Active Listening Is Imperative For Trust Building, Performance, and Deepening Connections

Listening is an intentional behavior. When you listen actively, you are present and focused on what the other person is saying because you want them to feel heard and valued. When your team feels heard, they know they matter and that you welcome their input, even if you disagree. 

However, if your team doesn't feel that you are listening to them, they will feel disconnected from you and the organization. The most common reasons for a disconnect occur when you half-listen during conversations or when your thoughts and emotions flare up. Whether you are reacting to something that was said, uninterested, or focused on your own thoughts, you have turned away from the other person and are not fully present.

Over time, poor listening can be insidious to an organization

The repercussions affect all areas of your business, including engagement, retention, conflict resolution, and problem-solving. Your team follows your example, and people start talking at each other instead of with each other. They stop listening. 

When your team stops listening to one another, they lose their sense of belonging and connection, and their commitment to you as a leader and the organization diminishes. Communication starts to break down, and your team experiences more misunderstandings and makes more mistakes. The widespread negative consequences are why you and your team must learn to be effective communicators.

What is active listening?

Active listening is a communication skill that requires practice and intention. It is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and respect.

When you practice active listening, you pay attention to the complete message and seek to fully understand what the other person is communicating. You listen to the words the other person uses but also pay attention to their body language and tone of voice. And you focus on the interaction without distraction or getting lost in your thoughts.

Let's look at how different listening styles play out in an imagined conversation between Charles, the vice president of a medical supply company, and Justine, a well-respected senior manager at the same company. Justine just informed Charles that she wants to reconfigure her team. She also expressed her deep frustration with the team's lack of motivation.

In the first scenario, Charles has an immediate emotional reaction to Justine's frustration and interrupts her, challenging her ability to manage her team. Caught off guard by her comments and worried that she might leave the company, Charles stopped listening. His emotions took over and hijacked the conversation. Charles's inability to listen and consider Justine's feelings or perspective is not unusual. It is a common response when we get tripped up emotionally -- regardless of whether the heightened emotions are negative or positive.

In the second scenario, Charles's reaction to Justine's frustration takes a different form. This time, instead of challenging her, Charles tuned out and went into protective planning mode. In a panic, he started contemplating what he would do if Justine decided to resign. Charles nodded to himself while Justine was speaking and appeared to be listening. But he was distracted. Because his thoughts were racing, he wasn't listening.

In the third scenario, Charles recognized that he was reacting to Justine's frustration but decided to listen closely to understand what Justine needed from him before responding. Even though he was caught off guard and anxious at the thought of losing a valuable employee, he knew that he needed to listen to understand if he wanted to achieve a good outcome. When you approach a conversation with the desire to understand the other person, you are more patient, open-minded, and curious.

In the first two scenarios, Charles demonstrated little self-awareness. He was emotionally reactive, distracted, and only half-listening. He showed no consideration for what Justine was saying or how she felt. These examples illustrate that when someone tunes out, they stop listening and cannot fully engage in the interaction, even when the outcome is important to them.

In the last scenario, Charles demonstrated self-awareness and practiced active listening. He did not allow his emotions or assumptions to hijack the conversation. As a result, Justine felt heard and supported by Charles, who showed her that he was interested in whatever she had to say, regardless of where the conversation was heading and whether he agreed with her.

Five tips to becoming an active listener

When you make an intentional, conscious decision to stay present in a conversation and listen to understand, you are practicing active listening. Doing so requires you to bring self-awareness to the interaction, enabling you to pay attention to what is taking place. To become a more active listener:

  1. Choose to be fully present in the conversation. Active listening is a decision. You can choose to pay attention during an interaction and notice what is taking place. Join in the conversation, but also observe yourself, the other person, and what's going on between you. Notice if the energy shifts, which might indicate that the other person is losing interest or getting upset. Practice bringing awareness to your interactions.
  2. Focus on what the other person is saying. Give the other person your undivided attention. It is not only courteous but also a sign of respect. Make eye contact, put down your phone, and eliminate all distractions.
  3. Listen to understand. When listening, be patient, suspend judgment, and let go of preconceived assumptions. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt that they also want a positive outcome and are not trying to upset you or start a disagreement.
  4. Change your posture. If you notice that you are becoming upset, having difficulty staying focused, or getting bored or excited by something the other person is saying, change your posture. Sit up straighter, pull your shoulders back, and place both of your feet on the floor. Notice your feet connecting with the ground. Then take a deep breath and return your focus to the interaction.  
  5. Reflect on the conversation. When the other person finishes speaking, reflect on what they said and check in to make sure you understood what they were trying to communicate. If any part of their message is unclear, ask them to help you understand what they meant. Caring enough to understand their message shows that you are actively engaged in the interaction.  

When you show your team that you are interested in them, they will want to work for you. By being an active listener, you build trust with your team and increase their commitment to you and the organization. That increased commitment affects productivity and overall culture. 

Active listening is an intentional behavior. It's at the root of how you connect and build trust with others, which, in turn, builds a positive workplace environment. Don't underestimate the power and influence of active listening. It is one of the most effective ways to keep your team motivated and engaged.


©Copyright 2022 Debra Roberts, LCSW All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced without permission from the publisher.

A version of this article was initially published on as: To Be a Better Leader, Practice Active Listening