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How to Apply Active Listening during Critical Conversations

Active listening happens when you actively pay attention to a speaker’s words and nonverbal cues. Applying active listening to critical conversations allows you to more fully participate. When people say they have trouble communicating, they often mean that they’re having trouble understanding the other person’s perspective or opinion. The best way to understand what the other person is saying is to employ active listening.

Because active listening can also help a leader decide how to move a discussion forward, it’s a good skill to have during a critical conversation.

Use the active listening process to clarify ambivalence to an issue. Actively listen to what someone doesn’t say, as well as to what she does say.

Active listening involves three steps:

  1. Engage in active silence while the other individual is talking.

  2. Reflect before responding.

  3. Ask to confirm that you received the right message.

Practice active silence during critical conversations

During active listening, one party is speaking and the other is using active silence to understand what the first individual is trying to communicate. Although you need a lot of practice to be an expert in silence, the first step is to simply be present. Here are some additional hints:

  • Try to maintain eye contact and employ an engaged posture.

  • Look at the other party, lean in slightly, and focus on what the other party is saying.

  • Try to use only small gestures that are appropriate for the conversation.

  • Keep hands and arms at waist height and try to control any nervous activity.

  • Make sure the environment is conducive to engaged silence. Having a critical conversation in a loud coffee house or in a meeting room with large glass windows is just begging for distraction.

These nonverbal techniques will help create an interested silence that helps you listen for content and emotions. Thus, you may detect a difference in what’s being said and the emotions being felt while active listening.

If the other party is nodding his head in agreement and saying, “Yes, I understand,” but tears are building up in his eyes or his face is turning red with either anger or embarrassment, his emotions and his words aren’t the same. Use the verbal questioning techniques to find out what the individual is really thinking before moving on with the conversation.

Reflect before responding during critical conversations

For some people, silence isn’t comfortable. Many people think that silence shows weakness or ignorance. During active listening, you need some time for silence so that you can reflect on what was said. If the listening party is paying attention to what’s being said by being present (not thinking about what to say next), silence is the necessary processing time to reflect on what to do or say next.

A bit of natural silence helps to keep the conversation at a steady but unhurried pace. The time doesn’t need to be uncomfortably long; you can imagine how odd the conversation would be if a speaker took 30-second pauses after every sentence.

Reflection also ensures that the speaker can finish his thoughts. Jumping in to respond may interrupt the speaker in the middle of a thought, intentionally or unintentionally.

Ask to clarify questions during critical conversations

After you really listen and take time to reflect on the information, clarify what you heard. The goal of clarifying questions is to confirm that the message, intent, and emotions you heard and noticed were the message the speaker intended to convey. You have a few ways to clarify information:

  • Paraphrase, don’t parrot: Repeating the speaker’s exact words is annoying to most people. Instead, rephrase the statement by using your own words.

    Suppose Sam comes to you (his manager) and says, “I’m feeling really upset about this layoff.”

    Don’t say: “So, Sam, what I heard is you are feeling really upset about this layoff?” (Polly wants a cracker! Squawk, squawk.)

    Do say: “Sam, it’s natural to feel upset about this process. I’m going to do everything I can to help.”

  • Perception check: Having biases and opinions is only human, but those biases and opinions often lead you to jump to conclusions, especially if a critical conversation is long overdue. As hard as it may seem, suspend judgment for the conversation and use reflection, hearing the other party out. When clarifying perceptions, don’t blame or accuse. Instead, simply state what you observe.

    Don’t say: “It’s obvious you’re disappointed.”

    Do say: “It sounds like you’re disappointed.”

  • Open-ended question: Use open-ended questions to clarify the message, intent, or emotions so that you don’t jump to conclusions. You can also use open-ended questions to probe for more information when the message is unclear.

    Don’t say: “It seems like you’re not open to any of my ideas to improve the team’s performance.”

    Do say: “What ideas do you have to improve the team’s performance?”

Try to keep the clarifying questions in manageable chunks of one or two sentences. Anything more makes it difficult for the other party to adequately reflect when he’s bombarded with questions and statements.

Active listening ends when the listener becomes the speaker. After the listen-reflect-clarify cycle is completed, respond to the message. The cycle of active listening may have multiple repetitions. Remember that this repetition is normal and valuable to the conversation. Spending more time clarifying words, emotions, and intentions up front is better than making assumptions and stalling the conversation later.

Be sure to assess others’ unspoken cues through active listening. Being aware of how the other party is responding, both verbally and nonverbally, provides insight into how your message is being received. Don’t jump to conclusions, however, when you’re looking at nonverbal cues. Active listening helps you assess how the other party is receiving the message and his emotional reaction to the message.

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