While many leaders give themselves high marks for their communication and listening skills, team members often identify "communication issues" as frequent leadership pain points.
The discrepancies in perception are quite alarming. Leaders believe they communicate effectively; team members feel their leaders don't listen. When those in positions of leadership fail at this essential function of the communication process team members feel unappreciated, undervalued, and disengaged. Marginal leadership communication skills can stall productivity and undermine worker satisfaction.
For those interested in improving their ability to listen and communicate effectively, there are numerous theories worth investigating. Understanding the foundation of effective communication and the fundamentals of active listening empowers leaders to resolve conflict, instill teamwork, and create a workplace environment built on mutual respect.
Identifying the Common Types of Listening Behavior
Those in positions of leadership are commonly pulled in several directions simultaneously, having multiple issues competing for their attention at the same time. As a result, those under the supervision of a distracted supervisor often feel like management doesn't take their input seriously.
When those entrusted with leadership positions take the time to identify their listening habits, they have a better understanding of where they could benefit from improvement. Most listening falls into one of the following three categories:
- Combative or Competitive Listening
Combative listening is the listening style of those whose goal is to push their own view or opinion. Rather than actively listening to the message of the person initiating communication, combative listeners are formulating a counterattack, waiting for opportunities to hijack the conversation and interject their view. Combative or competitive listeners are consistently analyzing discourse to identify flaws in their counterparts thought processes.
- Passive Attentive Listening
While the passive attentive listener may be interested in what a coworker is communicating; they are not to a point in the conversation where they are willing to commit to a response. It is the lack of response that causes those trying to initiate communication to feel they are not taken A person trying to communicate with a passive listener may feel the listener is uninterested in the conversation. They may also be left wondering if the intended message was correctly understood.
- Active Reflective Listening
In this type of listening, active reflective listening, the listener gives their complete attention to the person relaying the message. The active reflective listener keeps their focus on the conversation, asks questions to clarify communication; and listens without casting judgment. Active reflective listening is the type of listening that facilitates effective communication.
It's essential for those who strive for workplace excellence to make the time to listen actively. Leaders who consciously engage their active listening skills are more likely to connect with their team and have the skills necessary to lead an increasingly diversified workforce.
Berlo's Linear Model of Communication
To understand the necessity of active listening, it may be helpful to understand a few basic principles of communication. It was Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who first argued that when people communicate, it is the receiver of that message who ultimately determines the meaning.
In 1960, communication theorist, David Berlo expanded on previous work to identify the individual components of communication, the influencing factors that occur before a message is sent and after the message is received.
Berlo identified four essential linear components that influence communication. Berlo's model of communication is represented by the acronym, SMCR. The four factors of Berlo's communication model include:
- The Sender
The person formulating the message is the sender. The message of the sender is influenced by their attitudes, knowledge, preconceptions and their relationship with their intended audience. The sender's message can also be influenced by their beliefs, their values, or their culture.
- The Message
The message is the information that is sent from the sender to the receiver. There are many types of messages, including spoken messages, text, video, or other media. The sender intends for their message to be interpreted in a particular way, so they translate the message into a code they believe will be understood by the receiver.
- The Channel
The channel is the format used to send the message. It is the sender who determines the channel. While there is much focus in leadership communication placed on verbal communication, messages can be relayed through any medium that involves the senses including written communication, diagrams, or video presentations.
- The Receiver
The person accepting and decoding the message is the receiver. Effective communication assumes that the sender and receiver have similar thought processes. Like Aristotle, Berlo's theory on the flow of communication is based on the interpretation of the message by the receiver.
In reality, the communication process is not generally as smooth as described in this linear model. In Berlos' model, after the message is sent, it can be distorted, causing the receiver to receive only part of the message if any at all. The message may not be as clear as the sender anticipates. Berlo's communication model does not allow for two-way communication.
Effective Leaders Learn to Listen Actively
Active listening combats the distortions that occur within the messaging systems by acknowledging that distortions will inevitably occur. For communication to be interpreted correctly, there needs to be a consistent method of breaking through those distortions.
