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The Art and Science of Active Listening

I think we can all agree we live in a digital world with a lot of surface noise. A world in which we are time-pressed — or at least feel as if we are — and we simply want to know what we think we need to know in the shortest amount of time. This relates to most of our interactions, discussions, and conversations.

Our typical approach to the real and perceived high level of noise in our lives is to summarize. We seek out the main points and synergize what we hear, read or view to our personal interpretation of what is important and aligned with our own thoughts, values, and knowledge. This is nothing new.  We operate this way as a human evolutionary default as well as an ever-expanding human condition of navigating information and interaction the digital age.

The 2040 Approach

Over the weeks in our thought leadership series, we have surfaced the importance of objectivity, appropriate analysis, recognition of nuances across multi-generational workforces, mastery of communications that actually communicate, identifying patterns, expanding critical thinking skills and leading with courage.

We hope you have noted an underlying theme. At the base of all that we have shared is a deep respect and belief in our humanity: the way humans think, solve problems, interact, and collaborate. And yes, the way humans communicate.

This week, we offer active listening for your consideration in adding another tool to your growing toolbox.

Active Listening

At the core of a high-performance organization and its culture is unbiased communications and active listening.  Active Listening is a skill that focuses on removing one’s personal defaults, values, opinions, and biases when engaging with others in conversations and discussions, as well as in reading what others have written or viewing and listening to what others have captured and recorded.

How We Listen

Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” How often are you stuck in this listening trap?  Brigette Hyacinth, Author of Leading the Workforce of the Future, adds, “Listening is the most important skill an individual can master. However, it is tough to master as it requires us to be more present, attentive, engaged, open and flexible. Good listening skills in this digital era, with its information overload and shortened attention span, is fast becoming an endangered species.”

It’s complicated. Each of us is the sum of our parts. Those parts reside in our minds and thought processes and manifest who we are and what we represent. The sum of our parts embraces our knowledge, life experiences and values. In this regard, we are our own individual holistic “system” existing within and interacting with a variety of other “systems,” always maintaining a perception of our reality and how we see and interpret the world.

Our perception of reality is very much tied to our individuality. Conversations, discussions, and other interactions with others are rarely based on shared perception and personal knowledge. Shared knowledge is a small sliver of common knowledge across a group of individuals and is often highly focused to a very specific item or topic.

As such, communicator bias is inherent as a communicator chooses her or his words, information to include and information to omit. Recipient bias is also in play as the recipient side of the interaction seeks to internalize what was said and shared via their own knowledge, values, and beliefs. We typically do not listen objectively (with an open mind without our own inherent biases) and therefore may not understand what has been said or even written. We listen with the immediate intent to interpret, align, and respond. How do we know this?  Ask yourself the following questions illustrating how others may have “listened” or not to what you were sharing:

  • Have you ever felt that you weren’t being heard?
  • Have you found yourself explaining something repeatedly as the response you received wasn’t connecting to your intent and meaning?
  • Have you received email or other responses that caused you to go back and reread what you wrote?
  • Have you discovered that meeting notes didn’t include points that you felt were important or tangential to the problem at hand?

If you answered yes to any of the above, well, you may not be the one responsible for the confusion, interpretation or omissions that occurred. Those you were communicating with may not have been practicing active listening skills and were defaulting to their own thoughts, opinions, and values to what you shared. They may also have been rushing to get to the main point and correlate the point or points to what is important to them in how they see an issue or problem.

A basic challenge of human communications and processing external stimuli is that the mind defaults to expend as little energy as possible to listen.  The human mind cannot do more than one thing at a time. Therefore, we have a scattershot approach to listening. We grab pieces of what is said as opposed to truly hearing objectively what is shared in context of the communicator. In other words, by nature we take pieces of what is said and quickly determine what is important to us and what we need to know. This process informs how each of us might respond and why. This influences power plays in positioning our individual motivations to demonstrate importance, manifest competitiveness, get an ego boost, or show off a competency.

What We Hear and Retain

On average, we retain just 25 percent of what we hear, according to Hyacinth. She adds, “Active listening is crucial to gaining a complete understanding of any and all situations. Without full understanding, one can easily waste everyone’s time by solving the wrong problem or merely addressing a symptom, not the root cause.”

An Important Consideration

An important consideration is whether you are actively listening to what is being said about your organization.

  • Do you know what impact comments and opinions have on you in real-time?
  • What impact they have on your revenue?
  • What impact they are have on your organization?
  • Do you know the level of satisfaction your members and customers have with your organization?

We have written about the importance of ingesting customer and other feedback continuously and applying active listening skills to know objectively how an organization is performing. Read More>

In addition to the mental default of preparing and calculating a response, our attention is apt to wane, and our minds are often consumed by other thoughts. Have you sat through a meeting hungry and found that you were more focused on what to get for lunch instead of hearing what the communicator was saying? Have you been caught with your mind wandering and unable to answer the question you were asked? Have you found yourself answering emails or perusing websites while a discussion was underway? Have you determined without really listening that the subject being discussed isn’t relevant to you?

