Learning to Lead from the Inside Out: Active Listening

Active Listening

I can remember in my early career as a manager, sitting in 1v1 meetings discussing performance issues with employees. Sitting there across the table, I would ask open-ended questions to help spark a reason for why something was happening. I was trained to provide proper eye contact, take notes, and listen for any keywords that the employee might be saying. The problem is, I was doing everything that I was trained to do, sitting straight, giving eye contact, bending forward showing interest. I was not actively listening. I might have been listening, but it was segmented. I was not rude by playing on my phone or showing that I did not care. I simply would hear some of the issue and immediately begin thinking of a solution. This caused me to not hear the real problem or, even worse, interrupt the employee during their answer to give a comment or solution to an idea that was back about two to three ideas priors. Next thing I know, I am getting feedback from my leadership saying that my employees state I am not listening to them. What? I just spent 30 minutes discussing their issues. How can they say that? What I found is that this caused issues with my credibility as a leader and showed that I was not listening to the real problem. Sound familiar?

I will not assume that you have had the same issues, but I bet you know of someone who has. What I have found is that this issue is a major pain-point in organizations from lower to mid leadership levels. This is also a soft skill that can be learned and a skill that needs to be mastered.

What is active listening?

“Active listening is how we respond to another person that can improve the understanding of what is being said.” I am going to discuss four steps that you can take to improve your active listening skills. These are not magic pills, but I want to encourage you to take these steps seriously. 

Step 1- Listen

  • Identify feelings as well as words. What emotions or feelings are being expressed?
  • Focus on the speaker. Do not do what I did and start developing questions when my employee was speaking. Listen with intent.
  • Look at the speaker, use verbal and non-verbal encouragement.

Step 2- Question

  • Determine the purpose of the conversation. This shows that you are listening. Gather information and clarification as needed.
  • Use open-ended questions. For example, tell me more about…

Step 3- Reflect and Paraphrase

  • Reflect and repeat what has been said- in your own words
  • Reflect feelings. What is the essence of the communication? Reframe the communication for understanding.

Step 4- Agree

  • Get the speakers’ approval for your re-frame. Did you capture the important information?
  • The speaker should feel validated by the communication, knowing that you listened.
  • A potential solution is near to the problem.


Now what?

Are you very close to solving the problem or, at the very least, getting buy-in for future conversations? Do not jump to conclusions or problem-solving, do not be biased thinking you know the solution, just reflect and communicate until there is consensus on what the problem is.



Dr. Daniel Zimmerman is the Dean of the School of Business and Technology at Aspen University. He is also an external consultant and international professor of management and organizational development. He resides in Illinois with his wife, three boys, and three cats. Dr. Zimmerman can be reached at daniel.zimmerman@aspen.edu or at www.danielkzimmerman.com

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