Career, Leadership

7 Effective Listening Techniques to Boost Your Performance at Work


When you think about improving your professional performance and advancing in your career, you likely consider a public speaking class or learning about the newest technology in your field. However, there’s one skill that’s crucial to nearly every profession but is woefully overlooked and underutilized: effective listening.

As skills go, listening just doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Why? Maybe because listening, however unfairly, is often viewed as the quieter, homelier cousin of talking. But for communication to work, it requires collaboration: someone to talk and someone to listen, both equally vital.

Despite their demure reputation, effective listening skills can be game changing. Whether you’re a senior leader, manager or individual contributor, it’s worth investing the time to develop these skills that will serve you well throughout your career.

How listening affects your performance

The importance of effective listening in today’s workplace can perhaps be best illustrated when weighing the impact of its absence: Without it, assumptions are made and misunderstandings arise. As a result, costly mistakes occur, deadlines aren’t met, opportunities are missed and ineffective decisions are reached. Relationships with coworkers, vendors and customers are damaged. Reputations are tarnished, great employees are lost and profits suffer.

It’s only by listening that you can understand others, their views and their needs. That understanding allows you to gain new information, consider new perspectives, see new opportunities and create new solutions. It also helps you address issues before they become bigger, more complex and more expensive.

On a more personal level, listening to another person sends the message that you care about and respect them and are genuinely interested in their ideas. This creates and builds trust with others, and inspires loyalty and hard work. When your coworkers or your team members know that they will be heard, they’re more willing to share their ideas and their honest feedback which, in turn, fuels innovation, employee engagement, productivity and profitability.

Ultimately, effective listening makes you a better leader, coworker and employee.

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. … When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” – Karl A. Menninger

Technology’s impact on listening

While today’s technology offers the opportunity to connect more often with more people than ever before, it can also provide an overwhelming level of distraction, making effective listening much more challenging.

According to recent research from Accenture, 96 percent of global professionals think of themselves as good listeners, but 98 percent also say that they multitask. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) reported that “listening has become significantly more difficult in today’s digital workplace.”

When a workplace conversation requires your undivided attention, use the seven strategies below to demonstrate that you’re a committed listener.

7 effective listening techniques

Not all listening is created equal, nor should it be. You can’t possibly give your full attention to everything that you hear throughout the day.

But there are times that call for your full focus, such as when your coworker is sharing a concern about a project you’re leading or your direct report is explaining their idea for improving a key process. It’s during these times that it’s important to understand two different levels of listening: attentive listening and empathic listening.

With attentive listening, you are genuinely interested in the other person’s point of view and you accept the fact that you have something to learn from the interaction. However, you are listening with your own frame of reference in mind, often thinking about whether you agree with what’s being said and how you want to respond. Therefore, you make assumptions about the message and tend to fill in the gaps with whatever it is that you want to hear. You don’t check to see if what you have heard is what the speaker really meant to say.

Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. – Stephen R. Covey

Empathic listening, however, is much more active and intentional. When you move from attentive listening to empathic listening, a powerful shift occurs: Your focus changes from yourself and your perspective to the speaker and their frame of reference. This level assumes that communication is truly a two-way process that involves giving feedback to the speaker.

Practice the following active listening techniques to show that you are available, ready to pay attention and interested in what the other person has to say.

  1. Eliminate (or minimize) distractions: At work, this could mean closing your office door, turning off your cell phone or closing your laptop.
  2. Keep an open posture: Face the speaker directly and uncross your arms and legs.
  3. Maintain eye contact: This reassures the speaker that you are focused on what they are saying and helps you read their emotions.
  4. Paraphrase: When the speaker conveys something of particular importance, restate in your own words what you heard them say, using a lead-in such as “What I’m hearing you say is …” or “So, if I’m correct, you are telling me that …” This allows you to correct misconceptions as they occur and helps you remember what was said.
  5. Clarify: From time to time, ask questions about what the speaker is saying in a helpful and empathic way: “How did you feel when that happened?” or “What did you think when he said that?” This provides more depth than merely paraphrasing and shows the speaker that you are engaged and want to know more.
  6. Provide feedback: Give verbal feedback while the person is speaking, such as “I understand” or try reflecting their feelings back to them by saying something like “That must have been difficult.” Use nonverbal feedback, too, like nodding, smiling or frowning when appropriate.
  7. Look for nonverbal cues: The objective of effective listening is to fully understand the message, including anything beyond what’s being conveyed verbally. When listening, be aware of nonverbal elements including the speaker’s facial expression, tone of voice, body posture, eye contact and gestures to gain a deeper understanding of the message they’re sending. These signals are particularly useful in deciphering whether the person’s emotions are aligned with their words — and if they aren’t, that’s an additional level of insight to use.

“We have but two ears and one mouth so that we may listen twice as much as we speak.” – Thomas Edison

Obstacles to effective listening

Just as there are specific behaviors that support effective listening, there are also ones that interfere with healthy communication — all of which stem from focusing your attention on yourself and your objective instead of the speaker and their goal:

  • Being judgmental: When you form a negative opinion about someone or what you think they will say before they begin speaking, you are listening with the goal of gathering additional support for your opinion. If you’re not open to hearing what they are trying to communicate, you will stay locked into your negative opinion.
  • Rehearsing: If you find yourself crafting your response or rebuttal while the person is speaking, then your focus is on being understood by the speaker rather than understanding what he or she is saying.
  • Filtering: We all engage in filtering on a daily basis and it has its advantages, helping us narrow the endless stream of information we receive down to what we really need. But within the context of effective listening, filtering prevents you from taking in everything the speaker is saying and understanding the entirety of their message.
  • Advising: It’s tempting to try to fix a problem, but sometimes people just want to be heard. When you offer your opinion on how you think the speaker should feel or behave — even if you have their best interests at heart — it can come across as belittling. Try to reserve advice for when someone asks for it. 
  • Mind reading: When you make assumptions about what the speaker is trying to say — or even what they’re not saying — you can miss or disregard significant information.
  • Pleasing: If you’re too concerned about pleasing the other person or keeping the peace, you’re likely more worried about how the speaker is perceiving you and your reactions than about what they’re attempting to convey. You might also be inclined to interrupt them by jumping in to agree when you’d both be better served by focusing on listening and understanding.
  • Deflecting: While there may be certain topics that make you uncomfortable — such as a person’s inappropriate workplace behavior — if it’s a genuine concern of the speaker’s, it’s important to not try to redirect them by changing the subject or making a joke to lighten the mood.

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