Most people think of communication as a two-way street, where people exchange information, understand each other, and act upon that understanding. That is the idealist view of communication: pure, perfect and transformative. But the real world is something different. People interact in settings where noise, prejudice and disinterest handicap real communication.
In a business setting, managers feel the need to communicate on a daily basis. But they generally resort to classical means to communicate: emails, town hall meetings, and committee or task force hands-on technical work. These are worthwhile management tools but are insufficient to create a work environment where staff feels listened to, appreciated and understood. Real motivation starts at the psychological level of the need to be heard and the gratification that follows from being heard. In life, parents, friends and family have more chances of being successful mates and relatives if they know how to deal with this basic desire to be listened to. Successful parenting is in great part about listening; the same goes for friendship, marriage and family life.
But aren't we all good listeners? Don't we maintain conversations on a daily basis where we interact in a mutually intelligible manner? We may misunderstand each other, but we try to understand before we act or respond! And that is true: we do interact with each other on a daily basis. The problem is that we often feel like we are not being heard by the other. We are listened to, but we are not heard. Effective listening requires skills, training and change of attitude. Skills are simple but not easy to maintain all the time. You need to train yourself to use them so that they become a "natural" communication behavior for you.
Speak as little as possible
The more you hold your words, the more the speaker you are listening to is encouraged to speak. Interruptions should happen only when necessary and only to induce the speaker to say more or to elaborate on previous statements or expressions.
Don't finish your interlocutor's sentences
While for some, this could be considered rude behavior, it is usually an intrusion that doesn't help the speaker; as you are not privy to the speaker's line of thought, your intrusions will most certainly lead her astray. Even when the speaker is at a loss, don't finish her sentences. Don't make the speaker feel belittled or patronized. Your constructive silence empowers her.
The positive interruptions of an active listener should help the speaker reword her statements and make her ideas clearer. She needs to feel that she is heard. Paraphrasing is a great tool: "If I understand you well, what you mean is..."; "the idea you want to express is therefore..., right?". As a listener, you should pay specific attention to all what the speaker says to be able to paraphrase her. In so doing, you evaluate less, you interrupt less, and you don't think too much of what you need to say next. Paraphrasing is a skill but you need to train yourself to be able to master it. It is a great way as well to make the speaker feel that what she says is valued.
Ask for the deep significance of what is said
Here, you move beyond the content to ask questions about things more profound. In fact, in so doing, you show the speaker that what she says makes deeper sense. "If you do this, then you will be in a position to..."; "this will then induce a state of...", "do you propose then that we..." ,"does this mean that...". These are some of the expressions you can use to get to the deeper sense of what the person you are listening to is saying.
Think of the speaker's deep feelings as well
Here you go beyond asking for deeper meaning to a level where you sympathize with the speaker. You try to be in her position, to feel what she feels; you imagine yourself in her situation: "You must have felt...;" "I see that this has made you feel...;" "If this has happened to me, I would have...;" "You may have been disappointed because of..."; "You must be proud of yourself for having...;" "Were you relieved because of this?" These and other expressions help the speaker get out their feelings. But you should be careful not to get them to say things they never wanted to reveal. This tool should be used ethically and with care.
Ask for more details
Ask for more information if you don't understand. Use open-ended questions. "Give me more details." "What happened when..."; "What do you mean by this..." Open-ended questions give the listener the freedom to say only the things she wants to share.
Use gestures and body language
Use nodding, eye contact, show attention and be as close as possible. You take what the speaker says seriously. You care and your body shows it.
Active listening is a form of communication that helps with motivation; it makes you think of giving your colleagues or your staff the time and the attention they deserve to express themselves. There is something valuable and unique in all the people working with you or for you. If you listen to them, if you make them feel heard, you will bring forth the best in them. They will feel valued. They will work harder to give the best in themselves. Listening is a powerful human resource management tool. Use it well and effectively and you see how the people working for you get transformed and motivated to work harder, produce more and feel they belong.