When you are starting out in your career, it is important to make a good impression. Building positive relationships with colleagues, managers and clients will influence the happiness and success you feel within your role. Though there are other employability skills which may influence this, research suggests that listening skills are of utmost importance.
Being a good communicator is crucial to building your career networks and effective listening plays a big role in this. Research shows that your ability to demonstrate you are listening is highly influential on other people’s judgments of your communication skills (Bodie et al, 2012). This is therefore a useful development target for anyone entering the labour market for the first time or in the early stages of their career.
Listening is all about being able to receive, retain and process information or ideas. At its most basic stage this just includes taking on information from another person. As children we need to be able to listen because it is key to our learning, development and safety. We need to understand and remember short instructions, know why someone is trying to communicate with us and later on learn how to record important information as we listen.
As we get older and start to build wider and deeper social relationships, it starts to become important to show people you are listening to them. To demonstrate why this is important, try to think back to a time where someone, in whatever way, demonstrated to you that they weren’t, or hadn’t been, listening to you. How did that make you feel?
When people don’t listen to you it impacts your judgement on them as a person and, subsequently, your behaviour towards them in the future. On the other hand, the perception of someone actively listening has been shown to influence reward systems in the brain, accompanied by a positive evaluation of that person (Kawamichi et al, 2015). Learning to show people you are actively listening is, therefore, key to building positive relationships in the workplace. There are both non-verbal and verbal techniques which can help to demonstrate you are listening to others (Bodie et al, 2012).
Eye contact is important because it shows someone you are not distracted and thinking about other things. Good eye contact can also help you to determine how others are feeling about what they are saying, by reading their facial expressions.
Don’t take this to the extreme - staring intently at someone's face can be worse than no eye contact at all. Giving eye contact 60-70% of the time is the best target.
For some, eye contact is uncomfortable and difficult to maintain within conversations. If so, there are other ways to demonstrate to others that you are listening to what they say.
The rest of your body will also give a good indication to others about whether you are engaged and listening. Even if you find eye contact difficult, you can still position yourself to be facing the speaker without having to look directly at their face. Keep your arms open - crossed arms can signal that you are closed off or defensive. You can also lean forward slightly to signal you want to be involved in the conversation or are trying to hear better.
Smiling can also help the speaker to feel relaxed and can indicate that you are enjoying conversing with them. Be wary, though, that this facial expression will not be appropriate in conversations around difficult and emotive subjects, for example if someone is making a complaint, or telling you about something negative which has happened to them.
Aside from eye contact and body language there are also verbal cues which help to indicate that you are listening to a person.
Asking a good question can signal to a speaker that you are engaged with what they are saying and prompt them to elaborate further. Questions can be categorised into one of two types.
Open questions are those which cannot be answered with a simple yes, or no answer. They tend to start with words like ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘when’, ‘how’. Though some open questions can be answered with a short factual response, a good open question will encourage the speaker to expand on what they were saying, and possibly open up new and interesting topics of conversation.
Closed questions are those which are answered with either a yes or no response. They might start with ‘did’ or ‘is’, and are not very effective, on their own, at expanding a conversation. You may want to ask a closed question to check your understanding, before asking an open question to continue the conversation.
It is also possible to combine open and closed questions to extend conversations. For example, ‘did you consider doing that, and how did you make your decision?’ or ‘do you like this, and why?’
Another verbal cue that indicates you are listening is being able to summarise or rephrase the idea or message has been communicated to you by the speaker.
Summarising is about repeating back the key points the speaker has made, in the same or similar to the language which they have used. This is useful when the message is fairly simple, like a process, or set of instructions.
Rephrasing is more effective when the speaker is explaining a more complex idea, like a theory, principle or concept. Rather than repeating back what the speaker has said, rephrasing changes the way that the idea is expressed. The ability to put something into your own words, requires you to have understood and processed what is being communicated to you, so it is also a good way of checking understanding.
Timing is key, when using these tools within a conversation. You need to give the speaker enough time to fully explain what they are saying and should avoid interrupting them to summarise or rephrase what you have heard. Leaving it too long also risks missing the opportunity to correct a misunderstanding, and may cause the speaker to have to revisit something which was said a while ago, impacting on the flow of conversation.
Speakers may indicate that they have finished explaining something by asking ‘does that make sense?’ or ‘do you have any questions?’. If not, a pause usually indicates that they are moving onto something else, which is a good opportunity to chip in with phrases like ‘so what you’re saying is…’ or ‘to check my understanding, am I right that…’ or ‘so is it the case that…’
How to build your listening skills in the workplace
Practising non verbal listening behaviours
When you are deep in conversation, you are usually not aware of your body language and how it is impacting on others. When starting to practise these skills it would be useful to get some feedback from a trusted colleague or manager as to how you might alter your body language to more effectively show you are listening. Try practising one thing at a time, as it will be hard to focus on demonstrating all the techniques mentioned, as well as keeping the conversation going.
Practising verbal listening behaviours
There are plenty of opportunities to practise these verbal communication tools in the workplace. For those who are less confident it might be useful to try it out with colleagues who you feel more comfortable with, or during line management meetings where you can get feedback. You could build on this by practising using these tools during internal meetings, or with more senior members of staff. The more you practise, the more confident you will feel to use them to support building positive relationships with clients and wider networks.
To find out more about how to develop your listening skills and other employability skills, head to the Universal Framework on the Skills Builder Partnership website. The Framework breaks down the 8 essential skills needed for any employment setting (Ravenscroft & Baker, 2020), into 16 progressive steps which form the key components for success. The ‘click to build it’ sections give more information about each of the steps and tips for building and practising them.
For those who are interested in discovering their skill level in one or more of the essential skills, Benchmark is a free online self assessment tool which allows you to do just this. This platform identifies your key strength areas in each of the skills and as well as areas for development.
Listening skills are key to kick-starting your career. You must be able to demonstrate you are listening in order to make a positive impression on your colleagues and clients. Don’t leave this to chance, use the tips above to practise these skills, to enable you to build those crucial networks and unlock your career potential.
Bodie, G. D., St. Cyr, K., Pence, M., Rold, M., & Honeycutt, J. (2012). Listening competence in initial interactions I: Distinguishing between what listening is and what listeners do. International Journal of Listening, 26(1), 1-28.
Kawamichi, H., Yoshihara, K., Sasaki, A. T., Sugawara, S. K., et al (2015). Perceiving active listening activates the reward system and improves the impression of relevant experiences. Social neuroscience, 10(1), 16-26.
Ravenscroft, T. and Baker, L. (2020). Towards a Universal Framework for Essential Skills: a Review of the Skills Builder Framework. https://global-uploads.webflow.com/5ab25784c7fcbff004fa8dca/646f3a8c3f5c7ac5248aa48e_Essential%20Skills%20Taskforce%20Report%20-%20Final%20(May%202020).pdf