Active listening tips for managers

How to be a better listener.

Manuela Bárcenas
Dec 3, 2018 · 10 min read

How many times have you missed the opportunity to have an enriching conversation with your direct-report just because you got distracted, didn’t ask meaningful questions, or talked too much about your own ideas instead of asking about theirs?

We often hear that leaders should be confident and always willing to speak up. While these can be great traits when managing a group of people, there’s one skill that can make or break your team’s success: the ability to sit down and listen up.

The conversations you have with other people represent the quality of the relationship you have with them. That’s why great managers get to know their reports personally and master the skill of having meaningful conversations.

But how can you become a conversation pro? According to Susan Scott, CEO of Fierce, Inc, you need to start by showing your employees that you’re present.

“How do we get to know another person? How do we get past ‘How are you? I’m fine’? By really asking and really listening. By being with someone, even if only for a brief moment, prepared to be nowhere else,” says Scott.

The Fellow.app team is here to empower you on your journey to become an amazing team lead. This time, we’re talking about the things that are holding you back from being a good listener and the skills you can start practicing to have the best conversations with your fellow teammates.

1) Use body language intentionally

There’s an expression used among Zulu people in South Africa that goes “sawubona.” It’s used as a form of greeting and literally means “I see you.”

In The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Peter M. Senge says that this simple word explains a lot about human interactions and relationships.

“If you are a member of the tribe, you might reply by saying ‘sikhona’ or ‘I am here.’ The order of the exchange is important: until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if, when you see me, you bring me to existence,” says Senge.

Cool story, right? But how is it relevant to your interactions and one-on-ones as a manager? Senge’s story and the “Sawubona” expression highlight one basic principle of human nature: we feel acknowledged and important when we receive someone’s attention. Therefore, whenever you’re meeting with a direct-report, you should let them know that “you see them.”

The first thing you can do is polish up on your eye contact skills. This might sound obvious, and you might have heard a lot about the importance of ‘eye contact’ already, but it’s something we forget to practice in our day-to-day lives.

Think for a moment about the kind of attention you bring to your conversations. While someone is talking, do you look at them the entire time, or do your eyes roam around the room and scan your phone once in a while?

Maintaining eye contact will not only encourage your direct-report to express their ideas and continue speaking, but will help you get your message across in a more efficient way.

According to a joint study between the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Stirling, people remember what you said for a longer time if you maintain good eye contact during your conversation.

Nodding your head and making “uh huh” sounds is also a great way to show your direct-report that you’re listening carefully:

“Why is something like a smile and a nod so effective?, asks Baruch Sachs, Senior Director at Pegasystems. “When we smile at people, it is hard for them not to smile back. When we acknowledge people, it is hard for them not to acknowledge us back.”

Eye contact is great, but we all know it can be off-putting when someone does it unnaturally — staring at you for too long. In order to avoid this from happening to you, here’s some advice from Steven Aitchison:

  1. “Use what I call ‘The triangle’. This is when I look at one eye for about 5 seconds, look at the other eye for 5 seconds and then look at the mouth for 5 seconds and keep on rotating in this way.”

Personally, I find that writing notes in Fellow.app is a great way to break eye-contact while letting the other person know that I’m still listening.

Whether you use the triangle technique, some occasional head nods, or the Fellow app to write down your notes, the important part is using body language naturally and intentionally to make your direct-reports feel heard.

2) Avoid these three forms of distraction

You might not notice how often you look at your phone or glance at your emails during your one-on-ones, but your direct-reports do.

In an article about the barriers to good listening, Christine Riordan — a leadership coach and president of Adelphi University — argues that the first step to becoming an active listening expert is keeping yourself accountable every time you get distracted.

“You have to put it at the top of your list and acknowledge it’s a skill that’s important in your role as a leader. It has to be an active decision,” says Riordan.

The first distractions to avoid are social media, your email and anything happening on your phone which is not relevant to the meeting. In other words, avoid multitasking.

According to Amy Gallo, author of the Guide to Dealing with Conflict at Work:

“Many people think they can multitask — finish an email or read through your Twitter feed while listening to someone in a meeting. But research shows we really can’t.”

Something I do to avoid distractions during my one-on-one meetings is setting my devices to “do not disturb” mode. This lets me focus on the conversation and allows me to project my shared meeting agenda on a screen without getting a bunch of notifications that will ultimately pull my attention away from the meeting.

The second (and less obvious form of distraction) is something I like to call “the rehearsal.” This happens when your focus is on preparing and constructing your next comment or response, instead of concentrating on what your direct-report has to say.

Thinking about our response while another person is talking is something we all feel tempted to do. However, experts like Glen Llopis, author of The Innovation Mentality, argue that leaders who listen attentively to their employees are more likely to create trustworthy relationships at work:

“Leaders that are mindful are not just hearing conversations; they are listening to them and engaging in the dialogue. They don’t fake it, they are taking note of what is being said and how people are saying it and are making continuous eye-contact and gestures,” says Llopis.

