people just want to be heard and our job as a listener is not always to provide a solution. Let the speaker guide the conversation and ask for input or solutions, so you can focus on listening.
- Engage your body language as you listen. Eye contact, positive facial expressions, and an alert posture all indicate that you are listening fully to the speaker.
- Don’t interrupt. I’ll say it again — listen to listen and not to respond. There will be a time for you to engage in the conversation but take the cue from the speaker.
When was the last time you felt like someone gave you the gift of their true and undivided attention? This gift is free and is yours to develop and hone, so active listening can be hallmark of your emotional intelligence and leadership behavior.
Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book “This Is Not the Career I Ordered” and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name. She is Vice President of Career Coaching and Employer Connections for the Ivy Tech Community College system and contributes to Thrive Global, Ellevate Network, Medium, and The Chronicle newspaper in Indiana. Her online video series about career and life empowerment for women is on YouTube. She hosts the three-time award winning podcast, Your Working Life, on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter. Her TEDxWOMEN talk about reframing failure and defining success on your own terms is available on YouTube.