What Makes Active Listening Work?

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How many of you have seen a leadership development program that did not address the importance of listening? It’s a theme or technique included in many development plans. In that context it’s spoken of as “active” listening and it’s assumed to be a virtue, something good, helpful, effective.

But my question is what makes this special kind of listening active? And how does being active distinguish it and make it more effective than mere listening?

I believe there are two levels of analysis that help us answer these questions. But as we ask and answer these questions, we discover something paradoxical: The active element in active listening turns out to depend on a passive, yielding, and receptive state of mind and way of being. So, maybe it’s not so active after all.

First-Level Analysis of Active Listening

Here is what I’ve learned about active listening as a psychologist. First, it means conscious, deliberate, intentional. Second, it means attending to the implicit and explicit parts of the message. Third, it means validating what we think we heard, by reflecting this “heard meaning” to the other for confirmation. Finally, it means we leave the other person feeling more fully heard, understood, and affirmed as a person.

Active listening defined in this way includes attitudes (care and curiosity), behaviors (skills of attunement), and purposes (others feel heard and affirmed). Becoming an active listener is a goal that requires cultivating a mindset, motivations, and skills to interact with others in this way. But does that mean it's mere surface acting that we muster on occasion, or is it something more trait-like that we develop?

Perhaps it could be either. We know acting is powerful. You need look no further than the theater. How many of us who see Dickens’ play A Christmas Carol do not leave with a softer, kinder heart, more inclined to show concern and generosity toward others? These sentiments must feel true to move us in this way. In day-to-day life, however, acting must express a deeper, more persistent truth.

It’s a truth about the person, the actor, the listener, that he or she does sincerely care. This kind of sincerity must show over time, across situations. It’s a quality of caring that I, as the other, can count on. This manager, as a leader and colleague, has committed him or herself to this way of being with me. It’s a mode of being that can be invoked whenever it’s needed, just as we call on problem solving skills.

Second-Level Analysis of Active Listening

The next level of analysis reveals trait-like capacities of a leader to be available, to see and hear others more fully, clearly. It’s grounded in a mindful presence to one’s own experience and to the experience of others. It’s a capacity to situate their dialogue in the shared scene of action that lay before them and see it with fresh eyes. It frees them to loosen attachment to points of view, self-interest, and positions.

It is a special kind of compassion. It’s born of rigor. But those two words don’t seem to share a common tone, do they? Compassion is soft, rigor is hard. Compassion is heart, and rigor is head. Compassion is sympathy, and rigor is rationality. One focuses on acceptance, the other on determined action. But what if there is a connection? What if an open, accepting attitude informs and shapes rigor?

According to years of research and centuries of practice, that’s exactly what happens. As a more self-effacing way of being and leading is cultivated, it generates courage to see things as they are, more objectively. It’s the courage to not know, to let go, and to examine our self-imposed hindrances to doing this. It doesn't compete with, rather, it complements our purposive, goal-directed strivings in life and at work.

The attitudes and behaviors of active listening from our level-one analysis are good and practical. But to sustain them, we must build confidence in this way of being, and ease in entering this attitude at will. To do that, I suggest mindful leadership. It emphasizes compassion, compassion that recognizes the truth of our limitations and possibilities as human beings.

Mindful Leadership and Generativity[i]

Mindful leadership is appropriate to people of any age. However, it is even more vital as a practice for those of us who are approaching midlife, mid-career questions: “I’ve done quite well – good education, great early-career experience, advancement into positions of managerial authority and responsibility? So where do I want to go from here?”

These questions signal entry into a crucial stage of development, which poses a choice between generativity or stagnation (see below). Am I ready to look beyond my self-interest and individual growth now? Am I ready to help build the next generation of leaders? How might that affect the way I play my role? Which are the skills and abilities I can and should leverage for these purposes?

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Inherent to this other-focused path of personal development are bigger pay-offs. We should know by now that we didn’t do it alone. We stood on the shoulders of others. And we did something productive and satisfying with that advantage. How can we pay it forward? How might choosing the generative path revitalize us at the same time that it makes our organization more sustainable?

Active listening at level one is a powerful and enabling pattern of behavior. When we take it to level two we find that's it's embedded in the person, in a way of being. This is the way of maturity, it integrates and promotes the best of qualities for self and society.

[i] For more on generativity see another article I wrote, Generativity – Its Role in Promoting Leader Development.