How to Improve Listening Skills in the Workplace

Doug Staneart  |  November 6, 2022

Improve Listening Skills in the Workplace If you are like most people, you probably believe you are a great listener. The problem is that everyone else that you have to deal with needs to improve their listening skills, right? The truth is that this often-used term has two parts — “Listening” and “Skills.” We often overlook the second part. Skills are those strengths that we develop through consistent focus over time.

When I was a kid, our little town had a community center with a basketball gym. I wasn’t a member, by my best friend was. He went there three to four times a week to play ball with other kids. One weekend, I spent the night at his house, and he invited me to go to the gym with him. I spent 10 minutes or so practicing a few shots. Some other kids arrived, and we divided into teams. Within the first couple of trips up and down the court, I realized that I had the least skill on the court. (Just as an FYI, I never did develop this skill.)

My point is that the other kids were much better than me at basketball because they practiced. I didn’t.

People who are effective listeners are effective listeners because they practice. You can be a good listener as well with just a little practice, yourself. In fact, listening is one of the most important skills in leadership development. If you want to be a great leader, the first step is to develop good communication skills. And the easiest way to do that is to develop active listening skills.

Improve Listening Skills at Work — The Four Levels of Listening

In order to become a better listener, step one is to determine what good listening skills are. In our leadership classes, we introduce four levels of listening. The levels are listed below from the worst listening skills to the best.

  1. Level One: Ignore the Other Person Completely. This level isn’t really listening, but we tend to do it a lot.
  2. Level Two: Just Pretend to Listen to the Other Person. We do this when we are trying to be courteous, but we really aren’t interested.
  3. Level Three: Selectively Listen to Your Coworkers. This is the level at which we spend the most time at work. Oddly enough, we tend to do this to save time.
  4. Level Four: Attentively Listen to Your Team. This is the highest level of listening. The more we focus on this level, the better listeners we will be.

Ignore the Other Person Completely

The first level of listening isn’t actually listening at all. This is the level where we are so preoccupied with whatever we are doing we don’t even hear the other person.

I have to admit I tend to spend a lot of my time, inadvertently, at this level. It’s not on purpose. I feel like I’m a really goal-oriented person. So, when I get focused on accomplishing a goal, I tend to get tunnel vision and block out everything else. I’m paying close attention to my own thoughts. As a result, I may miss important parts of the conversation. Be careful of falling into this trap. You can inadvertently make the person feel unimportant and harm the communication process.

Here is an example. Last week, I was getting ready to teach a class. Time had gotten away from me, so I was a little rushed. About 19 minutes into the process, I looked up from my screen to see my assistant waving her hands like she was flagging in a jet. I jumped with a start because I hadn’t actually realized she was there. She erupted in laughter. “You realize that I have been speaking to you for the last four minutes,” she said. I hadn’t. I was in my zone.

When someone is ignoring another person, they may be doing something else, such as looking at a cell phone or typing on a keyboard. In addition, the person may turn away from the speaker while he or she is talking. In extreme cases, the so-called listener may just walk away.

Just Pretending to Listen.

The second listening level is when someone just pretends to listen. In a lot of these situations, the listener is really trying to be nice but just isn’t interested in the conversation.

When people are only pretending to listen, they will often give appropriate body language. They will nod and smile, but certain things give them away. For instance, from time to time, they will interject things that are inappropriate.

“My grandmother just passed away.”

“Really, how’s she doing?”

The big thing that you will see, though, is that the person interrupts to try to change the subject.

The dental hygienist at my dentist is really sweet. Bless her heart, she is just so nice. She chats during the entire process. It wouldn’t be so bad if she was chatting about something interesting. However, most often, the topics are so bland that I tend to zone out pretty quickly. By this point, I should know everything about her, but I don’t. I don’t because, in most cases, I’m only pretending to listen. (Yes, I know that is really bad.) This is passive listening. I’m not really making a conscious effort to give her my undivided attention.

So, if you want to improve your listening skills, try to avoid pretending to listen. Be genuinely interested in the other person.

Selectively Listen to Your Coworkers.

This level, selectively listening, is the most dangerous in the business world. It is also the level that we often slip into when we are in a stressful situation. When we listen at this level, we often tune in and out to the conversation based on what we think is important to us. In our defense, we do this to try to save time. However, the habit actually tends to cost us time in the long run.

People who are listening at this level will tune in and out. They will also listen until they have enough information to offer advice. Then, they will usually give this advice. If the listener is impatient, he or she may try to speed up the speaker.

You can sometimes recognize if you have been consistently listening to someone else at this level. The person may respond with, “You keep interrupting me,” or “You never listen to me.” If you hear these words from a significant other or a coworker, chances are, you have been selectively listening to that person, and he or she is now fed up.

If You Want to Improve Your Listening Skills, Be an Attentive Listener (Also Known as an Active Listener.)

Attentive listeners focus more on the speaker, though. When someone who has great listening skills is paying full attention to a speaker, effective communication is more likely to occur. This skill takes practice, though. However, over the years, our instructors have been able to identify a few “listening hacks” to help. If you really want to improve your listening skills, try these ideas.

Fun and Funny Listening Skill Activities to Improve Office Communication

Want to have fun in a staff meeting and improve communication at the same time? This is a great way to develop effective listening skills at work.

Explain the four levels of listening to your team. Make sure to include examples of what people do when they are listening at each level. Then have your team partner up with each other.

Once everyone has a conversation partner, ask one of the partners to tell the other one something important that is going on. However, the listener must either totally ignore the partner, pretend to listen, or selectively listen. (Ask them to be a bad listener.) The partner can’t listen attentively yet.

Whatever level at which the partner chooses to listen, he or she must stay at that level for at least 30 seconds. Give them 30 seconds to do the exercise. At the end of the time, ask the speaker to guess the listening level of the listener.

Within a few seconds, the group will start to laugh as they experiment with the exercise. The laughter comes, though, because the things that they are seeing the listener do are very relatable. They see these things every day at work (and at home).

Alternate roles so that all the conversational partners get to be both speakers and listeners. Once both people have gone, debrief the exercise a little. Ask the group what they realized during the activity. Finally, ask them to do the exercise again, but this time, use the active listening techniques.

Want to Improve Listening Skills at Your Office? Fill Out the Form Below!

Critical listening around the office isn’t difficult. You can encourage your team to take small steps and teach them the art of listening. That is if you have taken the time to practice good listening skills yourself.

One of the best ways to set a good example is to practice empathetic listening in one-on-one conversations with your team. Use the practical tips above. Successful leaders pay careful attention to details and make great listening a daily routine. You can too! If you want some help, fill out the form below!

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author Doug Staneart
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Doug Staneart is president of The Leader's Institute ®. He is based in the Dallas, Texas Region. He is a specialist in corporate team building activities and custom presentation skills seminars.
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