An employer's guide to active listening in the workplace

Written by Anna Bishop
May 19, 2021

Anna is a Training Product Manager at Red Cross Training responsible for the development and review of our training products.

Listening seems simple enough. After all, it’s something we do every day - so you may not consider it to be a powerful tool or something you need to improve on. In fact, studies show that the great bulk of adults think they’re above average when it comes to listening effectively.

However, research demonstrates that while many people believe they are able to communicate and listen effectively, the average person only listens at about 25% efficiency. Shockingly, that means when you are talking to your friends, partner or colleagues it’s likely they are only listening effectively for around a quarter of the time!

Active listening is something not many people do naturally - it’s a valuable skill and when done right, it has the potential to reduce conflict, improve productivity, and even increase happiness.

For employers concerned with fostering better, more supportive relationships with their employees (as well as family and friends) mental health training, that includes active listening skills, can be an integral part of a wider mental health strategy.

Active listening: choose what you want to know:

  • What is active listening?
  • Active listening: the difference between empathy and sympathy.
  • The benefits of active listening in the workplace
  • How employers can practice active listening

What is active listening?

Active listening involves giving your complete, intentional focus to what someone else is saying, rather than passively hearing them. When done correctly, active listening helps you get the most out of conversations, while making your employees feel heard and supported.

But active listening is more than just listening with your ears. It’s a holistic approach where you are more mindful about your use of questions, their responses, your tone of voice, and even your body language - to ensure the person you are listening to feels you are engaged and they can talk openly and honestly.

Listening actively and with empathy will help you to better understand a person’s situation from their perspective rather than making assumptions or shaping it to your interpretation of what they are trying to tell you.

Active listening is a skill that can be learned through training, as a way to better support mental health in your organisation.

Download our guide to choosing the right mental health training for your business.

Download

 

Active listening: the difference between empathy and sympathy

We all have different life experiences, upbringings and beliefs, so it’s highly likely our reactions to a situation (even if very similar to one we have faced ourselves) will also differ. When practicing active listening, it’s important to know the difference between empathy and sympathy, and which is most appropriate according to the situation.

 

Empathy

When you actively listen to someone, you're hoping to understand and/or feel what they are experiencing from their perspective. Empathy is a powerful tool as it enables you to better support the person you are talking to, because you’re able to recognise what it is they feel they need - rather than relying on your own assumptions.

Empathy can have its challenges though. For example, it can lead to you absorbing someone else’s emotions and reactions, which makes it hard to maintain your own perspectives. It may be useful to be aware of your own response to the situation, so you’re able to recognise when offering support is impacting on your own wellbeing.

When you’re having a difficult conversation with someone, try to understand how they are feeling, but remember that absorbing their strong emotions may impact on your ability to help them.

 

Sympathy

Sympathy is when you feel compassion, sorrow, or pity for someone else due to their situation, and it is different to empathy. Whereas empathy gives you the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, sympathy is more personal. Sympathy, unlike empathy, doesn’t involve you sharing a perspective with someone, so it’s often not helpful when you are trying to support them.

 

The benefits of active listening in the workplace

As an employer, being able to effectively communicate can define how employees interact with you but it can also set an example to others around how they can communicate with each other. If you’re a good listener, employees are likely to feel much more comfortable speaking with you, even when faced with difficult or personal situations, because they know they are going to be heard.

But beyond making you seem more approachable, a culture where active listening is normalised has numerous benefits to your team and business, such as:

 

Reducing misunderstandings and conflict

Conflict is inevitable in any workplace, and it’s often caused by misunderstandings, different opinions and miscommunication. By listening with the intent to gain an understanding, you’re able to recognise why someone has an alternative viewpoint to your own, appreciate it, and respond in a calm and considerate way. This not only helps reduce conflict, but ensures everyone feels respected.

 

Supporting mental health at work

Active listening is a conscious process where a decision is made to carefully listen and understand what people are saying without interruption or judgement. It’s especially important in relation to mental health at work, as people often thrive when they are able to be open about how they’re feeling without worrying they could be misinterpreted or judged.

Showing that you’re aware of, and engaged with, your colleagues’ and their mental health will help foster a supportive culture that promotes better wellbeing.

 

Improving productivity

When employees don’t feel heard by their employers, they can become unproductive - especially if they are under pressure, or stressed at work. Routinely and actively listening to an employee’s opinions and feelings can massively improve their performance, by showing them that their viewpoint is welcome.

 

Building better work relationships

Active listening where you are looking to understand another person’s point of view can help you form better relationships with employees and colleagues. People become more open to discussing new ideas or coming to you for advice if faced with challenging situations that they need your support with.

Teams where active listening is routine between colleagues are more likely to be able to work collaboratively, by recognising others skills and strengths, and managing conflict in a more constructive way. Active listening can help you see colleagues as individuals and humanise them, enabling you to be more empathetic when they might be struggling.

 

Empowering yourself, as well as your employees

Active listening doesn’t just help your employees! In fact, better communication skills can help to reduce stress, as they give you the tools to manage conflict and feel in control. Additionally, it can build your confidence when approaching difficult situations, as you’re able to expand your perspective through careful consideration and appreciation of others’ opinions.

Like all skills, active listening isn’t typically something that comes naturally, and it has to be acquired over time through patient practice. In isolation active listening is not a magic fix for all situations. However, training your team with the skills needed to support each other in a holistic way will help improve team wellbeing and be a key element of a mental health strategy for your workplace.

