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Active Listening
How many times have you been listening but don’t remember what was said? Were you busy trying to come up with a response before the speaker was finished? Were you distracted by your phone? If so, it is time to learn and apply the important skill of active listening!

What Is Active Listening?

Active listening in the workplace is the practice of fully focusing on, understanding and responding to a speaker in a thoughtful and empathetic manner. It involves not only hearing the words spoken but also interpreting the speaker's emotions, tone and body language to grasp the complete message being communicated. When actively listening, the listener is trying to grasp the full concept of what is being said without coming up with a response while the speaker is talking. To be an active listener, you must listen with full attention and clear headspace. Dave Ulrich, a renowned HR thought leader and professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, emphasizes the importance of active listening in HR: "One of the most critical skills HR professionals should master is the ability to listen deeply, ask insightful questions, and respond with empathy." By practicing active listening in the workplace, HR professionals can better understand employees' concerns and needs, leading to more effective problem-solving and a more positive work environment.

Why Is Active Listening in the Workplace Important?

In the dynamic world of human resources, effective communication is key to addressing employee needs, fostering a positive work environment and supporting organizational success. One essential skill that can greatly enhance an HR professional's ability to communicate is active listening. In this section, we'll explore the benefits of active listening specifically for HR professionals and how it can transform their day-to-day interactions with employees.
  • Improves employee relations. As Laszlo Bock, former senior vice president of People Operations at Google, emphasizes, "Building trust with your people is the foundation of a great company culture, and active listening is essential to establishing that trust." Active listening enables HR professionals to better understand employees' concerns, needs and expectations. By demonstrating empathy and providing thoughtful responses, HR can build stronger relationships and foster a more supportive work environment.
  • Enhances conflict resolution. Renowned HR expert Dr. Tony Alessandra asserts, "Active listening is a powerful tool in conflict resolution, helping HR professionals to understand the core issues and identify potential solutions." By understanding the perspectives of all parties involved, HR can mediate disputes more fairly and find solutions that address the underlying issues.
  • Boosts employee engagement and retention. When employees feel heard and understood by HR, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work. Active listening helps create a culture of trust and respect, which can lead to increased job satisfaction and reduced turnover.
  • Facilitates organizational change. HR professionals play a crucial role in managing organizational change. By actively listening to employee feedback and concerns during periods of transition, HR can identify potential obstacles and work proactively to address them, leading to a smoother change process.
  • Supports diversity and inclusion. Active listening allows HR to better appreciate the diverse perspectives and experiences of employees, fostering a more inclusive work environment. This can lead to improved collaboration, creativity and overall company performance
  • Deepens work relationships. According to Elle Kaplan, when people are engaged in active listening, it creates positive work relationships by building trust and support. When one starts to truly listen to others, there is a feeling of teamwork and camaraderie.
  • Improved productivity. With active listening, ideas can be communicated with more understanding. This improves productivity by reducing time lost in translation and creates positive working relationships.
  • Greater self-empowerment. When you know your audience is actively listening, you feel empowered and get an extra confidence boost. As a listener, it is also empowering to know you are ready for the message and willing to give the speaker your full attention.

Verbal Active Listening Skills

Showing the speaker you are ready to listen can be done through verbal cues. These show the speaker you are ready, and that you are engaged throughout the communication.According to Indeed.com, some verbal active listening skills are asking open-ended questions, asking specific questions, using verbal affirmations, and using empathetic statements.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

When appropriate, ask open-ended questions to show the speaker you are engaged in what they have to say and interested in learning more. Remember to keep judgment or bias out of the questions so the speaker does not feel uncomfortable answering.Examples of open-ended questions are, “What happened after that?” “How did you handle it?” or “Who was affected by this?”

Ask Specific Questions

When the speaker is done or has reached a pause in the conversation, ask specific, non judgemental questions. This gives the speaker confidence you care and are actively engaged in the conversation.Examples of specific questions could be, “What happened after X spoke to Y?” “How did you handle it when X was taken from Y?” or “Who was affected when X gave Y that information?”

