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Architects: Are You "Actively" Listening? (Part 2)

The benefits:

  • Deepen your conversations
  • Develop your presence as a leader 
  • Help your team collaborate more effectively 

Sounds good, doesn't it? We often hear about how to improve our speaking skills but rarely talk about our ability to listen well. If we want to talk about collaboration then we need to raise our self-awareness about our own listening and get thinking about how to have better conversations.

PS: If you missed Part I of this article, then you can read it HERE.


I'm going to describe active listening as a series of stages. Dependant on our needs and the situation we travel back and forth through the stages, perhaps without much thought. But, the more practice you have at active listening, the more self-awareness you'll have of which stage you are in and how to shift it to be more impactful.

1. Self

For the most part, we need to take care of our own needs first, and this is centred around information gathering. For example, a meeting at work. You check that you've got the right print-outs, that your phone is on silent and you wonder "what's in it for me?". 

"What is my role in this meeting?" 
"What could I achieve?" 
"What do I need to do before I can be fully present?" 

2. Focus 

Put away the phone, stop thinking about the last meeting or worrying about the next deadline and be 100% present. This way we can bring that awareness outside of ourselves and direct it towards the speaker.

"What could this person teach me?" 
"What does the organiser wish the outcome of this meeting to be?" 

We show that we are listening by orientating ourselves towards the speaker and making eye contact. The trouble is, we can't sustain this for long and lose our focus easily. We start thinking about lunch, start doodling in our notebook and slouch back in the chair. The average person talks at about 225 words per minute, but we can listen to up to 500 words per minute. Our minds love to fill in those other 275 words! No one is immune to thoughts creeping in and we must let them go, bringing ourselves back to 100% focus.

3. Response-ability

As listeners, we are not really defined by the message we receive but how we react to it and our focus can easily turn into judgement, reaction and rebuttal. By setting aside our own agenda we can, instead, become curious. This is especially important for those who think they have little of value to offer or don't know anything about the subject to be discussed. A shift from "will I be wasting my time here" to "what could I learn from this conversation?" will increase your presence in the room immediately. 

The hardest part of active listening involves the suspension of self-needs. That is your burning desire to deliver your opinion, your advice and your solution! Instead, be prepared to stay with the unknown. Listen to assess the meaning or intent behind the words; the body language, the tone of voice, the pace of the dialog. Listen for energy, emotion, values; what makes the speaker come alive and what makes them shrink back? You may also have information about the group, the wider system and the culture to keep in mind too. Don't forget to use your intuition and senses. Even the environment around you is giving you information above and beyond the direct message.

" In response to this information, what options do I have?" 

As listeners, you have a right, if not an obligation, to let the speaker know how much of the message you have received and what effect it has on you (the speaker can let you do this by offering up an occasional pause!). But what information do we respond to? How will we respond? What impact will it have on the speaker? We might worry that any response we give will be seen as an interruption or viewed as impolite. Knowing how to respond is one thing, but knowing when to respond is another. This takes courage as well as tact.

"What response will my feedback elicit?" 
"Will my response forward the speaker's thinking?" 

4. Feedback

Giving feedback is a great antidote to lack of focus! When you give the speaker more feedback you do several things:

  • You will be able to concentrate for longer and you will remember more
  • You will feel more involved
  • The speaker will feel safer

It's a win-win situation. Your feedback provides 'psychological safety' and validation to the speaker - these are two basic human needs and are intrinsic to creating trust. When feeling safe the speaker will be more inclined to dive deeper into the conversation and are more likely to express themselves more authentically and fully. If you want a better conversation then it is your job as the listener to help the speaker feel safe - an act of inclusion. 

At a basic level, we give the speaker feedback with behaviour: a nod our head, changes in posture and making eye contact, or verbally. The speaker though, can't always read the intent behind a "mmmm" so we must step it up! 

Ask open-ended questions to help obtain more concrete and more specific information (clarity and concreteness)

"You mentioned this point as crucial - can you explain further? 

Clarify the speaker's point by articulating your understanding of what is being said (summarise)

"Are you saying that Clara will be the only point of contact for the project team?" 

Make the effort to show that you understand what the speaker's issue is (empathy)

"I can understand, after all your late nights, why you would be angry about this latest design change." 

Expand the speaker's perspective or shift attention by noticing and pointing out discrepancies in what is being said versus what is being done. Mirror back to the speaker, patterns and themes. (confront in a neutral manner)

"I notice that you are agreeing with me but also grunting in reluctance - can you see something that I can't?" 

We are effectively shifting the power from the speaker into a more collaborative zone where both the listener and speaker are contributors to the conversation. The listener is not a passive receptacle for information but an active participant in enabling the speaker to dive deeper. Giving feedback signifies our commitment to the conversation.

On the whole travelling through these stages require thoughtfulness, reflection and respect. If you can remain focused on the speaker, suspending your own needs or agenda, you can advance the speakers thinking further:

  • Remain silent and give them the space to think
  • Give them respect by holding the belief that this person is capable of resolving issues on their own
  • Remain emotionally stable and neutral
  • Allow the speaker to vent without judgment 
  • Build on their ideas and suggestions

With self-awareness and regular practice, we can all appreciate a higher level of listening quality. The success of leaders hinges not only on speaking well but on the ability to listen attentively and to respond appropriately. 

  • An active listener maintains focus and listens with deliberate intent, whilst the traditional listener is fixated on themselves. 
  • An active listener curbs the urge to take over and keeps the attention on the speaker. 

When we learn to blend focus and feedback as both participant and collaborators then our conversations become more open to genuinely expressed feelings and emotions. The speaker and listener become more at ease with each other and our conversations are elevated.

The next time you have conversation base your listening on strategy, not reaction.