 

How employers can practice active listening

Particularly in difficult situations, active listening and empathy can be the difference between a conversation going well or very badly. To be able to resolve conflict and provide the right support for your employees, you’ll need to listen with kindness, understand their perspective, and help them to identify what they need.

 

Here are some ways you can practice active listening in your workplace:

Pay attention

This may seem fairly straightforward, but it’s surprising how many people don’t devote their entire attention to someone when having a conversation.

Paying attention can be a real challenge for employers, who are often under pressure or thinking about other things while having a conversation with an employee. Remember that acting like you are listening isn’t enough - your employee will be able to tell if you are distracted, and this will impact negatively on the discussion.

To show you’re paying attention, try:

  • Looking at the speaker directly, with an appropriate level of eye contact that shows you’re engaged with the conversation (but don’t stare, as this makes people uncomfortable).
  • Putting your own thoughts to the back of your mind. This will allow you to focus on what the person is saying. Research shows that most of us are distracted or preoccupied about 75% of the time when we should be listening, so be mindful of disruptive thoughts coming back and redirect your focus back to the discussion.
  • Using verbal and non-verbal prompts to let the speaker know you are listening without interrupting their flow. This means doing things like nodding your head, smiling, and using words of encouragement such as ‘yes’ or ‘continue’.

 

Show that you’re listening through body language

Most experts agree that 70 to 93 percent of all communication is actually nonverbal in nature - with 55% being visual and 38% vocal. Facial expressions, tone of voice, and posture can all contribute to our understanding of what someone is saying.

For example, if an employee seemed visibly angry, but insisted “I’m fine!” upon you asking how they are, you’re more likely to take meaning from how they’re acting, rather than the spoken words. That’s why being aware of nonverbal cues and body language is important.

Both your body language, and that of the person you are talking to, can have an impact on how you relate to each other - so make sure that yours is positive. This means doing things like:

  • Keeping your body faced towards the other person, with a relaxed posture. This makes the person you’re speaking to feel more at ease.
  • Leaning in slightly when they are speaking, to demonstrate that you are actively listening. Don’t lean away, as this makes you look disinterested.
  • Maintaining a comfortable distance. Don’t sit too close as it can feel invasive, or too far away as you can come across disinterested. Never touch them without their permission (for example, to pat them on the back).

 

Provide clarification and feedback

While you should try to avoid interrupting the speaker, you could provide feedback, or small replies that indicate you understand what has been said. You might want to paraphrase certain points made to ensure there has been no miscommunication and you have understood what was said.

Research shows that while paraphrasing doesn’t necessarily make people feel understood, it does create a greater sense of closeness and intimacy in a conversation. This helps to build trust.

It also helps you keep focus in a conversation. Typically, immediately after listening to someone, on average we only recall about 50% of what they said - providing clarification or feedback is a way for you to maintain engagement, while remembering what has been said.

  • Use phrases such as “If I’m hearing you right, you conveyed that…?” or “If I understand you correctly…?” to confirm what has been said, and show that you understand.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions where you need further clarification. While too many questions may feel like an interrogation, or indicate that you aren’t listening - the right amount of questions can help you gather important information, and give you a greater understanding.
  • Avoid interruption and judgement - even in challenging situations. It frustrates the person speaking, and can actually prevent you from understanding what is being said.
  • Resist the temptation to construct your own reply as they are speaking. Especially in difficult conversations, it can seem like a good idea to have your reply worked out beforehand. However, you will miss key information. Taking a few moments to digest what the speaker has said before replying is much more effective than a rehearsed response.

 

Listen to yourself!

While it’s true that active listening is aimed to focus you more on the person you’re speaking to, it’s also important to think about yourself, and how you’re responding to the situation at hand.

Particularly in difficult circumstances, recognising how you’re being affected is important. It may even help the person you’re speaking to feel more comfortable.

  • Note the emotional and physical effects the conversation has had on you, as this will both improve your skills and enable you to do something about it.
  • Recognise that your emotions are valid. If a conversation is challenging or upsetting, it’s important to understand that your feelings towards the situation are perfectly normal. While you should avoid expressing extreme emotions towards the speaker, you may want to seek out assistance for yourself afterwards if you feel distressed or upset.

Active listening is just one tool to help you build better communication with the person you are trying to support, but it is an important one, and used effectively it breaks down barriers and makes people feel connected and supported. Not everyone will want to talk, and that’s fine, but letting them know you are there and will listen to them properly may encourage them to open up now, or in the future.

 

Learn to listen effectively through training

Difficult conversations can be daunting, and you need to be confident in your abilities to deal with them - which doesn’t come naturally for most people.

Even though many employers and leaders are aware of the importance of active listening, reports show that less than 2% of all professionals have had formal education or learning to understand and improve their listening skills and techniques.

Particularly where mental health is concerned, employers often feel even less prepared - with 63% of managers wanting to receive better training to deal with employees in difficult situations.

While practicing active listening is a great place to start, it’s best to have a well-rounded plan in place for mental health training that meets the needs of your organisation. We’ve created a guide to help you understand which training course would be the best fit, containing everything you need to know about choosing the right mental health training.

New call-to-action

Topics: Mental health & wellbeing

Share this story
Share on facebook Share on linkedin Share on twitter

Share on facebook Share on linkedin Share on twitter

Back to Index