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Improving Your Listening to Develop Stronger Relationships at Work


Effective listening is a crucial soft skill that impacts one's ability to build strong relationships both personally and professionally. In the modern workplace, where interactions are increasingly virtual and communication is often asynchronous, developing the ability to truly listen to colleagues and direct reports is more important than ever for managers seeking to foster engagement, trust and productivity.


Today we will explore the research on listening skills and their importance for relationship building at work, providing pragmatic recommendations and examples for how organizational leaders can improve their listening and apply it to cultivate stronger bonds across their teams.


What is Active Listening?


Active listening refers to a method of listening and responding that focuses the full attention on the speaker, understands their perspective, and provides feedback that acknowledges their message. Recent research has reinforced why active listening is so critical for fostering solid interpersonal connections in the workplace. Studies show that feeling heard is one of employees' top motivating factors, impacting their job satisfaction, loyalty and how likely they are to seek new opportunities elsewhere (Ilies et al., 2007). Developing the ability to actively listen is thus key for managers looking to retain talent.


Barriers to Good Listening


While simple in theory, truly listening without interruption or judgment can be challenging in practice due to innate human tendencies. Some common barriers to effective listening include:


  • Distractions: In an open office or virtual setting, it's easy for conversations to be interrupted by notifications, side conversations or an email prompt on one's screen.

  • Jumping to conclusions: People often listen only well enough to reply instead of comprehending fully. Assumptions may limit understanding another's complete message.

  • Rehearsing responses: Rather than focusing on the speaker, the mind may wander to formulating a response instead of processing information.

  • Filtering through bias: Preconceived notions, personal preferences or past experiences can unconsciously filter how words are interpreted.


Overcoming these barriers requires discipline and presence of mind to truly engage with what others are communicating. Managers should thus purposefully develop techniques to improve their active listening abilities and strengthen workplace alliances.


Cultivating Active Listening Skills


Research confirms that listening skills, like any competency, can be strengthened with focused effort (Backlund et al., 2008). Leaders seeking to foster organizational relationships through enhanced listening may consider adopting some of the following specific strategies:


  • Eliminate Distractions: In the modern virtual workplace, multitasking while "listening" is all too easy. Leaders must make a conscious effort to eliminate distractions when colleagues speak by turning off notifications, closing unnecessary applications and giving the person their full attention. Some companies like IBM have even gone as far as implementing "no meeting" periods each week to reduce interruptions and encourage deep focus (Caza, 2020).

  • Maintain Eye Contact and Body Language: Non-verbal cues account for over 50% of communication impact (Poyatos, 1992). When listening remotely, maintaining eye contact on video calls and using engaged body language like nodding helps signal attentiveness. In-person, facing the speaker with an open posture is key.

  • Paraphrase and Ask Clarifying Questions: Paraphrasing what was said in your own words and asking questions that probe for specifics not only verifies understanding but also demonstrates engagement with the content. For example: "If I understood correctly, your top priority is completing the project rollout by end of quarter. Can you provide some more detail on your timeline?"

  • Avoid Assumptions and Preconceptions: Do not jump to conclusions before all relevant facts are presented. Leaders must check assumptions at the door and listen with an open, non-judgmental mindset to avoid misinterpreting meaning (Drollinger, 2018). For example: "I don't want to presume - please tell me more about the issues you've been facing with supplier X."

  • Take Notes for Follow Up: Jotting down key discussion points, action items, dates or follow up questions committed to memory aids recall and shows the speaker their message was valued enough to document. Following through on notes keeps the dialogue going.


Implementing a few of these techniques consistently can go a long way in deepening connections with colleagues through enhanced listening abilities. Let's now explore some practical organizational examples.


Applying Active Listening in Healthcare Management


In healthcare, the importance of listening cannot be overstated given high-stress environments and need to properly understand patient needs. Leaders at Cleveland Clinic have made cultivating attentive listening a priority (Llopis, 2013). Here are some examples of its application:


  • Department Meetings: rather than drone on about metrics, managers take only 30% of meeting time while dedicating the remainder to listening as each staff member shares one challenge and one success.

  • Shadowing Nurses: administrators spend time shadowing frontline nurses to truly understand their workflow barriers and information needs before implementing process changes.

  • Patient Rounds: executives make unannounced rounds in patient halls and cafeterias to listen directly to patient experiences, catching issues nurses may miss in surveys.


This focus on listening across hierarchies has helped Cleveland Clinic foster a culture where staff feel respected and supported, leading to better patient outcomes. Similar efforts could benefit other healthcare systems aiming to strengthen relationships through enhanced communication.


Using Active Listening in IT Project Management


Developers at Anthropic utilize various listening techniques to drive cohesion on agile software projects. Their remote-first culture requires nuanced communication skills (Anthropic, 2022). Consider these examples:


  • Daily Standups: the lead asks each contributor to state one task completed since the previous day and any impediments in their own words before responding.

  • Planning Meetings: When capturing requirements, the product manager restates key points in a summary and asks for feedback to ensure full comprehension.

  • 1:1 Check-ins: Individual contributors are encouraged to share both work challenges and personal wellbeing updates with their leads who listen without judgment.

  • Video On: Developers keep video enabled for all virtual meetings to facilitate non-verbal engagement even when not actively speaking.


By fostering an environment where employees feel heard, Anthropic is able to maintain highly engaged remote teams despite the lack of in-person interaction - something many other tech companies struggle with. Their listening-first approach cultivates cohesion.


Becoming an Active Listener in the Finance Industry


Developing strong client relationships is especially vital in financial services, where trust is key (PwC, 2014). Consider how these wealth managers apply active listening skills:


  • Financial Reviews: Rather than dominating meetings, advisors ask open-ended questions to better understand evolving client priorities, family situations and risk tolerance over time.

  • Account Opening: New clients are invited to share their investment objectives and goals in a casual call before paperwork to build rapport.

  • Lifestyle Checks: Periodic lifestyle discussions focus on any major life changes impacting clients’ needs to regularly rebalance portfolios accordingly.

  • Complaint Resolution: Any issues are addressed through reflective listening to acknowledge feelings before providing solutions to maintain the relationship.


By taking a consultative approach centered on truly understanding shifting client circumstances through attentive listening, these financial advisors are better able to deliver personalized services that engender long-term trust and satisfaction.


Conclusion


Research conclusively links active listening abilities to stronger workplace relationships and overall organizational success. Effective listening can be developed with conscious effort to overcome inherent cognitive biases by maintaining focus, avoiding assumptions, paraphrasing understanding and keeping an open mindset. Examples from healthcare management, IT project teams and financial advisors illustrate how leaders across industries can apply listening best practices to foster better connections and outcomes within virtual and fast-paced work environments. With discipline, any manager can enhance their interpersonal skills in a way that cascades value throughout their organizations.


References


 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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