Our ability to deal with the world around us is nothing short of amazing. It’s also limited. We’re constantly scanning our environment for matters of importance and assigning values to everything around us effortlessly, in real time, based on perceived risks or potential rewards. This process, which occurs subconsciously, is shaped over time and refined through experience. It enables us to make split-second decisions when confronted with life-threatening situations and causes us to slow down and think when stakes or consequences are high.
The means by which we perceive, interpret, and respond to incoming information occurs automatically and is highly intuitive, refined over time. Some experts suggest as much as 85-95% of the daily decisions we make and actions we take occur involuntarily – while on autopilot. While this process is highly efficient, it’s prone to error. It’s the basis for how bad habits form and why they’re so difficult to overcome. Luckily, we can consciously override the process at any point and can deliberately assign values of importance as needed to modify our behaviors. This “veto” process is what allows us the ability to experience personal growth and improvement.
As a supervisor, the way you listen is deeply automated. It’s likely a process refined for the purpose of efficiency at times and effectiveness at others. The values you assign to the comments you hear, and the perceived importance of the message, determines whether you passively or actively listen. While there’s a time and place for both, it’s worth periodic review and reflection to make certain we’re not falling victim to bad habits formed over time.
Passive listening is our default means of hearing. If you’re driving on a highway, you’re likely experiencing sounds from the road, engine, air-conditioning or heater fan, radio – and possibly many others. These audible sounds are processed passively. They’re present, you’re aware of them, but you don’t really do anything with the information. If the noises are steady and in alignment with our expectations, we don’t pay much attention to them.
The same process occurs for us in our interactions with people each day. As we engage in casual conversation, our discussions flow back and forth. Most of our time spent socializing involves passive listening. We’re engaged in conversation, processing a lot of information at once, but don’t narrow our focus exclusively to a person or to the topic of conversation. Doing so requires a different level of attention and an enhanced degree of focus. Whereas passive listening is the equivalent of seeing a forest, active listening is the comparative equivalent of focusing on one tree.
Active listening is a choice. It’s the result of a conscious and deliberate effort to narrow your focus to an individual and the topic of conversation. Whereas passive listening requires your presence in conversation, active listening is dependent upon your undivided attention. For it to occur, it requires more than a demonstrated action or set of behaviors; it must be felt by others.
Active listening requires a higher degree of attention and focus. Because we are limited in our capacity to deal with incoming information at a conscious level, it’s a switch we must turn on and off as needed. Learning when to apply active listening skills is key and one of the biggest challenges supervisors routinely face in demonstrating effective leadership.
Learning to Listen
As previously noted, passive listening occurs naturally. Our ability to process incoming information, whether in the background, involving group conversation, or from an individual is a skill highly refined by most. Learning to recognize cues that require further processing and a higher degree of attention, however, may not be.
The key to recognizing situations requiring active listening skills involves your ability to recognize matters of importance. Not only from your perspective, but from the perspective of others. This is one of the most important skills you can develop as a supervisor and requires that we learn to listen more effectively.
Listening to Learn
Once you recognize a need for active listening, the role you must fulfill changes. Your primary objective is listening to learn. To achieve this, you must seek to understand perspectives, not to resolve problems.
One of the biggest challenges supervisors have in demonstrating active listening skills is resisting the temptation to hijack the process. By its very nature, active listening often involves topics of conversation deeply important to those involved. Don’t interject opinions, pass judgment, or reach conclusions based on where you feel the conversation may go. Allow the conversation to run its course, ask clarifying questions, and offer support as needed. Most importantly, let the individual involved steer the conversation and allow them to determine its pace.
Listening with intent and purpose is a skill that requires practice and patience. The process of doing so is leadership-oriented and conveys a genuine and authentic sense of caring. The steps require only a conscious and deliberate effort to do so. It begins with a heightened sense of awareness and a personal commitment to more effectively identify situations requiring your undivided attention. Finding ways to make a difference requires change. The first step is the most important and the opportunity to grow your skills has never been better.