Communication is the most important tool we have when it comes to teamwork—especially in remote work.
But as an engineer, in the past I’ve focused more on code than communication. Although I talked to people, my output was writing code and solving problems. So when I became a manager, I realized that I needed to listen a lot more.
Learning to listen
Listening sounds so simple, right? Well, for me it hasn’t been that plain and simple. Hearing what the other person is saying is one thing, but really listening—listening for meaning, and how the other person is feeling—is something I wasn’t good at.
Whenever I heard a problem, my engineer brain shifted to “Let’s solve it.” That attitude can make a great engineer, but it’s exactly what worked against me as a manager of people.
Conversations are a tricky thing—especially when it comes to difficult topics, like receiving/giving feedback, or talking about a very personal topic. As a manager, this is the real work.
In these moments it is really important to understand the other person. Sometimes, they’re not even sure how to say what they need to say. How can you be sure that what you actually heard is what they meant? This is where I’ve learned to apply active listening.
What is active listening?
Actively listening mean fully concentrating on the other person, trying to understand not just the words being said but also the emotion behind them, responding appropriately, and then also remembering what was said.
Active listening creates the foundation to have a clear exchange and a shared understanding. It centers on empathy, which requires our full attention to understand the whole message.
As I see it, there are three key things to know about active listening:
Empathetic understanding: The basic attitude of active listening, this is trying to see the world from the other person’s eyes. You’re trying to convey to your conversational partner, “I understand what you are saying and also what you mean and how you feel.”
Listening is not agreeing: Listening to understand the other person’s point of view doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with them. It just makes it more possible to take it all in and then carefully share your own viewpoint, even if it’s completely different.
Be willing and ready to listen—no distractions: If you are distracted, it’s best to be open and honest about it. Ask if you can postpone the conversation to another time, or take a moment to get the distraction out of your way. Pretending to listen is not only very impolite, it also runs contrary to active listening and over time can damage relationships.
There are three methods I’ve used in conversation to improve on my active listening approach.
1. Paraphrasing to enhance understanding
The first one is paraphrasing. If you do this correctly, you can express the feelings of the other person in your own words.
The best way I’ve learned to paraphrase is to try and repeat what I heard in my own words, showing that I understand and asking at the same time if I missed anything. You can always end with the question, “Did I get that correct?”
I might also ask questions that focus on specific things I heard, like:
- What the other person observed: “Are you referring to the number of days I was off in the past two weeks?”
- What I think the other person is telling me they feel: “Do you feel you are not getting enough recognition for your work?”
- What the other person requests: “Would you like to hear the reasons why I said that?”
Even if you aren’t 100% correct with a paraphrase, that’s OK. It signals to the other person to clarify even more, which results in greater understanding.
Paraphrasing also has the great side effect of giving the other person time to reflect and listen to their inner voice again more accurately. You are acting as a mirror, helping the other person to gain more clarity about their own situation.
2. Banning these reaction phrases from my vocabulary
The second exercise is working on my reactions in conversations. I noticed a couple of different phrases that stop me from engaging in active listening. Most of them come from me wanting to solve instead of listen:
- Giving advice: “I think you should . . .” “Why don’t you . . .”
- One-upping: “That’s nothing, listen what happened to me . . .”
- Comforting: “It wasn’t your mistake; you tried your best . . .”
- Telling stories: “That reminds me of a time . . .”
- Cutting someone short: “Come on, just hang in there . . .”
- Pitying: “You poor . . .”
- Interrogating: “When did it begin?”
- Giving explanations: “I would have called, but . . .”
- Revising: “That’s not how it went . . .”
Just having that list written down is a big help for me. Whenever I want to go for one now, I try to stop and reflect if I can answer in a better, more authentic way.
3. Signaling that I am listening
Finally, it’s really important to concentrate on the conversation and signal to my conversation partner that I’m really listening.
That means not fiddling around with other things, turning off the phone and closing down all other distractions.
I’ve found that keeping eye contact and signaling that I’m following along with small signals like saying “yes,” “ah,” “hm,” and other phrases is helpful, as long as it happens in a natural way. Especially in remote work with video and phone calls, it is important to show that you are present.
Of course not everything is suddenly super easy when actively listening. These are some of the challenges I had to overcome.
1. Embracing “no solution”
Coming from an engineering background, I always want to solve the problem. To sit with someone’s problem or challenge without solving it immediately is hard.
But the best solutions don’t always happen within one conversation. They can take much longer, especially when personal and interpersonal challenges are in the mix. Even when it’s hard, it is important to explore all of the context before moving toward a potential solution.
I’m still working on my problem-solving habit. Something I try to repeat in my head during every conversation is “Ask before you give advice or comfort.”
2. Working through tough emotions
When personal topics come up, emotions play an important role. Tears or other strong emotions are often a sign that you’re talking about a crucial topic. Although the first impulse might be to smooth things over (“It’s okay, don’t cry”) or even change the topic, it’s key to embrace the emotions and stay with them.
Most of the time, just making that small change is enough. To sit with someone else’s strong feelings, without trying to come to an immediate solution, is powerful. Sometimes we are too embarrassed to learn how to cope with moments like this. In my experience, letting those feelings be heard and understood leads to unexpected positive outcomes.
3. Being okay with silence
To be silent in a conversation is often seen as an embarrassing thing. But after a lot of reflection and learning, l realized that it can also mean that someone is just busy figuring out how and what to say. This is very likely to happen with active listening, as you put more focus on what you will respond with.
It is hard to push through, but enduring that silence for a couple of seconds can really help. If the silence is getting too uncomfortable, you can also ask “What’s on your mind right now?” The answer will give you a hint if you are too impatient or if the other person really doesn’t have anything more to say.