To clarify the message, and assure the message is received as the sender intends requires confirmation between the sender and the receiver. In his recently published guide book Active Listening: Improve Your Ability to Listen and Lead, Michael Hoppe of the Center for Creative Listening, breaks the active listening approach into six essential skills. Consider the following interpretation:
- Skill #1 Paying Attention – show respect to those you communicate with by setting a comfortable tone and allowing ample time for the other person to speak unhurriedly. Stay focused on the moment while paying attention to your frame of mind and body language.
- Skill #2 Withholding Judgment – as a leader, it's important to remain open to new ideas. It's essential for strong leaders to withhold criticism and judgment even when they have strong, strong views on the As an active listener, it is best to avoid arguing or any effort to support your own perspective unless you are asked or given permission.
- Skill #3 Reflecting – it's important not to assume that you correctly understand the information presented to you. Paraphrase key points back to the speaker so they can be assured that you hear them and understand. Reflecting indicates that you are both on the same page during your conversation.
- Skill #4 Clarifying – by asking open-ended, thoughtful, and probing questions, you are encouraging those you communicate with to expand on their ideas. Asking questions also invites reflection and thoughtful responses. Asking questions indicates you are actively listening.
- Skill #5 Summarizing – summarizing critical themes throughout the conversation confirms that you fully comprehend your counterparts' point of view. Briefly summarizing what you understand as you listen and ask the person you are speaking with to do the same. This strategy helps ensure you are both on the same page. At the end of your conversation, it is also recommended to summarize mutual responsibilities or an anticipated next step.
- Skill #6 Sharing – the purpose of active listening is about ensuring you understand the concerns of the person you are communicating with, but sharing is also about being understood. As you gain a clear understanding of their perspective, consider interjecting a similar experience or share an idea that was triggered by points made earlier in the conversation. Sharing common experiences builds trusting relationships.
By practicing the six skills outlined in Hoppes guide, you will increase your ability to listen actively while improving your ability to communicate effectively. Active listening minimizes the effect of communication distortions represented in Berlo's model of communication.
Applying Active Listening Models In the Workplace
When leaders understand the basis of active, passive, or combative listening and recognize their areas for improvement, they have the opportunity to improve their skills.
When active listeners reiterate key points and ask questions, the sender is assured that the message is understood, and the receiver has an interest in the content of the message. Paraphrasing the intent of the message back to the originator allows the sender the opportunity to correct any miscommunication.
While practicing the six skills of active listening will help foster effective, relationship-building communication, it's important to focus beyond the words. Active listeners also need to be aware of the non-verbal cues they project. Consider the following suggestions:
- Make time to actively listen to those who request your attention.
- Pay attention to facial expressions, smiling or nodding when appropriate.
- Make eye contact while gauging how much direct eye contact is appropriate for circumstances.
- Take notice of your posture. Active listeners often lean slightly forward or towards the speaker.
- Reflecting the facial expression of the sender (mirroring) is often taken as a sign of empathy, but mimicking can be a sign of inattention.
- Eliminate distractions and resist any urge to play with pens, doodle, or repeatedly look at the clock. These actions are often perceived as disinterest.
- The key to active listening is to be fully aware of what is being said, to stay in the moment, and refrain from passing judgment or interjecting opinion.
- Don't mentally rehearse what to say next and wait for the speaker to pause before asking clarifying questions.
- Above all, try to imagine yourself in the position of the person you are communicating with, empathy is the heart of listening.
Active listening skills take practice to master. Many people find they are more comfortable incorporating their new-found listening skills in the workplace after practicing on their own. For interactive, engaging leadership training programs visit NexaLearning. The most effective leaders are those who understand the intricacies and subtleties of active listening.
Download our whitepaper "Guide to Interpersonal Communication Skills at Work". We are not all the same, we don't all approach things the same way. When you learn about behavioral styles, the end result is you can better lead people and realize what motivates them, as unique individuals.