Remember telephone? One person whispers to another, who whispers to another and so on. Then, what comes out at the end bears zero resemblance to what was originally said. Sadly, the entire world feels like one giant game of telephone these days. And what’s funny at a kid’s birthday party is toxic in life. The combination of misinformation and missed information is damaging our society and disrupting our work.
It all starts with how we listen (or more pointedly - how we don’t). A recent global survey revealed that 86% of employees feel they’re not heard fairly or equally. And even those who do feel heard don’t feel listened to–reporting that they see no meaningful change, despite speaking up.
We are much worse listeners than we think. Part of this is structural: we listen twice as fast as we can speak, leaving our brains too much time to get bored and wander off. But an even bigger part is behavioral: we mainly listen to wait our turn to speak or we don't listen at all, assuming we already know what someone has to say. And lest we blame technology, even before the proliferation of cell phones and other digital gadgets, research showed that we recall only 10% of conversations with others as soon as they are done, dropping to 4% a month later.
It sounds pretty dismal but it can be changed. We need to stop assuming that just because we have ears we know how to listen. It’s a real skill that takes knowledge and practice to build. And with soaring levels of workplace disengagement and isolation, listening to no longer nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. Research actually shows that active, empathetic listening by a manager is one of the single greatest drivers of employee engagement.
Here are three things you can do to be a better listener at work.
- Practice With Real People
Good listening is not a personality trait, it’s a cognitive habit. Effective listening takes practice, intention, and the willingness to put yourself out there to be engaged, active and responsive. In fact, research tells us that we perceive others to be listening to us based on the way they respond verbally to what we’ve said: paraphrasing, asking questions and reflecting back their thoughts. It's an active sport, not a passive one. Learning to listen can’t be a theoretical exercise. Practice with your team. Observe how engaged and effective listening behaviors improve the outcome of your work. Or find another interested person and deepen and broaden the conversations you have (about work and about life). Practice effective listening with them: being present, open to new ideas, non-judgmental and slow to jump in with your own point of view.
- Drop Your Agenda
Most of us listen with an agenda (to prove a point or solve a problem), when we really need to be listening with learning and understanding in mind. Listening to learn opens us to the ideas of others and drives innovation and collaboration. But it’s probably the hardest kind of listening because it requires cognitive flexibility and humility, forcing us to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. Listening to learn—with an open mind and an open heart— extends empathy, builds trust, and invites colleagues to share insights and perspectives. Adopting a learning mindset takes practice. Let go of preconceived ideas, consider new ways of looking at things, ask questions that surface divergent perspectives. It's about approaching new ideas with a beginner's mind, resisting the urge to guess what someone will say before they've said it. And being open to the white spaces: sometimes we learn most by listening to what people don't say. By slowing down and being a learner, listening becomes a window into powerful insights that might otherwise be missed.
- Listen With Your Eyes
Maintaining eye contact with a conversation partner is more than just polite. It signals interest, attention and respect. Looking at a speaker’s eyes also helps us to better listen and understand both their words and their intentions. Eye contact has been shown to promote trust, increase interpersonal connection by increasing oxytocin, deepenempathy and social sensitivity and improve recall in video calls. But we are experiencing a crisis of eye contact: the pandemic, the epidemic of burnout and the overwhelming pull of social media have damaged face-to-face communication skills, including eye contact, especially among younger workers. Look at people when they are talking (some say long enough to register the color of their eyes). And when you are speaking, pause just long enough for others to look at you. Seeing each other’s faces is so critical to listening and being heard that dismissing it is a serious mistake. You wouldn't go into a meeting room with a bag over your head to obscure your face. Don’t do it on video calls. Turn on your camera. In all contexts, and especially listening, our eyes matter.
Listening isn't a game. It's serious business—the currency of collaboration, productivity and innovation. The ability to listen well accounts for 40% of the variance between effective and ineffective leaders. Bluntly put—if you don’t listen, you can’t be a good leader. At all levels and on all teams, engaged listening fosters belonging, learning, and connection. So many people talk about inclusion and don’t know where to start. Start by listening. Here’s the telephone message: if you want to be a better colleague, company, or leader, listen more and listen better. Words well worth passing on, without distortion.
First published on Forbes.com.