How many Zoom calls have you been involved in recently when everyone was trying to talk at the same time? That’s certainly been the case for me. And it got me thinking about the importance of listening and how so many of us are really bad at it.

Indeed, when it comes to soft skills, effective listening rarely features on the learning and development agenda, with the focus often being placed on speaking and presenting. But it was during my course to train as an executive coach when the penny dropped and I came to the harsh realisation that, although good at networking, I was a terrible listener. I had an attention span of a hamster and was regularly guilty of over-indulgently hijacking conversations by talking over others and shifting the attention to me.

So why is listening such an important skill? Well, for starters, think about how much of your working day involves listening and processing information? Effective listening will help you to pick-up all the relevant points and even gain additional insight to help you to make effective decisions. Listening can also help to enhance relationships with colleagues and clients as well as family members. What’s more, it can play a key role in negotiating and can even help to reduce conflict. Think about it – if people end up talking over each other then there’s a real risk of voices getting louder, which might then turn into a simple mud-slinging match.

Here are my top tips for effective listening:

  1. Face the speaker and make sure your eyes are at the same level as them. For example, if the speaker is sitting down then do the same and vice versa. Maintain eye contact. The latter is really important in Western culture so avoid staring at your screen or gazing out the window.
  2. Good eye contact doesn’t mean you have to be fixated on the speaker as this may intimidate them. But it’s vitally important to be attentive – that means being present and paying full attention.
  3. Related to point 3 above, before starting a full-blown important or challenging conversation think about your environment. Is it preferable to find a quieter location away from background noise or other interferences such as colleagues?
  4. In addition to mentally blocking out environmental distractions, try not to focus on the speaker’s accent, physical appearance or mannerisms as they too are likely to become diversions.
  5. Be mindful of unconscious bias so you don’t jump to conclusions about the speaker before they even utter their first sentence. Keep an open mind, try to listen without prejudice and avoid jumping to conclusions.
  6. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by thoughts that are unrelated to the conversation you’re taking part in. If something else is playing on your mind even if it’s triggered by hunger pangs seriously consider postponing the conversation – even it’s by five mins so you can grab a quick snack or go for a wee.
  7. Avoid sentence grabbing by finishing what the speaker was trying to articulate. Let the speaker conclude their points. Then wait for them to pause (for those of you who hate awkward pauses let me reassure you that these always feel longer than we think!) before saying your part or asking for clarification.
  8. Ask questions to confirm your understanding and unless appropriate avoid shifting the dial by moving the conversation to a new topic or indeed back to yourself. For instance, imagine you’re speaking to your friend Sally about her summer holiday and she starts by saying she visited Jonny, a mutual friend in Australia who you haven’t been in contact with for some time. It’s tempting to shift the conversation to Jonny but it’s likely that Sally really wants to talk about Australia and her visit to the Sydney Opera House. If you notice that you’re allowing a conversation to a go off in a tangent acknowledge this and take responsibility for getting it back on track.
  9. Don’t interrupt. If listening to someone about a problem or dilemma they’re facing try not to impose your solutions unless invited. I’ve had so many conversations with people who wrongly assume I’m after advice and just butt in and start telling me what I should be doing. This is not only patronising but also frustrating because 9 times out of ten I’ve tried and tested all their suggestions! Interrupting also sends so many other negative signals, including: I’m cleverer and / or more important than you; I don’t really care what you think; What I’m about to say is more interesting; I don’t have time for your opinion; This isn’t a conversation; or It’s a competition and I’m going to defeat you!
  10. Finally, when the speaker is done, acknowledge and summarise their remarks. Then before taking your turn and, if appropriate, ask whether you have understood them correctly. This is particularly important when discussing complex points and information is exchanged. And before wrapping up a final summary will help to identify obligations and next steps etc.

By Husnara Begum, Associate Career Coach and Contributing Editor