If there were one skill you could learn that would make you a more effective leader and business owner, would you invest in mastering it? Of course, you would! Active listening, the act of giving your complete, undivided focus to what someone is saying, can improve your workplace culture, help you build relationships with partners, and even help keep your employees safe.
Active listening is listening with 100% of your focus on the person who is speaking. It means paying attention to body language as well as what is actually said. Active listening exercises empathy and cognitive thinking, so you understand the issue from the other person’s perspective as well as your own.
Chances are you’ve wished someone else would practice more active listening, even if you didn’t know the literal definition. Have you ever tried to talk to a General Contractor or Project Manager about an issue on the job, only to have them constantly check their phone, cross their arms and sigh defensively, or interrupt you with what THEY think the issue really is? That’s the opposite of active listening.
It’s frustrating, right? When someone isn’t listening with intent, it can leave you feeling frustrated, ignored, and dis-empowered.
Now, can you think of a time when you haven’t given 100% of your attention to someone speaking to you? Whether it was a colleague, an employee, a spouse, or a child, chances are you left them feeling the same way you felt when you were the one not being heard. Frustrated, ignored, and shut down. Ouch.
Luckily, you can teach yourself to become a better listener. All it takes is a little bit of discipline, and a few helpful tips to get you started.
Active listening requires more than your ears.
Peter Drucker, the godfather of modern management thinking, has this famous quote about listening, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” A lot of communication is actually non-verbal. Researcher Albert Mehrabian defined communication as roughly 55% body language, 38% tone of voice, and 7% actual words spoken.
If you’re only hearing the words, you’re only getting 7% of the conversation. That’s bound to lead to misunderstandings and negative emotions.
Active listening requires you to pay attention to the other person’s body language, the historical context around what is being said, and the emotional impact the topic has on the speaker. It means being an active participant in the exchange, gently challenging assumptions and offering new perspectives.
The benefits of active listening far outweigh the effort it takes to master it.
Active listening increases productivity.
If you successfully model active listening with your team, you can also teach them through example to actively listen to you and each other. When your team is participating in active listening, they understand and retain more information than when they are distracted. This increases the likelihood they can complete tasks with fewer questions, misunderstandings, and, most important, costly errors and corrections.
Active listening improves workplace safety.
It’s important for your team’s safety that they feel empowered to raise concerns, ask questions, and show vulnerability. Otherwise, they are apt to try and solve challenges on their own to the best of their ability. That could mean working alongside unsafe workers from another company, or failing to perform a task correctly because they didn’t ask for more instructions.
As the business owner, 100% of the consequences of your crew’s actions will fall on you. In order to keep them as safe as possible, you need to be 100% involved in the conversations and decisions that impact their safety.
When you create an environment of active listening, your whole team is safer. Team members know they can admit they have questions or are unsure of instructions. This level of vulnerability can, in and of itself, reduce workplace accidents. And, should an incident occur, active listening can help you quickly and more effectively gather information that will be important when it comes to the employee’s Worker’s Compensation claim.
Active listening creates a better workplace culture.
When your team trusts you to listen, their overall trust in your leadership increases. This can have dramatic effects on your workplace culture. Team members feel empowered to share ideas and solutions to challenges. You may find you have innovators and future leaders hidden among your workforce, just waiting for the chance to speak up and be heard.
Active listening is good for business.
One important piece of effective listening is creating a safe space for the speaker. That means putting aside distractions and, most important, your desire to speak. This requires a quiet confidence in yourself. You don’t need to rush to prove to the speaker that you know how to solve their problem. First, you’ll make sure that you understand the problem and how it is impacting the speaker.
This is an incredibly powerful tool in business. Most of us are in such a rush to answer the question, fix the problem, and close the deal, that we forget to pause and actually listen. This rush to a solution often comes with a lot of energy behind it, and the combination can quickly lead to misunderstandings and conflict.
Active listening, on the other hand, removes the conflict and focuses on creating an environment where issues can be discussed in detail. Solutions can come later. For example, let’s say you’re a construction subcontractor, and the Project Manager for the General Contractor on a job approaches you with an issue. They believe your crew carelessly disposed of excess materials and created a safety issue. You’re almost certain it wasn’t your guys.
You have three possible choices in how to respond:
Choice #1 Argue & Defend: This is the “brick wall” response. Refuse to listen to the other person’s point of view, shout down any arguments, accept no responsibility, and reach no satisfactory conclusions. Good luck getting the other person to listen to you when it’s your turn to bring up an issue.
Choice #2 Jump to a Solution: This is where you listen to the verbal problem alone, and you rush to solve the problem as quick as possible. Unfortunately, without understanding the WHOLE problem, you’re unlikely to solve it. Both sides end up feeling frustrated.
Choice #3: Listen with Intention. Listen carefully, paying close attention to body language and tone of voice. Let the other person talk as long as they need to. Ask clarifying questions, and respond first with empathy rather than solutions or defenses. When you choose this track, you show the PM, and the GC, that you will own up to issues you might have caused, and will help solve ones that you didn’t! That’s a valuable partner.
Now imagine the next time that GC sees your company’s name on a bid. They remember how you performed in a moment of challenge. Calm, confident, and willing to listen. You’re building a reputation as a trustworthy, level-headed, and collaborative problem-solver, just by listening with intent. Relationship-building is paramount in construction, and really just about every other industry, too.
5 simple tips for more effective listening.
Most people think they’re great listeners. They make eye contact, refrain from interrupting the speaker, and can recite back what was said. That’s NOT active listening. That’s basic listening. How much of what you heard did you understand? Did you communicate to the speaker that you cared about the outcome of this conversation? Did you help them find possible resolutions?
Here are five simple things you can do to become a better, more intentional listener.
Create a listening environment. When someone approaches you and asks you to listen, check to make sure you actually can at that moment. Are there distractions you will not be able to ignore until they are completed? Are you in a noisy work environment where you are likely to be interrupted? Show the speaker you care about this conversation by creating a time and space where you can listen free from distractions. If necessary, ask for five minutes to wrap up an urgent task that is likely to steal your attention. Then, close the door or walk away from the larger group, mute your phone, and focus your attention on the speaker.
Act like a good listener. Make sure your body language is relaxed and attentive, not defensive or distracted. Make eye-contact with the speaker. These actions send a signal to them that you are listening and sends a signal to your own brain that it is time to get down to the business of listening.
Listen with your eyes. Pay attention to the speaker’s body language. A lot of our communication comes from the way we act, rather than what we say.
Listen with your heart, too. Empathy is a key part of active listening. Understanding how the other person is feeling and validating that experience builds trust between the speaker and listener. It also helps you generate ideas later in the conversation that can solve the problem and neutralize potential negative responses.
Ask questions that prompt new lines of thought. A lot of people assume good listening means sitting quietly and saying nothing. But, that actually makes it harder for you to focus on and understand the concepts being presented. It’s better to ask clarifying questions and prompt the speaker for more details when needed. It helps you stay focused and lets the speaker know you’re invested in the conversation.
Asking questions is also an effective way to get people to challenge assumptions, consider alternative perspectives, and accept new ideas. Rather than telling someone what they need to do to solve a problem, ask questions that help them see the solutions for themselves.
Listening isn’t a talent; it is a learned skill that comes from discipline. It takes practice to become a habit, but everyone can do it. The potential benefits — a safe, productive, and happy team, as well as a positive reputation with business partners — make the effort well worth it.
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