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We learn that in business, communication is everything. We attend courses to help us better convey our thoughts and ideas through our words, in presentations, and in meetings.

We read books that promise to teach us how to be more effective in our dialogue. But how often do we ponder the skills it takes to be our best on the other side of the conversation?

The art of listening is the unsung hero of communicating well, and those who master it afford themselves a powerful tool in the world of business. As obvious as it may seem, actively listening to a person allows you to understand their needs and respond accordingly, leading to quicker, more effective resolutions. And while we might think listening is as simple as riding a bike, to truly listen to someone is hard.

How many times have you sat in a meeting whilst someone else speaks, ensuring you appear engaged with their message, but really you’re thinking about what you might like for dinner later? Even if you are concentrating on the speaker, how often can you honestly say you are letting their words sink in without judging and interpreting the situation, busily considering how you could solve the problem or thinking up a question to ask? This type of listening is passive at worst, selective at best.

The International Listening Association cites over 35 studies which show that the ability to listen is critical to business success, but fewer than two per cent of people receive training to improve their skills. With seemingly so little emphasis on the art of listening, what can you do to proactively enhance your skills? Here are five ideas.

  1. Stop assigning judgement. Next time you are in a listening situation, try to really hear the words that the speaker is choosing to use. Listen out for nuances that give insight into how the speaker feels. Are they using positive words, or do they sound cautious? Are they asking for an opinion, or simply conveying information? Try to establish what it is they are wanting you to hear and do, rather than interpreting the words to suit your own views.
  2. Ask great questions. A study conducted by Harvard Business Review found that the best listeners ask questions that promote discovery and insight. These questions will almost always be open ones that, while potentially challenging the speaker, do so with the intent of continuing the dialogue. If your question can be answered ‘yes’, or ‘no’, it’s probably not a great one.
  3. Seek clarification. If after listening actively to a speaker you find yourself confused or lacking a key piece of information, ask them to clarify instead of relying on your own interpretation.
  4. Put your notepad aside. It’s normal practice in most businesses to take notes during a meeting, often whilst a person is speaking. It’s fine to jot down something if you feel you’ll need to revisit it later, but try if you can to remain present whilst people are talking and take notes afterward.
  5. Listen to understand, not respond. Often, especially in male-dominated environments, meetings can descend into a competition for airtime. It can be tempting to turn the act of listening into a game of who can ask the best question, make the most insightful statement or agree most vigorously with the boss. But whilst this may win you kudos in the moment, consider how much more powerful it would be to listen, hear, and act upon a person’s true intent after the meeting ends.

Listening is an overlooked skill, but one with huge power when honed and perfected. Actively listening to others makes us better at collaboration, more productive and more upwardly mobile.

Next time you have the opportunity to really hear someone, why not give our tips a try?

About the author

Kate Jones writes for Inspiring Interns, which specialises in finding candidates their perfect internship. To browse our graduate jobs London listings, visit our website.

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