attentive listening skill - attentive listening skills in business with body language multitasking
attentive listening skill - attentive listening skills in business with body language multitasking
attentive listening skill - attentive listening skills in business with body language multitasking

Part II: How to Listen (Attentive Listening Skills)

Listening Strategy and Skills

Your skill as a listener can make or break your success in leadership, teams, customer relationships, and negotiation.

Part II of the topic Listening Strategy and Skills is by editor Bruce Wilson, a business coach for executives, professionals, and entrepreneurs.

>Click here for an overview of all of the sections in this topic.

Attentive listening means thinking and acting in ways that connect you with the speaker. While active listening usually happens naturally when we are very interested in what someone is saying, we can also choose to listen actively whenever we want to maximize the quality of our listening, both in terms of the effect it has on us and the effect it has on those we are speaking to. By contrast, when people "multi-task" while someone speaks, they rarely listen effectively.

Of course sometimes you will choose not to listen attentively. If listening is important to you, you may choose to reschedule that conversation. Otherwise you will multi-task (letting your mind wander thinking about something else, reading e-mail, doodling, etc.).

There are several simple steps you can take to improve your listening. The quality of information exchanged, your own experience as a listener, the experience of the person you are listening to, and your relationship with the listener will all benefit. The steps are:

Get Over Yourself, Give Them A Solo.

Stop Multi-tasking.

Recap regularly.

Use Connecting Words.

Use Body Language.


Get Over Yourself, Give Them A Solo.

If you assert your own position at every opening in a conversation you will eliminate many of the potential benefits of listening. In particular, people you are talking with will not feel respected by you, their thinking and brainstorming will be inhibited, and they may even withhold important information out of caution--or out of anger.

Wait until they finish making their points before you speak. Don't interrupt, even to agree with them, and don't jump in with your own suggestions before they explain what they have already done, plan to do, or have thought about doing. This includes being aware enough to stop yourself from doing any of the following:
- making critical or judgmental faces or sounds;
- trying to "fix" their problem with a quick suggestion;
- interrogating them to make them answer a question you have about their situation;
- trying to cheer them up or tell them things aren't so bad;
- criticizing them for getting into their situation;
- telling them what you would do or have done in the past.

All of these responses interrupt what they are saying or change the direction of the conversation before they have an opportunity to get to their point. The first thing people bring up when they have something to say often ISN'T the central point they will eventually make, whether they know it or not. Listening carefully for a while first gives the talker and the listener both a chance to develop an understanding about what exactly the issue is.

Author Stephen Covey gives the label "autobiographical responses" to intrusive questions which involve "probing, evaluating, advising or interpreting" and he recommends anyone who catches themselves doing this apologize and ask the talker to start over where they were before being interrupted (from Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Fireside (Simon and Schuster), 1989, 2000) (>

After you think they have reached a stopping point, you can ask something like "may I make a suggestion?" before you start to make sure they are ready to give up the floor.

Stop Multi-tasking.

Don't multi-task if you are supposed to be listening. You wind up listening to only part of what someone says, or pretending to listen while you think about something else. You also sacrifice important non-verbal cues and information about their intent, their confidence level, and their commitment level. Even if you think that you can get enough of what people say while multi-tasking to serve your immediate purposes, you should assume as a general rule that people notice when you don't listen to them attentively.

If you are tempted to split your attention between listening and something else, ask yourself whether you can risk appearing disinterested and the negative impression that it is likely to make on them.

Avoid allowing interruptions that cause you to lose concentration or split your attention. Eliminate background noise, ringing telephones, and people dropping in. Don't read email, use a computer, or read something while someone else is talking to you.

If you find your attention wandering, use this trick. Decide why you don't want to listen. Think about what you might get out of listening. Then choose whether to listen or not.

Recap regularly.

Very skilled listeners practice and become good at recapping both the facts and the level of importance (the emotional drift of the speaker) in a few brief words.

Example: Amir tells Brenda about meeting with a client who is trying to decide whether to switch to another provider of services and the amount of revenue it is going to cost their company if the client leaves. After he reaches a stopping point, Brenda recaps: "So you're pretty worried about their indecision at this point, right?"

Benefits of Better Listening

See the topic Practical Benefits of Better Listening for Leaders and Teams for more reasons to invest effort in listening.

Metaphors can make a compelling way to sum up what someone has been saying. For example, if someone describes how a project they were working on had to be done over and over again because of a glitch, you could say "You're that guy who has to keep pushing a boulder up a hill even though it always rolls back down again" [Sisyphus, from Greek mythology].

If you don't understand or aren't sure about a point they are trying to make, repeat a very brief portion of the part you didn't understand and ask them to tell you more about it to help you understand better.

Use Connecting Words.

Where it helps, use words that show you are connecting with what they are saying, such as "uh huh", "OK", "yeah", "I get it", etc.

Use Body Language.

Use positive body language, such as making frequent eye contact and facing them squarely. Avoid negative body language like frowning and looking away.

A great deal of research has been done about body language. Books have been written about it. Some people claim to be experts at interpreting it. But for the rest of us, it's enough to be aware that body language exists, and to use it constructively when we can.

The following example demonstrates all of the attentive listening techniques described in this section.

Example. Carl steps into Wanda's office, frowning and looking at the floor, and asks her if she has a couple of minutes for an important problem. Wanda decides that Carl has important information to give her, and needs to feel better and revive his motivation by talking about his problem, and so decides to listen to Carl attentively. Wanda asks Carl to close her door, which signals others that she is unavailable, turns down the volume on her computer, which mutes the music she was listening to and the sound her incoming e-mail makes, and hits the "do not disturb" button on her phone. She turns her chair to face Carl and begins making and holding eye contact with him.

Carl starts describing how a sudden rise in customer complaints had been traced to a previously undiscovered bug in the programming for a product delivered long ago. The problem is compounded by the fact that none of the people who originally worked on the programming are still with the company, adding considerably to the difficulty and the degree of anxiety being experienced by the team rushing to correct the problem. Wanda listens, without interrupting, occasionally saying "uh huh" and "OK", trying hard not to look angry or alarmed as the story deepens. Now and again she repeats something Carl has just said, and asks him to elaborate on a particular point. When he appears to have told his entire story, she sums up with a metaphor: "To coin a phrase, Carl, after 30 straight days of perfect weather, everybody forgot their umbrellas, so now we're getting drenched. Is that about right?"

This section was written by Bruce Wilson, an executive coach, trainer, and facilitator who has helped individual business people and organizations across the U.S. to improve their leadership, customer relationships, and teamwork. For more information about his work, or to get in touch with him, visit


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