The art of active listening

How to improve understanding and build trust within teams and with clients

Christopher Jones-Warner, Chartered FCSI specialises in developing leadership and communication skills in wealth management firms, to create rapport and build trust within teams. He has just been showing me, in a rather extreme way, how it feels when someone is not actively listening to what I am saying. Over FaceTime, I had tried to explain how my Border Terrier is the perfect age to have puppies. Jones-Warner appeared downright bored: looking all around him, stretching, glancing at his watch – doing anything but looking at me. I feel demoralised, uncomfortable and I do not want to continue revealing any more of my thoughts.

For the sake of the experiment, I start to talk again. This time he looks intently at me, smiling, occasionally nodding and repeating bits of what I have said. The effect on my ability to speak is impressive: I continue yapping on effortlessly until he calls the exercise to a halt. 

Jones-Warner has just demonstrated ‘active listening’ – a way of listening and responding to another person that improves understanding and creates trust. 
The key to communicationThe ability to encourage sufficient trust in a person to enable them to speak freely is crucial for the efficient functioning of a team, explains Jones-Warner. The best brainstorming sessions take place when people feel sufficiently confident to discuss exactly what they believe without fear that they will be ridiculed or slapped down. “Firms comprise teams that need to work as expected,” he says. “The key component is how team members communicate with each other.”

Active listening is also vital when dealing with clients. Trust engendered by active listening is essential if a client is going to reveal their deeper concerns about their lives, plans and aspirations.
"The best relationships are created when the participants can show mutual understanding" Chris Keeble is a retired Lieutenant Colonel who served in the Falklands campaign and is now a Supernumerary Fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. After leaving the army, he set up his own consultancy advising CEOs and their boards on ethical leadership. His approach covers leadership communication techniques that help staff flourish and promote goodwill. Keeble prefers to concentrate on the concept of an ‘encounter’ with another person, rather than active listening. He says: “I understand encounter as a mental disposition, an attitude, a virtue of generosity as a gift. The highest gift we can give another is the gift of ourselves.”

Keeble cites the modern world’s focus on outcomes, and the need for work to be undertaken quickly and remotely, as reasons we do not build meaningful relationships with other people. He argues that the technology that enables us to communicate more easily can too easily become distractions.

“Distraction introduces indifference into the reality in the encounter,” he explains. “It is to use power to demean, discourage and humiliate, rather than for the enrichment, flourishing and fulfilment of the persons in the encounter.”
How to listen actively • Give the speaker your undivided attention

• Make eye contact – look at the speaker’s eyes, or at a point in the triangle between their eyes and mouth

• Show that you are listening – nod, smile (if appropriate), repeat words and phrases that the speaker has just used; summarise what has been said to show you understand

• Keep an open mind. Do not make an instant judgment based on your previous experiences, as that is likely to be incorrect

• Ask open questions that require more than a yes or no answer
Asking the right questionsThe way you react to the person in front of you or on the other end of a telephone line can make all the difference. On a website page dedicated to active listening, The Samaritans charity says: “All too often we say things which leads conversations to dead ends. ‘I know just how you feel,’ ‘Try not to worry about it’. Although they're meant well, they don't encourage the person you're speaking with to go on. Rather, they tend to wrap up what the other person was saying. With active listening, you avoid this.”

The Samaritans suggest asking open questions that require a full answer rather than a simple yes or no. For example, instead of “has this been going on a long time?” you could ask, “how long has this been going on?”

Listeners should summarise what has been said to them to show that they have paid attention and understood. Even repeating a single word or phrase can encourage the speaker to continue.
The importance of eye contactIf you find gazing into someone’s eyes difficult, then try focusing on the top of their nose. Jones-Warner says that looking anywhere in the triangle between the eyes to the mouth will work. The chances are you do it already, as most body language is subconscious.

Eye contact is also essential if you are leading a meeting, be it in a small room with five or six participants or a theatre with a huge audience. In these circumstances, hold eye contact with one person while you make a single point. Then when you make the next point in your talk, move your eye contact to another person. Depending on the size of your audience, you may not be able to make contact with everyone, but the fact that you are engaging as many as possible is important and will help to hold your audience’s attention.

Active listening may sound an easy concept to put into practice – after all, anyone can smile, nod and make eye contact. Perhaps the trickiest part is to listen with an open mind. Jones-Warner says you must listen without judging to get connection and trust.

“The body has evolved in a very complex universe and the role of the brain is to recognise the patterns to help the body to survive,” he says. "Every experience that you have is stored away in your brain, and each time you talk to someone, your brain rifles through those experiences to find similarities. How you respond to that person will depend on what similar experiences it finds."

This is especially true when you meet someone for the first time. “Never trust your first opinions of people,” says Jones-Warner. “Nobody’s judgment is correct. When you make a judgment about someone, all you do is pigeonhole them based on your previous experiences, denying other more rewarding perspectives. Your judgment is never how it actually is.”

The best relationships, involving real trust, are created when the participants can show mutual understanding, and are based on people listening without trying to work out what benefit they can extract from the other person. The participants are listening to understand before being understood.
Published: 28 Sep 2016
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