How to rediscover the lost art of listening in the workplace

How to rediscover the lost art of listening in the workplace

There is a dearth of listening in the workplace. How did this happen? And does listening matter in this rushed and Tweeting world?


People talk too much. They do not listen. They ask questions in order to answer them rather than to hear your reply. They lose interest and walk away in the middle of your response.

Possible reasons people do not listen

  • Listening is more work than talking. That seems odd, given that speaking is apparently active and listening apparently passive. Nevertheless, the act of holding still and being quiet is beyond the capabilities of a staggering number of people in the workplace today.
  • Many people did not have effective listening modeled for them as children. If people grow up being interrupted by the adults who are supposed to guide and teach them, they will learn by example that it is acceptable to interrupt. They will carry this mindset into the workplace.
  • The media sets the bad example of interrupting. Television shows featuring abrasive chefs, confrontational talk show personnel, and scandalmongering reporters send the message that interrupting is bold, go-getting, assertive. The same plague of talking over others can be observed on talk radio.

Failing to listen is bad for a number of reasons

  • Not giving a speaker your full attention is bad manners, disrespectful and unprofessional.
  • Failing to listen can baffle your interlocutor. When you don’t listen, the coworker you are conversing with may be thinking, “Why did you ask that question if you didn’t want to hear my reply? This exchange has accomplished nothing. You have effectively wasted our time, time that ought to have been spent working.”
  • When you steamroll over a speaker you send the message that what they say does not matter. This leads to the conclusion in the speaker’s mind that, to you, they themselves don’t matter. How do you think that small injury affects their opinion of you?
  • This babel of thwarted talk congests the flow of information and ideas at work, and looks bad to potential customers.
  • The frustration of engaging with people who make a habit of interrupting also engenders rancor, which makes for an unpleasant workplace. A boss who may be contemplating promoting or downsizing you will take your listening ability into account if they are wise.

Why listening is good for the workplace and for you

  • Simply flip the above. Listening is polite, respectful and professional.
  • Listening sends the message that what your coworkers say matters, and implies that they themselves matter to you. Note those last two words: to you. Just as nobody likes being shut down, everybody likes a person who listens. Want to be everybody’s favorite, and be thought brilliant in the bargain? Listen and agree. People love that. But avoid rash commitments.
  • If you listen to the full content of your coworker’s idea, you will not leap to an uninformed conclusion that will lead you to make mistakes. Mistakes consume time in the making and more time in the correcting. You will not be reproached later with having failed to understand because you didn’t listen. Further, time spent listening respectfully will likely buy you some good fellow-feeling on the part of your coworker.

Steps to listen effectively in the workplace

The following are ways to improve your listening skills at work:

  1. Listen until the end

    This will give you either the information you require or enough information to frame an intelligent question. Do not grab the speaker’s spotlight or derail their point. You wouldn’t like it to be done to you. If you have asked a question, have the goodness to listen to the reply. Do not answer the question yourself. Other people have things to contribute; let them.

  2. Stay in the same place while listening

    Walking away while a person is speaking to you is profoundly disrespectful. This is especially true if the speaker is answering a question you have asked. No time to listen to the answer? Don’t ask the question.

  3. If you are too busy to listen, say so and offer a time when you can give your full attention

    Remind them with an email. If need be, set a time limit. Offer a reasonable amount of time and make sure your coworker agrees to it and does not require more time to be fully heard.

  4. Jot a note rather than interrupting

    Your coworker may say something that stimulates an idea. Keep a notepad handy and make quick notes of your ideas to share with the speaker after you have heard them out.

  5. Place your phone on your desk

    If your phone rings or vibrates, and if you must take the call but it isn’t an emergency, tell the caller you are in a conference, offer to call them back and hang up. Then return your full attention to listening to your coworker.

  6. Discourage intrusions when listening

    If you can sit down and listen to your coworker in an area free from distractions like a conference room or private office, do so.

  7. Involve relevant personnel

    Think the speaker’s point might interest a fellow coworker? Bring them in, prefacing your invitation with “Ron has some thoughts I’d like you to hear.” If your new participant interrupts, shut them down politely. “Hold that thought, Terry. I want to hear Ron’s full remarks. Here.” Push a pen and notepad to Terry. “Jot ideas down like I’m doing. Continue, Ron.”

  8. Keep the conversation about business

    You may need to provide a gentle nudge to keep the discussion professional. Not to worry – the courtesy you show by adopting the listening pointers above will prevent your coworker from taking offense at being guided in this way.