I often travel for business and my husband always picks me up from the airport when I return. Even though we talk on the phone each day while I’m out of town, we rarely get into heavy conversations. Our car ride home, however, is when we fully debrief and catch up on a deep level.

After returning from a recent trip, I stepped into the car and asked my husband about his past week. Without thinking twice, I jumped in to provide my thoughts on the various matters he shared. Several times he pointed out to me that I wasn’t actually listening; instead I was trying to fix things. He was right. At no point did he present me with any dilemmas for which he was looking for feedback or guidance. He was simply sharing. And I was simply doing what I often do with my husband—try to solve his problems.

But this time, there was no problem to solve. 

Fortunately, my husband is very understanding and we have a great relationship. But doing this in the workplace can lead to challenges and problems with co-workers and supervisors.

I’m not alone in this dilemma. In fact, every time I teach a workshop about listening skills—even when listening is just a minor part of a larger workshop—it resonates so much that participants cite it as a key takeaway they can apply to their lives immediately. This comes with no surprise, of course, because most of us really suck at listening.

So what type of listener are you and how can you improve those skills? Let’s start with a scenario…

Your colleague comes to speak to you about a challenge they are having with another co-worker because they are slow to respond to even the most urgent emails. When discussing this with your colleague, you tend to either:

  1. Immediately provide suggestions on how your colleague can manage this situation with their co-worker. You might start your sentences with “I think you should…”
  2. Start asking a lot of questions to better understand the situation. You may rapid fire the questions to get the answers you need to process what your colleague is telling you.
  3. Apply your own experience with this co-worker and share those back to your colleague. Your sentences may include, “I know what you mean. I’ve had a similar experience that went like this…”
  4. Repeat or rephrase everything your colleague is saying to acknowledge you are hearing them. Your sentences might sound a bit like this: “I hear you. What you’re telling me is that your coworker is unresponsive, right?”

Think about which of those behaviors sounds most like you. Now let’s take a look at the common listening styles.

  1. Directive Listener: Your tendency (and preference) is to jump to solving the problem instead of simply listening or finding out what the person you are communicating with is looking for from you. Directive listeners are usually drivers in all aspects of their lives and often have a strong point of view on how to resolve issues that are presented to them regardless of whether or not someone is looking to them for a solution.
  2. Analytical Listener: You have a lot of questions and keep digging to find out more. You might focus more on your next question than actually hearing what the person is saying or you may need a lot of additional information in order to process or understand what they are saying. Analytical listeners have to be careful not to overwhelm the other person with their questions.
  3. Emotional Listener: You connect with the other person by injecting your own emotions or experiences while the other is sharing their experience. This may be a tactic to demonstrate empathy or validate their feelings but it can also feel like you’re turning the conversation toward yourself. Emotional listeners may need to check their emotions while trying to hear what the other person has to say.
  4. Reflective Listener: You like to confirm what you’ve heard and offer reassurance to the other person that you’re hearing them. Reflective listeners tend to be good listeners but need to ensure that they are not just repeating or rephrasing what they have heard but also internalizing the message.

So is one type of listening better than the other? Not necessarily. Active listening generally requires you to employ most of the above listening techniques strategically. How you use these strategies depends upon the person with whom you are communicating.

First, you need to find out if they want you to listen to them vent or if they are seeking guidance and want you to jump in with suggestions. It is important for you, as the listener, to gather more information about the speaker’s intent and objectives with the conversation and then carefully apply a listening model. Here’s one we love to use.

ACER Listening Model

  1. First, you acknowledge the person both verbally and nonverbally. You can nod your head and show emotion.
  2. Next, you want to clarify that you understand what the other person has shared. You can do this by offering a short, succinct statement rephrasing the speaker’s comments.
  3. Then, you can explore by probing further but you must first ask permission to be certain that the person you are speaking with actually wants you to ask questions. It’s a simple offering of: “May I ask you some questions?” This will provide you with the go-ahead to dig in. If someone says no, you need to respect that they are not ready to dig further and it may give you the insight that they are just looking to vent so you can address the discussion differently.
  4. Finally, once you’ve had the opportunity to explore more deeply in the conversation, you can make recommendations. Once again, the recommendations have to be sanctioned by the other person or you may fall into directive listening territory.

The key to good listening is understanding the expectations and desires of the other person. Had I asked my husband first if he was just venting or if he wanted my feedback, I would likely have frustrated him (and myself) less and listened with a different type of ear.

You will certainly have to tap into all of those listening techniques, and knowing when and how is critical. Go ahead and give it a try with someone. Also, consider asking those closest to you how they experience you as a listener. You might find out you have a few blind spots.


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