It happens more often than we all readily admit. Exercising critical thinking via active listening is similar to practicing mindfulness. It requires us to clear what is in our minds and focus on the interaction at hand, fully immersing in that interaction and in many ways removing “ourselves” and stopping that constant internal conversation with ourselves so we can listen to the communicator. Active listening requires us to put ourselves into the mind of the communicator and understand the reason, rationale, and content of what is being shared with us.

The Benefits of Active Listening

At 2040, we work with clients to hone their active listening skills and create an organizational culture that embraces critical thinking, problem solving and open communications. Active listening is a key component of developing and building critical thinking competencies in an organization and a component that is critical to any organizational change or transformation.

We advocate that individuals support others to be open and honest without negative consequences. We believe that active listening results in objective and constructive outcomes that can solve the true and complete problems at hand, create shared and complete understanding of an issue or situation, and reflect shared reality of an organization’s ability to change or transform. In other words, if you don’t actively listen, you won’t growIf an organization doesn’t practice active listening, it also will not grow and/or achieve appropriate change or transformation.

Active Listening and its Value

Hyacinth believes that listening forms the foundation of good relationships, essential to effective leadership and collaboration at all levels. Active listening reinforces:

  • You care
  • Empathy
  • Emotional intelligence
  • The quality of influence
  • Respect
  • Trust
  • More motivated and committed team members

The foundation of active listening deepens the opportunity to lead and communicate with courage by helping others feel secure in expressing their understandings. In short, active listening is being open to “repeat back what you heard” to further ensure shared knowledge and understanding.

A report from Maryville University, identifies three key active listening benefits:

  • Active listeners are more likable.Individuals with strong listening skills are present in the conversation. People who listen with focus are often perceived as more likable.
  • Active listeners build stronger relationships. Communication is not a one-way street. Good listeners show interest, ask open-ended questions, and acknowledge what’s being said. This helps reduce misunderstandings and builds stronger relationships.
  • Active listeners have a clearer understanding of the topics being discussedIndividuals with refined listening skills seek to fully understand a speaker’s message. They pay attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues and ask for clarification when needed.

How to Be an Active Listener

Active listening is a skill that can be learned. The report from Maryville University identifies four ways to listen that we have amended with some added thoughts and context:

  1. Deep Active Listening
    Deep active listening occurs when you’re committed to understanding the communicator’s perspective. It involves paying attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues, such as the words being used, the speaker’s body language, and their tone. This type of listening helps build trust and rapport, and it helps others feel comfortable in expressing their thoughts and opinions.
  2. Full Active Listening
    Full active listening involves paying close and careful attention to what the communicator is conveying. It often involves the use of active listening techniques, such as paraphrasing what’s been said to the person you’re speaking with to ensure you understand their messaging, intent and meaning. Full listening is useful in the workplace, when someone is instructing you on how to complete a task, problems are being discussed and analyzed, and when discussing work projects with teams.
  3. Critical Active Listening
    Critical listening involves using systematic reasoning and careful thought to analyze a communicator’s message and separate fact from opinion. Critical listening is often useful in situations when communicators may have a certain agenda or goal, such as watching political debates, or when a salesperson is pitching a product or service. We have framed the lack of critical active listening into fake news and information bias. Every communicator and communication come with some form of bias. As ingrained in individual opinions and interpretations as we have become of late, we overlook that critical thinking, as well as active listening, provides us the opportunity to hear what was said and focus on substance and fact, not opinions or agendas.
  4. Therapeutic Active Listening
    Therapeutic listening means allowing a friend, colleague, or family member to discuss their problems. It involves emphasizing and applying supportive nonverbal cues, such as nodding and maintaining eye contact, in addition to empathizing with their experiences. While externally demonstrating therapeutic listening, it is also important to exercise full active listening to ensure you are hearing what your friend, colleague or family member is sharing with you. It is important not to lose focus and miss important nuances or details.

The Pitfalls of Not Listening

Lack of active listening can have a high price tag. Organizations can become weaker in a competitive market and unable to embrace change, transformation, and continuous improvement. Active listening should reach to every level in an organization to ensure it is functional and practices critical thinking.  We work hard to actively listen to our clients so that we can proactively respond with strategies, tactics and tools that are relevant to their challenges and goals. Active listening requires us to slow down, be deliberate and “walk-in our clients shoes” so that we deeply connect and understand. It’s a great practice to master, and it’s also a lifelong pursuit.  We highly recommend it!


Get in touch with us!

2040 helps organizations navigate the sea changes of finding their new normal. We offer actionable expertise in the strategy and operations of digital growth and engagement, empowering an empathetic workplace culture, strengthening your value proposition and driving revenues.  We’ve been in your shoes and we know what impedes transformation … and what unlocks it.

Onward and upward from the 2040 Team

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