“We know this already! We have resources on the topic,” she said.
It was in the first seven minutes of a business meeting when she suddenly stated: “If you do not mind, I have another online meeting; I need to leave. My direct report can stay here and continue the conversation with you.” She immediately left the online meeting.
It was very bizarre. First, she interrupted me while I was making a short presentation. “We already know this. Can you share with us what makes your training different from others?” was her request. Without listening to my complete answer, she suddenly left the meeting.
The topic of the meeting was psychological safety and the person, who left the meeting, is in charge of the Learning and Development department of a global company. I felt hurt and unvalued, as she left the online meeting. “We already know this!” was repeated many times by her direct report as we continued the online meeting.
Listening is a crucial aspect of creating a psychologically safe workplace. According to the research of Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is a work environment where employees feel free to share their concerns, questions, mistakes, and ideas. Without effective listening, we cannot have a psychologically safe workplace.
Below are six ways of listening which are mentioned in the book of Julian Treasure titled “How To Be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening”.
Passive listening: We listen to someone however, we do not pay close attention to what they say to us. Especially when I am stressed at the family dinner table thinking about challenges in my work that day, I have difficulty giving my full attention to my wife or daughter. In a business setting, sometimes employees check their mobile phones while their colleagues make presentations. This is a frustrating experience for the person who is talking.
Active listening: This is the opposite of passive listening. It includes giving our full and undivided attention to another person, not interrupting them, paraphrasing what is communicated to us, and providing a summary of all that was said. These are the ideal steps of active listening. The closer we can come to that, the better it is.
Critical listening: This listening type involves finding mistakes and missing points, as we listen to someone else. “You do not mention this in the meeting.” or “You did not do that” can be consequences of critical listening. If we listen critically by default, this can have a negative influence on the motivation of our colleagues, bosses, or peers. In fact, in our personal lives, when we always approach our loved ones with critical listening, this kills our intimacy with them.
Empathic listening: Empathy is one of the biggest buzzwords of today’s business world. Empathic listening includes both cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy is about the rationality and understanding ideas of a person we listen to. Emotional empathy on the other hand involves understanding the emotions of another person. Are they stressed, sad, overwhelmed, frustrated? Below you can see the Feelings Wheel which shows emotions we can feel throughout a day. Understanding both emotions and thoughts is key to empathic listening. (Feelings Wheel copyright: https://imgur.com/tCWChf6)
Reductive listening: It is about making suggestions without listening fully to someone else. Men tend to do this more often than women do. Imagine that your girlfriend or wife starts talking about her day, her frustrations, the challenges she faced, she just needs your complete attention and nothing else. You abruptly interrupt her to say: “Why don’t you do this and solve your problem?”
Expansive listening: It is the opposite of reductive listening. The aim here is to ask clarifying questions and allow the person to express themselves fully without any interruptions or suggestions. Sometimes what a person needs is someone who can listen to them without solving their problems for them.
We might automatically listen in a passive, critical or reductive manner, this has a negative effect on psychological safety in a team. There are rare cases where we can do expansive listening. For instance, we have a meeting on topic A and there is a colleague talking about a topic totally unrelated to the meeting agenda, we can politely interrupt that person to bring them back to the agenda. Especially, active and emphatic listening are key aspects of achieving psychological safety not only in our business but also in our personal lives.
The biggest barrier to effective listening is our own internal voice. “This person is not right.”, “I know this.”, “They are incompetent.”, “I am thinking of my own answer, as they talk.” are some of these internal voices that in many cases we are even not aware of. Be aware of them, if not, we can fall into the trap of “we already know this.” just like the person at the beginning of the story.
Please write down your answers to the following questions.
- What is the name of a person you know who is great at listening? What do you think makes that person successful in listening well?
- Out of the six listening styles, which one do you tend to do automatically?
- Considering the six listening styles, what are your areas of improvement?
This article is excerpted from Mehmet Baha's new book titled Playbook for Engaged Employees: Practical Insights to Master Leadership, Agility, Teamwork, Learning, and Psychological Safety which is available on amazon.
Author of "Playbook for Engaged Employees" | Former Facebook Employee | Former Fulbright Scholar | Global Trainer & Speaker on Psychological Safety, Agile and Resilience