Listening: A social skill you never knew you needed

African American college girl in casual clothing sitting with crossed legs on pouf and chatting with male friend at stylish recreation area

Don’t we all know how to listen? How might improving our listening skills, help to lighten the load and better support people?

It is no secret that a significant number of absences are caused by mental ill health. At least 1 in 6 of us in the workplace are currently dealing with mental ill health, anxiety or depression; not one of us can escape the ups and downs of life.

As we encourage people to talk, to be more open – so must we ensure that they will get heard: that we have people – that we are those people – who know how to listen.

Building our awareness

We all know someone who doesn’t listen. If we can’t think of someone, then that we might be that person. I thought I was a ‘good listener’ until I trained in mediation and went on to mediate in all sectors, from Embassy staff to the NHS, resolving hundreds of disputes through listening.

Have you tried to talk to someone about something sensitive, whilst they are, ‘…just finishing up this email’? Maybe we’ve opened up about a situation that is bothering us when the other person takes over to share their experience or give us as yet, unsolicited, advice?

From her thousands of interviews, Oprah Winfrey stated that every person had in common, a desire to be seen, heard and understood. Offering someone the gift of understanding is priceless. Who doesn’t want to be valued this way?

Listeners behaving badly

Believing we have to ‘fix’ situations and make others feel better can block us from being present. Marshall Rosenberg lists common habits that may stop us from giving people space and connecting empathically with them.

  • Advising: “I think you should… if I were you…”
  • One-upping: “That’s nothing, let me tell you what happened to me…”
  • Educating: “This could turn into a positive experience for you…”
  • Consoling: “Ah, it wasn’t your fault, you did the best you could…”
  • Storytelling: “That reminds me of the time…”
  • Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t be silly! Don’t get upset…”
  • Interrogating: “When did this begin…Why did you do that?’
  • Correcting: “That’s not how it happened…think of it this way…’
  • Sympathising: “Oh you poor thing…”

Naturally, our role may require us to give advice – and – it helps to see where our interventions might shut someone down. It’s all about timing. And tone too; tone can be the difference between sympathy and empathy for instance.

We can all learn to deepen our ability to listen with mindful attention, and in turn, to request someone else’s full attention and focussed listening. The experience of being truly heard is visceral, emotional and intellectual – we start to process the emotions, to register our needs and understand what might be the next right step.

What do active, reflective listeners do?

They HEAR the words: What happened: how things unfolded… (Facts). They ask how the impact it is having/has had… (Feelings). They are curious: what would you like to happen/achieve… best outcome? (Desires).

They ‘reflect’ back; ‘What I heard you say…(Facts), how that has affected you…(Feelings spoken/unspoken) and what you want…’ (Desire, spoken or unspoken).

  • They say what they SEE: Notice the speaker’s body language, their state. ‘I see that you are on the edge of your seat… I’m guessing that you are feeling a bit anxious… I can see tears in your eyes… I’m wondering if…’
  • They notice what they FEEL: Notice your gut instinct and feelings. Allow silences… we don’t need to fill silence, give the other person the chance to say more. Pause and acknowledge: e.g. ‘I hear how angry and impotent you feel in this situation…’.

They allow themselves to be human. We are all, always, each doing the best we can. Being the person to model active, reflective and mindful listening will pay dividends.

Which values underpin active, reflective listening?

When we practice active, reflective, ‘mindful’ listening, we are paying full attention to the speakers and checking our understanding (not our interpretation) with them. We need to be clear with them:

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  • Clear boundaries (I have 5 minutes now or 25 minutes later)
  • Confidentiality (I won’t repeat what I hear with the exception of illegality or risk of harm)
  • Sole focus (My attention is completely on listening to you)
  • Neutrality (I don’t take a view, I only want to know your experience)
  • Impartiality (I’m here to support you and also your colleagues)

These when practiced, combine to create a space where people can begin to be open, to trust and start to process the feelings and thoughts that are troubling them. The speaker tells us more we might otherwise have missed; they are less likely to say what they think we want to hear.

Listening by leaders is never a waste of time

  1. We are present to doing one thing at a time.
  2. We get to know what is truly important in what others are saying.
  3. We spot the signs of hidden issues when someone is struggling.
  4. We communicate with authenticity and empathy modelling this for colleagues and reports.
  5. We gain a confidence boost in supporting others; rapport with fellow workers grows, and we alsoget a greater sense of being appreciated, of value.

What if it also resulted in smoother running of our team or encouraged new initiatives and increased satisfaction for both workers and clients?

Benefits to other people when we listen better to them  

  • They feel reassured to share authentically and in confidence 
  • They find relief, clarity and a sense of agency to take the next step  
  •  They in turn, better understand people and grow in empathy
  • They too, become known as compassionate colleagues

What contribution might improved listening abilities make to the organisation?

  • Better listeners build a more compassionate and safe work environment
  • Relationships become stronger
  • Line managers have less of an emotional load
  • Miscommunication is reduced
  • People who might dominate in meetings have reason to change
  • Meetings become more meaningful and productive
  • The quieter people and their ideas get heard
  • People will do more and feel a sense of belonging

Self-esteem and self-knowledge is also built by being a skillful listener as we all grow in empathy and connection to others. This can only go to foster good mental health at work.

By learning how to listen in this way, for even 3 minutes; by being present and truly understanding a person, we build community at work. As Guy Browning so neatly puts it, ‘Listen with your ears, listen with your eyes, listen with your heart.’

We each can help to create happier teams and a thriving workplace. Who doesn’t want that? ©Maggie Sawkins June 2023

About the author

Maggie Sawkins is a mediator and facilitator of “The Mindful Listener” course. As a successful mediator of hundreds of disputes, she’s heard the struggles people share and witnessed how mediation allows them to hear each other and find resolution. Developed from experience training others to mediate, she teaches mindful listening skills, underpinned by values of the mediation room. A stress-induced burnout in 2003, led to time away from the workplace. The learning from that time ensures she has great empathy and insight when delivering material on the mental well-being front. Her work embodies her vision: to create a world where we can feel confident that we will be heard, and can hear others; everyone is facing a struggle we cannot see.

You can find more details about Maggie here: 

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