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5 Ways You Can Become a Better Listener

Debra Sunohara

We spend a lot of time in our blog posts talking about employee engagement and how the single greatest driver of employee engagement is the employee’s personal relationship with their immediate supervisor. It is therefore crucial for managers and leaders to recognize the importance of communicating well, not only when you are undertaking a change initiative but, on a daily basis, every time you interact with your employees, and especially when it relates to performance management.

So, we thought that it would be appropriate to revisit a popular piece published on the Delta Blog.
 Originally posted three years ago under the title ‘Change Begins with Listening: 5 Things to Work On’, it continues to receive numerous views every month.


Effecting change – real change – transformative change – is really hard. John Kotter published Leading Change back in 1996, and almost twenty years down the road most change management professionals still point to his Eight Steps as the map to follow. Step Four, Communicate the Change Vision, is essential; no matter how well you plan your change initiative, it will fail if you under-communicate. And, you will probably not under-communicate a little…it is likely that you will under-communicate 10 to 100 times too much.

In other words, “good communication” is critical to the success of each and every change initiative. Of course, communication is never one-sided, and in order to be a good communicator you also need to be a good active listener.

To be a good communicator you need to:

  • Be goal-oriented
  • Be clear and understandable
  • Convey respect for listeners
  • Be open and allow for responses
  • Be consistent with and use emotion
  • Avoid ‘games’ and hidden agendas
  • Seek mutual understanding
  • Include ‘I’ statements and ownership
  • Avoid assumptions

To be a good active listener make sure you:

  • Don’t talk.
  • Are permissive – create an environment that makes others feel they are free to talk.
  • Look and act like you want to listen and are interested – listen to understand, not to reply.
  • Eliminate distractions and pay attention – demonstrate that you value what the speaker is saying.
  • “Walk a mile in the speaker’s shoes” – hear to understand the speaker’s point of view.
  • Are patient – give enough time and do not interrupt.
  • Control your temper and emotions – in anger we usually misinterpret the meaning of words.
  • Try not to argue or criticize – don’t put the speaker on the defensive; you’ll lose even if you win the argument.
  • Ask questions – show you are listening.

Silence is golden

Active listening skills can include using silence to:

  • Organize what the other person is saying – main ideas, key words, etc.
  • Analyze and compare what is being said with what you think or know.
  • “Hear” feelings/emotions – often they contradict verbal messages.
  • Understand words from the speaker’s point of view.

4 things a good active listener never does:

  • Interrupt
  • Argue
  • Pass judgment
  • Jump to conclusions

Five Listening Behaviours to Work On

Most of us need to work on our active listening skills. There are five listening behaviours that you can exhibit that will help you on your way to becoming a good active listener: natural response, restatement, questioning, summarizing, and reflection.

You are probably already using some or all of these intuitively, but here are a few suggestions for how to use these behaviours to be both a good communicator and a good active listener.

  1. Natural Response – use it to convey that you are interested and listening or to encourage the person to continue talking: 
“I see.” or “That’s interesting.”
  2. Restatement – use it to verify meaning and interpretation with the speaker, to show you are listening and that you understand what they are saying, or to encourage the speaker to analyze other aspects of the issue being considered and discuss it with you: 
“As I understand it then, your plan is…” or “This is what you have decided to do and the reasons are…” or “If that’s the case, what do you think about…?”
  3. Questioning – use it to get more information about a subject or to be certain you understand what is being communicated:
 “Could you explain more about…?” or “Do you mean that…?”
  4. Summarizing – use it to bring all of the discussion into focus in terms of a summary or as a springboard for discussion on a new topic or issue:
 “These are the key ideas you have expressed…” or “If I understand how you feel about the situation…”
  5. Reflection – use it to demonstrate that you understand how the speaker feels about the topic": 
“So, you’re saying that you feel…” or “That seems to indicate you were really mad about…”

Listen to Lead

There are many nuggets of folk wisdom that apply here:

  • Open your ears, not your mouth.
  • We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen more than we speak.
  • Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.

We’ve all heard these, and many more—but that doesn’t make them any less appropriate.

If you truly want to become an engaging leader, then you must become a great communicator.

And that begins not with your voice, but with open ears and an open mind.

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Posted by Debra Sunohara
Posted on November 25, 2014
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Categories: change management, communication, culture, engagement, hr & talent management, leadership, learning, management, teams