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The Dream Works Better When the Team Is Listening Actively

By Brenda Smyth

As with most parents, mine have gotten old. Both wearing hearing aids now, their interactions would be almost comical if I didn’t witness the frustration and misunderstandings poor hearing causes. My mom will ask a question and while my dad is responding softly, she’ll interrupt to ask the same question again in a louder, more frustrated tone (because she thinks she’s being ignored). Pleasantries have long gone out the window. It’s simply survival at this point. When two people with poor hearing are involved, communication is a nightmare. 

Not Listening

Now let’s talk about those of us who hear just fine but … listen poorly.
It doesn’t take much effort to listen passively. This happens to all of us: A colleague stops by to update you on a shared project while you’re working on something else. You glance up quickly but don’t shift gears mentally. Your mind drifts between what they’re saying and what you were working on. You’re not focused. You don’t ask any questions. No notes. And later, you can’t really remember the conversation and you’ve got to make a decision about that project …. so you do. But it’s the wrong one and your interrupting colleague is annoyed that you didn’t go with his or her suggestion (You know. The one you didn’t hear.)
Active listening is a mindful way of listening and asking questions to truly understand what the speaker is experiencing. It takes effort … and focus. Distractions aside, even if we do mentally shift gears to focus on the speaker, our brains function at a speed much faster than anyone can talk (400 words per minute vs. 125 words per minute). That time difference gives our minds time to wander, preventing us from fully engaging with the information we hear, and causing our retention to fall to just 25% after 48 hours. Another obstacle to active listening is when we start listening, find that we don’t agree and rather than trying to understand the other person’s perspective, we begin formulating our argument.
Listening takes work.
Here are a few dos and don’ts for active listening:
1 – Face the speaker, lean in and make appropriate eye contact. It’s not necessary to stare the person down, but you should stop looking at your computer screen and turn toward them.
2 – Don’t jump to conclusions. Hear the speaker out. Even though you may think you understand the point midway through, keep listening. People vary in how they express themselves. Be a patient listener.
3 – Listen for primary points, rather than facts and insignificant details. Make periodic mental summaries of the main idea to help keep your mind focused. Identify supporting elements the speaker is using to further explain their point, whether they’re getting emotional and how the facts support their point.
4 – Don’t start developing your counterargument in your head or interrupt even though you may disagree with what’s being said. This emotional reaction significantly reduces your ability to listen.
5 – Try to anticipate the speaker’s next point. This helps you process information and organize it.
6 – Don’t reject new ideas at the outset. By staying open-minded, you truly understand what’s being said and build a better relationship with the person speaking. Even when people don’t agree, relationships are stronger when both parties feel heard.
7 – Take notes (if appropriate). It helps you evaluate and organize the speaker’s words.
8 – Don’t focus on what the person looks like, their accent or mannerisms. Instead focus on what the person is saying.
9 – Ask to talk another time if you can’t give someone your full attention. If a chance meeting in the hall with a teammate begins to develop into something that requires more time and focus than you have, ask to reconvene so you can take notes and discuss more fully.
10 – Don’t finish the speaker’s sentences. Be a patient listener who is comfortable with silence, giving the speaker an opportunity to share all the information they wish to share.
11 – Ask questions for clarification. Ask, “Do you mean …?” Use your own words to paraphrase the message the speaker is trying to convey. “Why do you feel that way?” “What obstacles do you see with this solution?”
Ask Questions Mindfully
Just as listening is an often overlooked and challenging skill, asking the right questions—the ones that will give you more complete information and signal to the other person that you truly understand—isn’t easy either. But thoughtful questions help us listen more fully and give the speaker time to formulate his or her thoughts.


When you’re listening to someone and you ask questions instead of making assumptions or giving advice, you empower the speaker and prevent mistakes. Consider questions that are thought-provoking, that uncover assumptions and stimulate discussion.
Here are a few tips to asking questions that support team communication:
– Be curious as you gather information. Curiosity is a mindset you need when you’re part of a team. Each person has a reason for being on that team. They have information to share that you can learn from.
– Ask open-ended questions. Why, what and how are words open-ended questions that encourage discussion and keep the conversation flowing, leading you to more complete information, well considered decisions and better results.
– Show that you’re interested in what the person is saying. After you ask a question, pay attention to the answers. This will encourage them to share more.
– Don’t judge the answers you get. Every team member has a unique perspective. Focus on understanding the why behind the answer. What is it about their expertise or experience that is making them feel a specific way or suggest a specific approach?
Strong team communication begins when we listen with the goal of understanding, rather than pushing our own agenda. Mindful questions play a part in getting the conversation going. “A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change,” says author Warren Berger.