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Active Listening: A Simple Tool to Build an Inclusive Work Culture

04 Apr
Woman in office takes notes as she actively listens to clients.

It’s fairly obvious when someone isn’t actively listening to you. When telling a story, asking a question or giving instructions, your words fall flat. The person on the receiving end isn’t engaging, is doing something else entirely or is visibility checked-out of the conversation. This has an expanded set of implications in work environments, not just on productivity and quality, but on morale, culture and team connection.

In her recent on-demand leadership training, Inga Carboni, associate professor of organizational behavior for William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business states that active listening is one of the seven considerations for inclusive leadership. Watch her full video to learn more about building thriving workplace cultures and supported teams.

Let’s explore the many ways to set yourself up as a successful active listener, leader and team member through active listening techniques, tools and methodology that moves you from merely hearing someone to actively listening to them.

Actions to Promote Active Listening

Hearing is a physical act allowing you to perceive only sound, while active listening is a mental process that requires concentrating on sound, getting meaning from it and responding to it.1 That’s quite the difference, and there are a number of actions you can take to glean that meaning.

Remove Distractions to Focus on the Speaker

One way to be a great active listener is to focus on the speaker. Being in an environment with little to no distractions can help you give your full attention. It’s important when actively listening to make eye contact and avoid multitasking. It’s also a good practice to avoid interrupting the speaker. Questions and insights are welcomed, but waiting to ask or contribute should until an appropriate time for the speaker is ideal.

Hone Your Active Listening Skills by Asking Questions

You can’t be an active listener if you’re not asking questions. Another way to hone your active listening skills is to do your best to truly understand what the speaker is saying. This shows the speaker you are actively engaged and interested in what they have to say. Asking questions is the best way to do this. Some examples of questions to ask are:

  • Can you explain that further?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • How does that relate to the task at hand?
  • Are you saying that…?
  • Can you tell me more about…?

Show Empathy and Seek to Understand

When starting a conversation, giving a presentation or even asking a question, the speaker is vulnerable. They should be acknowledged for being brave. A way that the active listener can support the speaker is by showing empathy. Know that by speaking out, the speaker is in a sensitive position. Do your best to understand the speaker’s perspective and emotions.

Reflect Back on the Message

One of the best ways to actively listen is to use the method of reflecting and summarizing what the initial speaker said. This is an excellent way to ensure the speaker feels heard and is understood. Reflecting and summarizing help ensure that you and the speaker are on the same page about important information. It’s also a great way to prompt further conversation if that’s what is needed. When you reflect the message and end with a clarifying question (ex. Is that correct?) the speaker will typically volunteer more information. This is a great counseling technique that can be used across disciplines.

Why Direct Repetition Works

Reflecting is repeating what the speaker said back to the speaker. This could sound something like, “If I’m understanding correctly, this project deadline may be too tight.” According to Harvard Business Review, “Multiple studies have shown that direct repetition works, even though it may feel unnatural. Rephrasing what your interlocutor has said, however, can increase both emotional friction and the mental load on both parties.”2 This article goes on to say that there are times where paraphrasing can work but take extra caution. Offering that you’re going to put what the speaker said in your own words before paraphrasing can help when using this specific tool.

Condense Information Into Key Takeaways

Summarizing is where the listener condenses the information from the speaker into key takeaways and action items. This could sound something like, “To summarize, the main insights that were discussed in the meeting were the numbers of our department’s year-end project and ways to increase company morale.” This is a great technique to use at the end of a meeting or conversation to clarify the next steps moving forward.

Take Notes

Taking notes on exactly what the speaker is saying will prevent you from speaking out of turn. Effective note taking allows you to think and more fully process the information being spoken. It also helps you make connections between points of the discussion. All of this will prepare you to ask meaningful questions instead of blurting out your thoughts at random and interrupting the speaker.3

Note taking improves your understanding of what the speaker is saying and retention of the information being presented. Not only does taking notes help solidify information in your memory, it is also a great way to revisit the speaker’s insights. Taking notes is also a good way to “perform” active listening.

Be Patient

Being patient and avoiding interruptions while the speaker speaks is one of the most important ways to be an active listener. This includes when the speaker may be speaking at length about something. Always listen carefully.

Patience allows the speaker grace to be vulnerable while speaking. They can express themselves and feel safe while bringing their insights to the forefront. When the listener is being impatient, a communication barrier is built, making it so the speaker feels unheard or even discouraged from speaking further.

In the workplace, show respect for speakers who are sharing their thoughts. When employees don’t feel comfortable sharing their insights, questions or thoughts, the team, work and overall business will suffer.

Make a Big Impact on Workplace Culture With Active Listening

Active listening is one of many skills that aids in creating an inclusive workplace. Companies that are successful at diversity and inclusion benefit from 5.4 times higher employee retention,4 which is a boon to workplace productivity and overall profits.

When employees are actively listening to each other, the workplace feels more comfortable and a sense of belonging and respect develops. The way towards an inclusive workplace is to teach future employees management skills that celebrate inclusiveness, diversity and openness.

Gain Essential Business and Organizational Behavior Insights at William & Mary

At William & Mary's Raymond A. Mason School of Business, we strive to be on the forefront of best business practices for student success outside of the program. We are interested in the long-term benefits of inclusive organizations. To do that, we are committed to courses that promote leadership and teaching our students ways in which to be successful in business with an inclusive mindset.

Our Online MBA program will help you develop an inclusive leadership mindset, among many other valuable skills that will help you stand out over other MBA graduates. In courses like Organizational Behavior, you’ll find a framework for understanding how people and groups within organizations behave and promote productive behavior within an organization. The result of this training is a foundation for the effective management of people, from inspiring individual motivation, to structuring positive team dynamics, to building and maintaining a functional organizational structure.

For more insight on how an inclusive workplace and inclusive leadership is the way forward in business and to meet one of our knowledgeable faculty, please watch the full video, “Seven Considerations for Inclusive Leadership,” featuring Inga Carboni, associate professor at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business.

To learn more about the Online MBA program, reach out to one of our helpful Admissions Advisors.