Use Verbal Affirmations

Using short, verbal affirmations shows the speaker you are listening and you understand what they are communicating. These would include short statements such as, “I see”, “I understand,” or “Yes, I see what you’re saying.”

Use Empathetic Statements

Many conversations bring up emotion and vulnerability. When listening, it can be encouraging to offer empathetic statements to show the speaker's support and understanding.Empathetic statements could include, “I’m so sorry you are dealing with this,” or“How can I help you through this?”

Nonverbal Active Listening Skills

As an HR professional, it's crucial to fully engage in conversations by minimizing distractions, maintaining eye contact and using nonverbal cues to demonstrate your attentiveness.

Facial Expressions

Giving a smile to the speaker shows you are engaged and open to listening to what they have to say. It provides encouragement to the speaker that you value hearing what they need to share. In certain situations, smiling may not be appropriate depending on the information being conveyed. In these cases, show the facial expression that is appropriate for the topic being shared.

Eye Contact

When the speaker starts to speak, make sure to give them eye contact. This demonstrates you are focused and ready to listen. If your eyes are wandering or you are looking away, the speaker may feel as though their information isn’t important or that you do not care about what they need to communicate.

Posture

When getting ready to listen, turn your whole body toward the speaker. If you only move your head, it seems as though you are only giving your attention for a short time. Show the speaker you are ready to listen for as long as they need by facing your body towards them with your head up.

Distraction

Distractions can be anything from looking at your phone or computer to looking at your work. Putting down your phone or taking your hand away from the mouse can demonstrate the speaker has your full attention. If you are still on your phone or looking at your computer, you are showing them they are not worth the time or your full attention.

Tips for Active Listening

Developing and demonstrating active listening skills can greatly enhance an HR professional's ability to connect with employees and address their needs. In this section, we'll provide practical tips for honing active listening skills in an HR context, including understanding personality styles and adapting your communication approach accordingly.

Tip 1: Don’t Listen to Respond

Many times we are already coming up with a response before the speaker is done speaking. When we are thinking of our response, we can miss what they are saying. As Lou Adler, a well-known hiring and recruiting expert, advises, "Listen with the intent to understand, not just respond." Take time to carefully listen to what the speaker is saying before thinking of a response.

Tip 2: Be Careful When Sharing Your Experiences

Sharing experiences can be a positive way to relate to the speaker’s experience, but sometimes it can overshadow the situation. When sharing a relatable experience, be sure you’re not conveying that you are trying to “one-up” the speaker. If you catch yourself forming a response in your head before the speaker is done, stop! Try to focus back on the speaker and ask some clarifying questions if you missed some information during your thoughts.

Tip 3: Create a Comfortable Environment

Establishing a welcoming and comfortable setting for conversations can encourage open communication and facilitate active listening. Pay attention to privacy, noise levels and seating arrangements to ensure employees feel at ease when discussing concerns or sharing feedback.

Tip 4: Practice Empathy and Validation

Empathizing with employees' feelings and validating their concerns can help build trust and encourage honest communication. Acknowledge their emotions and provide reassurance that their thoughts and feelings are valued.

Tip 5: Ask Open-Ended Questions and Paraphrase

Encourage deeper conversations by asking open-ended questions that invite elaboration, and paraphrase the employee's statements to ensure understanding. This practice not only confirms that you're actively listening but also helps clarify any ambiguities.

Tip 6: Seek Feedback and Continuously Improve

Actively seeking feedback on your listening skills from colleagues and employees can provide valuable insights for improvement. Reflect on your experiences and be open to learning from mistakes to become a more effective active listener over time.

Barriers to Active Listening at Work

Even the most well-intentioned HR professionals can encounter barriers that prevent them from fully engaging in active listening. Being aware of these obstacles can help HR practitioners recognize when they may be hindering their listening abilities and take proactive steps to overcome these challenges. This section explores some common barriers to active listening in the context of HR and discusses how to address them.

