The Case for Active Listening

By Natalie W. Loebi, Founder & CEO, David B. Sarnoff, Executive coach and leadership trainer, Loeb Leadership

Yes, we’re connected more than we ever have been by technology, but are we connected as human beings?

It’s simple but not easy. Living in the midst of an on-going pandemic, the transition to remote work and living with restrictions, there is no doubt that the secret to our success lies in the success of our ability to effectively communicate. One of the highest skills to possess during these times is to genuinely and actively listen to each other. Active listening is a strong interpersonal skill. When done well, it proves our humanity, it builds trust, enhances relationships, offers empathy, compassion and makes those being truly listened to feel valued and important. It also offers the opportunity to gain new knowledge, perspective and information to help us grow personally, in business and to practice self-management. When we are truly actively listening, we suspend judgement and leave space for the speaker to continue. We use both non- verbal and verbal expressions to demonstrate we are receiving information and interested in what the speaker has to say. We are extinguishing random thoughts that come into our minds, so we can intently listen and give the speaker our full attention. Active listening is hard work. It is strenuous and requires intention, effort and focus. However, at a time, when many of us are feeling disconnected, isolated and lonely, active listening is the human gift we can choose to give to others. When done well, your hard work will pay off in numerous ways.

How to actively listen:

Active listening is a commitment to intentionally listen to the speaker with both your ears, eyes and body. It requires asking questions to clarify assumptions and demonstrating interest by testing your understanding with the speaker to confirm you heard what the speaker intended to share with you. When you are practicing active listening, you are not waiting for a chance to jump in and speak. Instead you are trying to understand fully. It’s not unusual to find ourselves waiting to speak when a good response comes to mind while another person is speaking and we feel eager for them to stop talking so we can express our point. In fact, when we notice this happening and resist the impulse to interrupt, we know we are practicing active listening. More than ever, human beings are striving to be heard and understood. Problems occur when more than one person in a conversation wants to be heard

at the same time. When people are interrupting each other, feelings of frustration grow. If one feels they are not being heard, you will notice stress levels increase and a breakdown in communication. Those breakdowns in communication can lead to a number of unfortunate outcomes, including straining professional relationships.

Active listening in and of itself communicates to another person that they are valued and respected. Imagine if someone comes to you to seek advice or share an experience for your feedback. How do you think that person would feel if in the middle of what they are saying, you decided to send a text or check emails? It is a safe bet that the other person would feel disrespected and not heard. It is imperative while active listening to be present, focused on the speaker and maintain comfortable eye contact. As stated earlier, active listening is a physical activity and requires practice to increase proficiency and ability.

It is particularly important, as an attorney, to actively listen for multiple reasons. Firstly, being an active listener builds trust amongst members of your team and encourages them to communicate ideas, their challenges and feedback. It also models the way for others in your firm to practice active listening, raising their level of listening. Typically in a high stress work environment such as a law firm, many people tend to listen for the least amount of information they need to try to complete a task, in order to be able to move on to the next task. This is not the most productive way to practice, because by practicing active listening, you may identify a deeper level of understanding that may raise the caliber of your work product.

An example of this is when a litigator conducts a deposition. Litigators are typically trained to never ask a question they don’t know the answer to. While that may be solid advice, attorneys tend to focus only on the questions they prepared and may not listen deeply to the responses of the witness, potentially creating other lines of questioning. Active listening would not only focus on the specific words the witness was saying, but also on how they were saying these words. Are they sweating, is their volume elevated, are they touching their face while they are speaking, are all observations that should be noticed. It also requires an attorney to focus on what the witness is not saying, and if they are uneasy and nervous. Active listening taps into our intuition and experiences to focus completely on the verbal and non-verbal responses from a witness and have an heightened sense of what is actually being communicated.

Similarly, when presenting an argument in front of a judge, active listening is just as important as the legal research supporting your brief. Oftentimes during oral argument, an attorney is typically hyper focused on their argument and how they will use the facts of the case to support their legal citations, a judge will interrupt with questions. For many attorneys, this can be unnerving and if you do not put your thoughts on hold and focus on what the judge is saying, you may fumble in your reply. How many times have you heard a judge say to an attorney, “you did not answer my question.”

When a person is performing actively listening at a high level, they do not focus on their own thoughts or responses in their head, however, they are focused on the person who is speaking. Your awareness is tuned into the expressions, emotions and communication being transmitted from the person speaking to you. In order to do this, it requires a mind shift from wanting to reply immediately with only your reply and thoughts to focusing on how to flesh out more from the person who is speaking. This skill will in most cases provide a deeper understanding of the person who is speaking and their thoughts, aspirations and in some cases their competency.

Active listening is an important life skill to not only cultivate and nurture personal and familial

relationships but can be an effective tool to building a high trust workplace in your professional life.

Attorneys who elevate their active listening skills will also raise their emotional intelligence skills, self- awareness and how they show up and are perceived by their colleagues.

Below are some strategies and practices to help you raise your active listening abilities. The more you practice them, the better your listening skills will be.

  1. Choose to actively listen and provide your full attention.
  2. Set any distractions aside and give your full attention to the speaker.
  3. Use your eye contact, body language and short non-verbals to show you are paying and attention. These efforts will also help you to remain engaged in the conversation.
  4. Pay attention to the speaker’s verbal and non-verbal messaging. Speed and tone of voice; along with body language clues can provide valuable additional information to you in addition to the words being used. Identifying emotions being expressed along with the words will show the speaker you are connecting, interested and value their input. This leads to building trust, enhancing relationships and improved productivity and outcomes.
  5. Ask thoughtful clarifying questions to demonstrate you are “hearing” the speaker and want to learn more. Open-ended questions that begin with “What?” and “How?” can prompt new details about what you are really trying to understand. There’s also a place for closed questions (questions requiring a one-word answer to help you gather some facts.)
  6. Be mindful and strategic about the question types you choose to help you focus on understanding the speaker and gaining information. A closed question can help you paraphrase what you think you understand and give the speaker the opportunity to correct your understanding.
  7. Suspend judgement and put your desire to be heard and understood on the back burner.
  8. Be patient with yourself as you practice. This is not the natural way in which we communicate with others—especially in a disagreement. It won’t go perfectly, and that’s fine.

For a free listening quiz on the Psychology Today website to evaluate your listening skills click here https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/tests/ personality/listening-skills-test


Natalie Loeb, M.S., is the founder and CEO of Loeb Leadership, a preeminent management and leadership development company, based in the United States with over 50 consultants in the USA and Europe. With more than 25 years of experience as an executive coach to leaders and high potential managers in law firms, Natalie is recognized as an innovator in the area of leadership within the legal profession. For her core clients, medium to large Amlaw 100 firms, Natalie and her team create and execute flexible programming to enhance leadership capacity and build high-trust work cultures.

David B. Sarnoff, Esq., is an executive coach and leadership trainer with Loeb Leadership. As a former attorney, experienced executive search consultant, business owner, and former board of education president, David is uniquely qualified and experienced to understand the mindset, demands and challenges of corporate executives, attorneys, managers and individual contributors.

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