The listening skill: how to change the way you talk at work

Subtle changes to the way we communicate can have a profound reaction, says expert Janie Van Hool in this extract from her latest book
Janie Van Hool

We understand our own reasons for taking action, behaving in a certain way, holding the beliefs we do. This self-serving bias is hard-wired into our psyche so that from our own perspective, our decisions and behaviours are clear, rational and reasonable. We can spend a good deal of thinking and reflection time reviewing those same actions and repeatedly making sense of them so that anyone who doesn’t understand or respond with the same insight is bewildering. How could they not get something that is so obvious?

We don’t tend to afford others the same depth of understanding – in fact, we may take their behaviours and actions at face value and start to label them accordingly. Do you know anyone who ‘always’ behaves the same way? ‘Never’ changes their approach? The longer we know someone, the more likely we are to feel able to anticipate their actions, to ‘know’ what they’re thinking or how they will respond to a situation. Behavioural scientists refer to this as closeness-communication bias, which is particularly relevant in romantic relationships, but also applies to anyone we spend enough time with to feel we could anticipate their responses. You might argue that this insight built over time is a great shortcut in decision-making. It’s a sign that your invested efforts in connecting with that person are paying off, that you will be ‘on the same page’, ‘have each other’s backs’ and can have deeper conversations that develop the relationship further. All of this may be true, but if we feel we already know how a person will respond, then what’s the point of asking the question? All too often, it seems that we don’t ask and if we ask at all, we don’t listen to the response because we’ve already processed what we assume it will be.

About 15 years ago, I ran a series of coaching sessions with the managing director of a bank. He would always ask me how I was, and I would always respond positively – as I do 99.9% of the time to anyone who asks after my wellbeing. But on this particular day, I was feeling pretty terrible. There was a lot going on for me at home, and I was stressed and under pressure. We met in the reception area of the bank, and he asked, as usual, how I was. I can’t remember the exact words I used in response, but I had decided to be frank with him because by now we knew each other relatively well and I thought I could trust him with an honest answer, so I said, ‘Not great, actually...’ and was about to explain when he breezily replied with ‘Good, good. Glad to hear it!’ I should say that he is a really nice person, a good leader, a family man. He was mortified when I eventually drew attention to his lack of listening (I didn’t do it at that time, but later in the session when he was in a better listening mode).

I’m conscious that I often reply to the question ‘How are you?’ with a standard ‘Fine, thanks’, because I can tell that the person asking the question is not really available to listen to the answer. It’s a habit, a social convention, a way of getting into the meat of a conversation that would be weird without this fleeting, cursory ‘hello’.

If we start a conversation by paying so little attention, it’s going to be difficult to turn up the dial as we continue the discussion. Start as you mean to go on.

A practice opportunity

Before we take a deeper look at how to listen well, let’s start with the greeting, ‘How are you?’

Spend a day deliberately asking people this introductory question, as you might anyway... and use this checklist as a way of noticing your usual approach and taking it to the next level as a listener.

  1. Check in with yourself... are you ready to pay attention? To notice? To listen?
  2. Decide to be present.
  3. Ask the question.
  4. Notice what they say in response, and how they say it – pay close attention to the full context of words, voice tone, body language, facial expression, energy.
  5. If you get a standard reply – ‘Fine, thanks’ – probe a little deeper... see whether you can uncover what ‘fine’ really means to them. Try asking something like ‘What’s fine on a scale of 1 to 10?’
  1. Offer an observation – ‘I noticed a spring in your step this morning!’ or ‘You’re walking a little slower than usual today... deep in thought?’

These small observations are an indication of your desire to notice the other person. Being seen may be as vital as being heard. In the briefest of exchanges, you are showing that you are available to listen and that you have every intention of being ready to do so.

Alison Wood Brooks, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, describes this progression in a casual greeting as using ‘follow-up questions’. She describes these follow-up questions as having ‘special powers’. Using follow-up questions allows people to become fully engaged and feel valued. Who wouldn’t want that in their business?

Notice how setting the tone feels for you and consider how you might apply it more broadly. What percentage of the time do you feel you could commit to this type of follow-up when greeting others?

Why we listen

Sociologist Charles Derber found in his research that in conversation we might be looking to support the other person in our responses – or, more likely, to find a way of bringing the conversation back to ourselves. Derber calls this ‘conversational narcissism’, and his thesis details how modern conversation is becoming increasingly self-interested.

You might recognize the conversation starter examples below, either because you have used the tactic yourself, or you’ll have experienced it in talking with others.

Listening to support

Colleague: I’ve got so much on at work right now. Not sure how I’m going to cope.

Manager: That sounds tough. What’s the biggest challenge?

This type of conversational response is especially helpful if you are coaching others at work or supporting their development in some way. It’s vital that we master the art of support in conversation – particularly as we learn more about having conversations around issues relating to mental health and transforming commitments to diversity and inclusion.

The focus is on creating the space for the other person to investigate and express how they are feeling. You’re focusing the conversation on them – not on yourself.

Listening to switch back to ourselves

Colleague: I’ve got so much on at work right now. Not sure how I’m going to cope.

Manager: Ugh – I know. You should see what’s just landed on my desk this morning.

The manager is much more interested in using the colleague’s statement to share their own personal stress. Without acknowledging what has been said at all, the manager pulls the conversation straight back to them. But this response is not always negative. It can be valuable to help create empathy in a conversation, as long as your attention – and intention – is based on bringing the conversation back to the person who expressed the issue in the first place. For example, the manager might go on to say:

Colleague: I’ve got so much on at work right now. Not sure how I’m going to cope.

Manager: Ugh – I know. You should see what’s just landed on my desk this morning. Would it help to talk things through?

