Before Active Listening Backfires, Try This Technique to Build Trust and Engagement


While working on my first master’s degree in counseling, I had a full-time internship in the training department of a Fortune 500 insurance company. One of my responsibilities was to teach assertive communication and active listening techniques. What I didn’t know at that time through my coursework — or from my training colleagues who authored these courses — is that active listening doesn’t always work. In fact, it can backfire!

Active listening teaches us to “listen and respond” to improve understanding while withholding judgment. To “improve understanding” implies “making sense” of someone’s communications. We are encouraged to use skills such as acknowledging what’s been said through reflection, paraphrasing, and summarizing; asking clarifying questions, and sharing our perspective on the situation once we’ve heard the other person’s perspective.

Within the realm of collecting data (e.g., What does a specific dashboard say the number of complaints were for last month?) or ferreting out specific information (e.g., Does the report someone crafted include recommendations for change?), active listening works fine.

Now, consider these scenarios:

  • An employee reaches out and says, “You aren’t going to believe what just happened to me!”
  • You’re in a project team meeting where a colleague is about to disclose a sensitive situation that just happened to him with the project sponsor.
  • You have a new hire in your group who you want to get to know better.
  • You’re interviewing people for a lead role on special initiative.

What’s wrong with active listening in these situations which suggest that a story will be shared with us?

First, every time you insert yourself into a conversation before someone has completely finished telling their story, you inadvertently hijack it by taking over control, and disrupting their train of thought and the messaging flow. What we tend to get when we do this are sound bites rather than an overall sense of the entire experience being relayed to us. Quite frankly, you rob others of their voice instead of protecting psychological safety.

Second, “making sense” out of someone’s communication — “Oh, I see what you’re saying” — will rarely get you to the depth of “meaning-making” needed to forge trust and accelerate and deepen a relationship. It’s only when we create shared meaning with one or more people, that we forge bonds that allow us to think and feel together.

Finally, there’s a lesson I learned on a study mission trip to Japan in 1990. I recall being told, “Please listen until the end of the presentation to ask your questions. If you do, chances are the questions you have early on will be answered.” It’s gracious, kind, and courteous to let a person talk until they are finished sharing their story, no matter how out-of-order the information they share may feel to us as listeners.

What can you do instead? Listen delightedly, an approach advocated by Storytelling Coach, Doug Lipman.

Physically, you’ll want to do the following, whether you’re in-person or on a video call. You can also use this technique on the phone although the other person may ask if you’re still present! You’ll see why in a minute.

  • Lean in to show interest (even if the other person cannot see you).
  • Make eye contact, unless culturally unacceptable.
  • Use gestures and facial expressions to encourage more talking.
  • Appropriately express emotions nonverbally.

Above all else, do NOT say a thing, unless you sense that saying “go on” or “please continue” is absolutely necessary to the other person needing permission to continuing to talk.

When the teller appears to have completed their story, express appreciation (e.g., “Thank you for sharing your experience with me. It gives me a special appreciation for what you went through.”) Then ask the person to reflect on what they just shared — ask them what they liked about the situation, what meaning it holds for them today, what lesson they took away from it, and so on. Once they’ve shared their reflections, now you can talk from your vantage point! Share your answers to the same reflection items.

Only if absolutely needed, ask questions to clarify or get more information. And end with expressing appreciation one more time since this listening approach makes the story sharer more vulnerable.

Do not at any time, share a personal story or one from another source, offer advice, express what you would have done if you were in their situation, act in a dismissive manner (e.g., roll your eyes or sigh heavily), or abruptly end the conversation. If you truly don’t have time to listen in this manner, set up a time for when you do.

I receive the same feedback every time I encourage people to use this approach. Maintaining silence as a listener is hard! Not offering advice and suggestions is even harder yet! However, when listening delightedly is embraced, it can reveal hidden motivations, unspoken needs and points of view, personal values, and the personality type and temperament of the individual whose story you’ve heard.

For the teller, listening delightedly demonstrates you truly care and are fully present in the moment. That their voice matters and deserves to be heard and honored.

When you sense you’re about to hear a story, put on your listening delightedly hat. Not only will you benefit by what you’ll hear, so will the person who is conveying a story to you!

For more information about how business storytelling techniques can heighten engagement, contact Lori at lori@partnersforprogress.com.

Copyright 2023. Lori L. Silverman. All rights reserved.
Permission is granted to HRM Outlook to publish this article online and in other media, as long as the byline and the copyright line appears with the article.




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