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Active listening on the job

Q: I recently received a poor performance evaluation from my new supervisor. My supervisor is inexperienced in our department but has a long history with our employer. He said that I need to be an “active listener” with him, my colleagues and our customers. I don’t even know what he means by this. Do you?

A: Communication is important in almost all jobs, whether the role is a firefighter, a marketing manager or a company president. We all have our own unique communication styles. Some of us speak with our hands. Some of us have trouble maintaining eye contact. Some of us are more reserved, while others are more ebullient. Culture, gender and personal experiences can all shape an individual’s communication style.

Active listening is a term for ensuring that you and your audience are communicating effectively. Although it may sound trite, it is encourages the listener to be engaged in the conversation. It encourages the listener to be aware of both the verbal (what is said) and non-verbal signals (e.g., body language, motions, posture and eye contact). What are some steps you can take?

1. Avoid or eliminate distractions when talking to others. That might mean turning off a cell phone, closing a door or ignoring your email for a bit. This behavior also shows respect to your audience. The message is that they are important to you.
2. Ask questions to clarify the meaning or intent of what the other party has said. An example: “Tim, are you saying we need to shorten the cycle time by two days?”
3. Ensure that your body language, eye contact and facial expressions are appropriate and show interest. If you are slouching in your chair and nodding off that sends a message to your audience. If you are learning forward, maintaining eye contact and nodding at the appropriate times, it sends a message of interest.
4. Allow the other person(s) the time to talk. Avoid repeated interruptions. Apologize if you do interrupt. An example: “Sam, I am sorry I interrupted you. Please finish and I will add my comments when you are done.”
5. Handle disagreements tactfully. An example: “Jill, while I understand your concerns, I am not sure that I am convinced that we should eliminate that benefit. Can we gather a bit more benchmark data from the surveys that we purchased?”
6. Empathize when appropriate. An example: “Cara, I am sorry that you had to deal with the mishap with the ABC account. That must have been a hassle.”

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In short, I consider active listening as “being present” with another person or persons. What do I mean? It means that you are fully engaged in the moment. In your situation that may mean your conversations with supervisor, your colleagues or your clients. You are not thinking about what you had for breakfast, the Celtics game later tonight or the emails in your inbox. You are attuned to the person or persons with whom you are communicating.

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