This might lead to a conversation that helps both of them – as long as balance is observed and they listen well to each other, this may be exactly what they both need to manage their respective situations. Unfortunately, this seems a less likely outcome than our manager staying with their own agenda and then heading off to start their day.

This is a simple way of reviewing how we conduct ourselves in conversations generally, or in particular interactions. We will all have deployed this switching response with others, even if it was well intended.

Listening to solve

Colleague: I’ve got so much on at work right now. Not sure how I’m going to cope.

Manager: Right. Well first of all you need to get on top of the main account and then you should meet with the team on Slack this afternoon and let them know what you’re not going to be able to deal with before it all gets out of hand.

As a leader, you may feel it is your responsibility to create the conditions for success in your team or organization. Your intention may be to support... but, in the case of this colleague and manager, the manager’s response of solving the problem removes all autonomy from the colleague. This may increase their stress as they might feel that the manager thinks they’re not capable of doing the job and could consequently feel threatened.

Over the long term, if the colleague continues to experience high levels of stress, they may find it becomes increasingly difficult to listen at all. The Karolynska Institute in Sweden found a correlation between high levels of stress-induced cortisol and hearing problems such as tinnitus. Although this outcome might seem extreme, it is certainly easy to be distracted when we feel stressed. Competing thoughts and any physical reactions we may experience as our systems fight the feeling of threat won’t help our listening.

Not being listened to well, or not feeling that you have been heard, can be stressful. It triggers frustration and feelings of being undermined and rejected, among other emotions. This is the risk of deploying the superficial principles of pretending to listen by nodding, making sounds of agreement and matching body language without the essential elements of being curious, demonstrating empathy and building genuine rapport. We usually know if it’s not sincerely meant – we can sniff out the fakery. It makes things worse, not better.

We must all play our part in managing this by practising a better way of listening – by committing to improving our support response in preference to switching the conversation back to our own pressing issues or solving those of others.

Nonetheless, context matters in our conversations and you will know what contribution context plays in your meetings, one-to-one discussions and personal relationships.

If two people in conversation are competing to listen, it’s not going to be much of a conversation! But that, as my mother would say, would be a high-class problem. It just doesn’t tend to happen. Most of the time, whatever our contribution, we are seeking to be heard and acknowledged, leading to a ‘now you, now me’ exchange as we make our point, wait while the other person speaks, then bring the topic back to ourselves.

Take a moment to reflect on your instinctive response in listening but consider the context in which these states might apply. You may have a general sense of how you listen but see whether that changes with different groups or individuals. Are you the same with everyone or does it depend? What makes the difference?

It might help you to categorize your relationships as you reflect:

1. Casual interactions. These interactions might be occasional conversations with people with whom you have very little need to develop a personal or professional relationship. They might be transactional encounters in shops as you buy something or tradespeople who come to your home or business to help you. It may also be people you meet socially as a one-off experience at a specific event, or colleagues at work who you know, but don’t work with as a rule.

2. Your team or work colleagues. These are frequent conversations with people with whom you collaborate, influence and engage. They will be important to you, but you may not know much about their personal lives, focusing on daily transactions and tasks to get the job done rather than more intimate or personal conversations.

3. Social relationships. These are friends, neighbours – people you have longer and deeper connections with. You may or may not see them often, but they are valued by you and are people whose company you would choose.

4. Your inner circle. These are your most immediate relationships with a partner, close friends and/or family with whom you live. They are the people you interact with most frequently and are your most important relationships.

When you’ve reflected on how you think you listen to these different groups, ask a couple of trusted colleagues, friends or family members what they experience in you as a listener. This is going to take courage – from you, and from them. It may be tough for them to be straight with you. However, their responses may lead to a great conversation. All you have to do is listen!

The listeners: The coroner

I asked senior coroner Joanne Kearsley how much listening matters in her work. She responded by telling me that a coroner’s job can’t be done without listening to people – not just in court, but also with staff and colleagues in the coroner’s office.

Joanne began her career as a lawyer, so she is used to reading and understanding evidence before she hears it presented in court. This written material allows her to decide who she requests to give evidence, and enables her to pay close attention to and deeply understand the bigger picture as well as the details before she meets relevant witnesses. This, she says, is where she needs to listen closely to staff from her office, who will have spoken to family members and had to deliver and listen to difficult information. They will then feed in any concerns that need acknowledging and help her to understand the emotions of the bereaved.

Once in court, Joanne hears the evidence presented to her. This is the second stage of listening, having first gained understanding through reviewing the case files. She describes hearing the case as ‘putting the jigsaw pieces into place’. Critically, this is where a coroner has to suspend judgement – the expectation and anticipation of how things may turn out can be very different when the case is presented by those closest to it.

She told me how important it is to keep an open mind – to check yourself. Joanne feels you have to be strong enough to change your understanding – to admit that things may be more complicated than they first appeared to be. Her ethos is being there to help – by being proportionate and fair.

This is a perfect example of the importance of managing our inner judge, approaching the situation with empathy and listening to what is said – not what we wish had been said.

Coroners are required to deliver some of the most difficult and painful messages people will hear, often in regard to tragic outcomes, in highly emotional, high-profile situations. Jo feels that a key part of the coroner’s skill in communication is helping people to listen. She is aware that the professionals involved may be desensitized to some details that could easily distress people connected to a case. Her focus is minimizing the potential for shock and damage to listeners, while ensuring that they understand fully.

Joanne has learned to manage her impact, recognizing that not everyone will perceive her intention as she meant it. People are different, she says. You can’t think about how you would do it – it’s about them.


From: The Listening Shift: Transform your organization by listening to your people and helping your people listen to you.

Janie Van Hool is the founder of Founder and Director of VoicePresence, and a prominent communication expert specialising in leadership development programmes and executive coaching.

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Janie Van Hool
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December 7, 2021