Active Listening is Required for Leadership: The Key to Truly Understanding Your Coworkers

By Sivan Kaspi, Updated on November 08, 2023, 7 min read
Active listening

In our previous blog on setting team goals, we looked at how goals provide direction, focus, and motivation for team members, and help to ensure that everyone is working toward a common purpose. The problem is in a world where digital interactions at work happen more often than face-to-face conversations and multitasking has become second nature, a particular skill stands out as increasingly: active listening. You might be wondering: Isn’t listening just a passive act? The answer is both yes and no. While the act of hearing is passive and can be equated to the background noise we often tune out, active listening is an entirely different ballgame and critical for addressing teamwork challenges.


“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” –  M. Scott Peck


Active listening is not just one of the popular management communication styles. It’s a focused effort to understand the meaning behind those words people are saying. It’s the difference between merely hearing the lyrics of a song and truly understanding its meaning.


For leaders and managers, this distinction becomes even more pronounced. Imagine a leader who merely hears the concerns of their team versus one who actively listens, processes, and responds to those concerns. The difference is major. One approach can lead to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and a breakdown in management communication styles. On the other hand, real active listening paves the way for genuine understanding, effective problem-solving, and a cohesive team that can navigate even the most complex teamwork challenges. In the symphony of workplace communication, it’s not enough to just hear the instruments; a leader must listen to the music.


“Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable — and one of the least understood. Most captains of industry listen only sometimes, and they remain ordinary leaders. But a few, the great ones, never stop listening. That’s how they get word before anyone else of unseen problems and opportunities.”


— Peter Nulty


TL;DR: Key Things To Remember

  • Active listening is the cornerstone of genuine relationships at work and personally, fostering trust and mutual respect.

  • In professional work, active listening builds trust and rapport.

  • “Zoom multi-tasking” isn’t making you productive. It’s making you less productive.


Common Hindrances to Active Listening

When it comes to active listening, it’s essential to recognize the roadblocks that often stand in your way. Just as a road warrior traveler is aware of the potential pitfalls on a journey, anyone striving for genuine communication should be mindful of the barriers to active listening.



External Distractions

Imagine settling into a deep conversation, only to be shocked by the blaring horn of a passing vehicle or the constant ping of a smartphone notification. Does this sound familiar? External distractions, such as ambient noise (music, TV, etc_, technology interruptions, and even our immediate environment, can play havoc with our active listening skills. These distractions are pulling us away from the core of a conversation. Even the tools designed to make us more productive are causing us to be slightly less productive. Use the tools when needed, then move on to “IRL” conversations.



The Multitasking Myth?

In our quest for productivity, multitasking has become a sought-after skill. Juggling multiple tasks simultaneously might seem like a great way to get ahead, but when it comes to active listening, it’s a perilous fight. The act of dividing our attention between listening and, say, checking emails or scrolling through a team chat feed dilutes our focus. The result? We might catch snippets of the conversation, but the deeper meaning, emotions, and context are often lost. Contrary to popular belief, multitasking doesn’t enhance our efficiency in this context; it hinders it. Multitasking reduces productivity by as much as 40 percent, and only 2.5% of people can do it effectively.


In conclusion, while the path to active listening is riddled with potential hindrances, recognizing and addressing these barriers is half the battle. As we navigate our way through the maze of distractions, both external and internal, it’s crucial to remain vigilant, ensuring that our quest for genuine understanding remains unhampered. After all, in the intricate dance of communication, active listening is the rhythm that keeps us in sync.



Practical Techniques to Improve Active Listening

Active Listening


In our discussion of active listening, we’ve looked at its significance and the challenges that often stand in our way in 2023. But understanding the importance and recognizing the barriers is just the beginning of growing. The real question is: How do we hone this critical leadership skill? How do we overcome the distractions and truly tune in? Let’s look into some practical techniques that can elevate our listening skills.