Next time you catch yourself preparing your following argument while your direct-report is speaking, take a deep breath and focus on what they’re saying — the overall message they’re trying to communicate.

“If you’re finding it particularly difficult to concentrate on what someone is saying, try repeating his or her words mentally as they say them — this will reinforce their message and help you to stay focused,” says Mindtools.

The last form of distraction you should avoid is filling the silent gaps.

We rarely think about this as a form of distraction, but we do it very frequently. Filling the silent gaps can mean responding quickly with little or no thought, or using a quiet moment in the conversation to change the topic entirely just because the silence makes us feel awkward or uncomfortable. A silent gap is not the sign of a bad conversation — it is a signal that the speaker is thoughtfully crafting their next point.

If you want to develop the listening skills of a great leader, you should always remind yourself that silence is ok. Don’t bring up a new topic and get distracted just because the other person takes a five-second break to rethink what they are trying to say. At the same time, encourage your direct-reports to ask for a pause whenever they need to clarify their ideas.

“Fierce conversations require silence. In fact, the more emotionally loaded the subject, the more silence is required. And, of course, this carries over into our homes, into our personal relationships,” says Susan Scott.

3) Leave your ego at the door

Great leaders are humble. They listen to new perspectives and know exactly when to talk and when to sit back and listen.

A common experience you’ve probably had is having a conversation that begins with your story, but somehow ends up with the other person saying “I know exactly what you’re talking about, about three years ago I….” — Isn’t that annoying? — And the worst part is we all do it. Why? Because we naturally like to talk about our personal experiences.

However, one-on-one meetings are meant to help your direct-report grow personally and professionally. They are like coaching sessions where you, as a manager, should be doing 10 per cent of the talking, and 90 per cent of the listening. As Scott argues in Fierce Conversations, one of the greatest gifts you can give other people is your attention, not your advice.

“Don’t take the conversations away from the other person and fill the air with your stories. Leave your expert, storyteller, fixer, fix-it hat at the door. Come into the conversation with empty hands,” says Scott.

There’s a famous quote by Bruce Lee that goes “empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality.”

This quote is extremely relevant for leaders in today’s multicultural, diverse and innovative world. It means you should be open-minded, willing to learn, and always aware of the number of times you choose to talk about your personal experiences instead of asking your direct-reports about theirs.

We’re not saying that what you have to say isn’t important. In fact, I really appreciate when my manager shares personal stories that help me learn, understand more about the company, or get to know my boss. However, even if your story is relevant to your direct-report’s growth, make sure you don’t tell it until they have finished elaborating their argument or point of view.

As Rob Lampert, a leadership consultant and founder of Cultivated Management, argues, this is sound advice when listening to your direct-reports:

“Let go of your own belief that you know everything and open up to the possibility of learning from others. Be open to learning from anyone in the organisation, at any level.”

4) Follow-up

The last practice that you should adopt to become an active listening expert is following-up: during and after the conversation.

One of the best ways to let your reports know that you’re listening is by repeating back or paraphrasing what they say. An occasional question or comment to recap their argument communicates that you are listening and understanding the message.

In order to do this, you can reflect back on what has been said by saying things like “what I’m hearing is…” or “sounds like you are saying…”. On the other hand, you can ask questions to clarify certain points, asking things such as “what did you mean when you said…?”

According to Lampert, you should always be able to convey the message back to your direct-report in your own words.

“If you can do that — you have listened. It’s the acid test,” says Lampert.

The second moment when you want to follow-up is after the meeting. Following-up is a crucial step to ensure that your fellow teammates feel appreciated and understand that you were truly listening. Christine Riordan says it very clearly:

“This assurance may come in the form of incorporating feedback and making changes, following through on promises made in meetings, summarizing the meeting through notes, or if the leader is not incorporating the feedback, explaining why he or she made other decisions.”

Next time you have a one-on-one with an employee, make sure to listen attentively and write notes and action items to help you remember what was discussed during the meeting. And when you see that person around the office or at your next one-on-one, ask about those challenges, milestones, or family events which they talked about. I’m sure your fellow teammates will appreciate it.

If you need a way to keep track of all your conversations with direct-reports, Fellow is the work co-pilot you’re looking for. The app helps you keep track of all your work interactions, assign action items and remember important milestones in your colleagues’ lives.

Managers at the world’s top organizations tend to apply a lot of the same practices — one of them is active listening. We hope you’ll use these tips to foster great work relationships, have more meaningful conversations and empower your employees. Just remember: use body language intentionally, avoid distractions, leave your ego at the door, and always follow-up.


If you found this helpful, click the 👏 button and share it on your social media so other managers can benefit from it.

💡 And don’t forget to follow the Fellow publication to get weekly tips and insights from the best managers and coaches in the world!

Fellow.app — What great managers know

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Manuela Bárcenas

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Helping managers and their teams work better together at fellow.app 📲 Check out our publication on leadership and management: medium.com/fellowapp

Fellow.app — What great managers know

Insights from the best managers, leaders and coaches in the world

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