Time Constraints

Laszlo Bock, former senior vice president of People Operations at Google and author of Work Rules! emphasizes, "Taking the time to truly listen and understand employees is a crucial aspect of an HR professional's role. Carving out dedicated time for meaningful conversations helps build trust and rapport." Prioritizing focused, uninterrupted time for important conversations can help HR professionals overcome the barrier of time constraints.

Emotional Reactions

When dealing with sensitive topics or emotionally charged situations, HR professionals may find it challenging to remain objective and fully listen to the employee's perspective. Acknowledging personal emotions and striving to maintain an open mind can help HR practitioners better navigate these situations.

Preconceived Notions and Bias

HR professionals may unintentionally bring their own preconceived notions and biases to conversations, affecting their ability to actively listen and empathize. Being aware of personal biases and challenging assumptions can help create a more open and receptive listening environment.

Overload of Information

As Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), points out, "The sheer volume of information HR professionals deal with on a daily basis can be overwhelming. It's important to prioritize tasks and find ways to stay organized." Developing effective organizational strategies and delegating tasks when possible can help reduce information overload and improve active listening skills.

Communication Barriers

Language, cultural differences and technological challenges may hinder effective communication and active listening in the workplace. HR professionals should strive to understand and accommodate these differences to foster a more inclusive and effective communication environment.

Examples of Active Listening in the Workplace

Active listening is a powerful tool for HR professionals, enabling them to better understand and support their employees. In this section, we'll explore examples of how active listening can make a difference in the workplace, featuring insights from credible HR thought leaders.

Addressing Employee Concerns

At a large technology company, the HR team noticed a pattern of employee complaints related to work-life balance. Instead of dismissing these concerns as isolated incidents, the HR team actively listened to employee feedback and organized focus groups to gain a deeper understanding of the issue. By engaging in active listening, the HR team uncovered systemic challenges and implemented policy changes that improved work-life balance and employee satisfaction across the organization.

Facilitating a Smooth Organizational Change

A renowned manufacturing company underwent a significant restructuring process. The HR team played a vital role in facilitating this change by actively listening to employees' concerns and suggestions throughout the transition. As Dave Ulrich, a respected HR thought leader, points out, "In times of change, HR professionals should listen deeply to employees and seek to understand their perspectives." By applying active listening principles, the HR team at the manufacturing company was able to address employee anxieties, communicate the reasons for the change and ultimately ensure a smoother transition.

Enhancing Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

An international consulting firm recognized the need to improve its diversity and inclusion efforts. The HR team held a series of listening sessions with employees from various backgrounds, actively engaging in conversations and asking open-ended questions to better understand their experiences. This approach, endorsed by HR influencer Josh Bersin, enables HR professionals to uncover insights that might not have been apparent from the outset. By actively listening to employees, the HR team was able to identify specific areas for improvement and develop targeted initiatives that led to a more inclusive and diverse work environment.
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Steven Farber

Steven Farber

I spent much of my working life in a whirlwind of uncertainty wondering when I would find a career that would make me happy. After spending 23 years trying to find that 'dream career' I came to a sobering conclusion. I realized that I wasn't looking for a career, but for a purpose and that I would never be happy until I figured out what that purpose was. After a long hard road of trial and error, I concluded that my purpose, the very activity that brought me happiness was when I could bring that happiness to others first. Removing the vast amounts of uncertainty this life can bring for others and replacing it with true peace of mind, gave me my much sought-after peace of mind.
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Samantha Palm, MHRM, SHRM-SCP

Samantha Palm, MHRM, SHRM-SCP

Samantha is an HR professional with 9+ years of HR experience in multiple fields. She has her masters in Human Resource Management and her SHRM-SCP certification. While she has a wide variety of People experience and skills, her favorite is employee relations and employee experience. She has built an HR department from the ground up and strives to make the company culture a rewarding, enjoyable experience and takes pride in building relationships with employees Samantha is thrilled to become an HR Maverick to share her experience and keep gaining experience in the career she loves, even during her time as a stay at home mom.
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