10 Ways to Sharpen Your Listening Skills at Work

By Heather Finn

So you’re stuck in a horribly long meeting at work, feeling like there’s just. no. way. you could possibly pay attention any longer. We’ve all been there. We won’t pretend that paying attention in meetings is always easy, but having good listening skills is definitely important—after all, the information being discussed could end up being crucial in completing your next project, and it totally impresses your coworkers when you actually understand and respond to what they’re saying. But how does one become (and stay!) an active listener?

“Active listening is really about being present in the moment, whether it’s in a one-on-one conversation with someone else or in a meeting,” says David Grossman, communications consultant and executive coach at The Grossman Group. “It’s when you’re really able to assess and understand—listen for what’s being said and what’s not being said—and you’re really thinking about how to effectively communicate back.”

As with any skill, active listening takes practice. Get started by following Grossman’s 10 easy steps before, during, and after your next big work meeting:

1. Study up on the meeting agenda.

OK, so you can’t guarantee that you’ll receive a nice, organized agenda before every meeting you attend. But if you do have access to a schedule before your next meeting, Grossman suggests giving it a once-over and doing a quick analysis. “Going into the meeting, it always helps to understand what you need to get out of the meeting,” he says. “Once you know what you need, specifically, you can then take a look at the agenda and really pinpoint those times that you want to make sure that you’re really paying attention.”

2. Keep your eyes on the speaker.

“If you really want to be present in the moment and listen to what’s being said and what’s not being said, one of the key steps is to look at whoever is speaking,” Grossman says. It makes sense, right? If you keep your eyes on the speaker, you’re way less likely to get distracted by G-chat, doodling, or whatever else is vying for your attention.

3. Continuously ask yourself what you can learn.

Think about a meeting in which you had to listen to someone from a different department speak. Maybe you didn’t understand what they were saying—your brains are wired differently, after all—or you just didn’t think what they had to say was relevant to you, so you simply tuned them out. To re-engage yourself in this situation, Grossman suggests giving yourself a quick internal pep talk. “Get some self-talk going in your head, and say to yourself, ‘I can learn something from this person. What can I learn from this person?’ You’re more likely to be engaged and more likely to literally take away some important takeaways from whatever that person is sharing,” he explains.

4. Be aware of your mental and physical responses.

Whether you’re conscious of it or not, your mind and body will react to what’s being said in a meeting—so pay attention to them! “Those responses can give you cues or clues about what you may want to say next or a question you may want to ask,” Grossman says. “Having that self-awareness of what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling is extremely helpful to stay engaged in the conversation and to add some value to the overall meeting.”

5. Take notes.

#TBT to your college days: “Research shows that you pay greater attention and you remember things more when you take notes,” Grossman says. Whether you handwrite or type your notes is up to you, but be sure to avoid catching up on email/scrolling through Twitter/online shopping if you go the electronic route.

6. Nod and smile at the speaker.

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again—nodding at a speaker is a great way to show them that you’re paying attention and you respect what they have to say. Grossman suggests throwing in a smile or two, as well: “I think smiling at the speaker also helps them know that you’re keeping up with what they’re sharing, and if you’ve ever made a presentation, you know it’s sure nice to have some friendly faces in the audience.”

7. Use verbal affirmations with caution.

While it’s great to throw in an occasional “mmhm” or “yes, definitely” in a one-on-on convo, verbal affirmations are a little less appropriate in meetings. Instead of peppering a presentation with short verbal responses, Grossman suggests working on thoughtful, active participation. “The best strategy here would be to paraphrase what’s been said and then ask a question: ‘So what I hear you’re saying is this. Can you tell me what you’re thinking about that?’” he says.

8. Assume positive intent.

It’s easy for us, as humans, to assume that we know what a person is thinking and feeling. That’s why this step is so important—especially when we’re listening to someone that we don’t know, we don’t like, or we don’t have a good relationship with. “We think we know what’s happening in a situation or a scene, when the reality is that we’re diagnosing what’s happening in that scene based on our thoughts, our heritage, our experience, and our biases—and not based on what’s actually happening in the scene,” Grossman explains. “Assume positive intent and that what the speaker is saying is correct—that they want to be helpful and they want to share information that’s going to move this project or the team or the organization along.”

9. Summarize the meeting with the group, if possible.

Can the group spare five to 10 minutes at the end of the meeting to summarize what was discussed? Doing so will help you—and your team—determine the key headlines from the meeting and what the next steps are from here. For the most beneficial summary, Grossman suggests asking and answering these three questions: “What are the headlines from this meeting? Who else needs to know the headlines from the meeting? How can we get that information to those people in a timely and efficient manner?”

10. Jot down your own summary after the meeting ends.

If your group wasn’t able to work on a summary together (and even if it was!), take five minutes after the meeting has concluded to put together your own list of important discussion points. “The trap we fall into is we think we’re going to remember everything from the meeting,” Grossman says. “I suggest letting people leave and staying in the meeting room for five minutes. Use that time—in the context of where the meeting happened—to jot down those headlines. That will also help you remember.”

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