Listen Twice, Speak Once

In today’s digital and remote world, where the pressure to respond quickly is often there, silence is often viewed as a void, something to be filled. But with active listening, silence is golden. It’s a space, a pause, that allows the speaker to gather their thoughts and express themselves fully. By resisting the urge to talk and respond quickly with a response or fill every lull, we give the speaker the room they need. This act of holding back, of giving space, can lead to deeper insights and a better conversation. Remember, sometimes the most profound understanding comes in moments of quiet reflection and silence.



Non-Verbal Cues: Speaking Without Words

While words are the primary carriers of information, they’re often accompanied by a symphony of non-verbal cues. From a subtle shift in posture to a minor facial expression, body language can provide many insights. By watching these non-verbal signals, you can gain a deeper understanding of the person’s emotions and state of mind. Are they leaning in, engaged, and enthusiastic? These cues, though silent, speak volumes. By paying attention to body language, we can enhance our comprehension and respond more empathetically.


Reading non-verbal cues in a remote environment can be challenging, but that is why you must focus on the person speaking and not multi-task while someone is talking on video. Many folks find it helpful to place your hands off the keyboard, close your other apps, and focus only on the person speaking.


Use a communication platform that will enable you to actively listen to your remote team members.


The Art of Asking: Open-Ended Questions

While listening is primarily a receptive activity, the questions we pose can shape the direction and depth of the conversation. Instead of asking closed questions that elicit a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, opt for open-ended inquiries. Questions like “How did that make you feel?” or “Can you elaborate on that?” encourage the speaker to dive deeper, sharing more detailed insights and perspectives. These questions demonstrate your genuine interest and pave the way for a more meaningful dialogue and connection. Don’t just listen, wait for your time to talk.


In a sense, active listening is a skill that requires practice and intentionality. By embracing silence, tuning into non-verbal cues from people who are talking, and asking the right questions, we can elevate our interactions, ensuring that we’re not just participants in a conversation but truly engaged listeners. As we continue our journey into the world of communication, let’s remember: It’s not just about hearing; it’s about understanding, connecting, and truly listening.



The Historical Context of Active Listening

Active Listening Guide


In recent years, we’ve witnessed an explosion of technological advancements. From smartphones buzzing with notifications to team chat tools, our world is saturated with digital comms. Has this digital revolution enhanced our ability to communicate, or has it inadvertently become a problem?


Remember when conversations weren’t interrupted by the incessant pings of incoming team chat messages? When discussions weren’t paused for a glance at text messages on a smartwatch? Today, even as we sit in meetings or engage in personal conversations, our devices often vie for our attention, pulling us away from the moment.


This shift has profound implications. Active listening is not merely about the auditory act of processing words. It’s about being present, immersing oneself in the conversation, and truly connecting with the person you’re talking with. With the rise of digital distractions, our attention is fragmented. We might hear the words, but what’s not being said often gets lost in the digital noise.


This trend isn’t just limited to personal interactions. In professional settings, where clear and effective communication is essential, the impact of these distractions is even more pronounced. Misunderstandings can arise, crucial details might be overlooked, and the context of discussions can be lost.



Wrap-Up: The Positive Outcomes of Active Listening

As we become a more digital society, the significance of active listening becomes increasingly evident. In professional settings, the stakes for active listening are even higher. Here, active listening isn’t just a tool for building relationships; it’s critical for innovation and collaboration. By tuning into the diverse perspectives and ideas of team members, leaders can foster an environment where creativity thrives. By addressing and navigating teamwork challenges with an open ear (and not multi-tasking), leaders can enhance teamwork, ensuring that the collective output is greater than the sum of its parts.


Beyond the external benefits, active listening also drives the way for personal growth. By truly listening to others, we quiet our brain. We become more attuned to our desires, more aware of our preconceived notions, and more open to growth. Next up in our series, check out how to build trust and rapport with your team!

Check Out The Entire Team Leadership Series

Sivan Kaspi Sivan is the Director of Marketing at Spike. A firm believer that the right kind of tech actually helps us use it less, she is passionate about tools that improve our lives. She starts off each morning reviewing her Spike feed over a good cup of coffee.

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