ACTIVE LISTENING Arguably the most important skill for effective personal communication (as a manager or otherwise) is to be able to use active listening. Based on the work of Carl Rogers, this process is seen as part of a manager’s job, but the listener must have true empathy for and trust in the speaker’s ability to self-direct, or else it is impossible to truly listen actively. Rogers and Farson (1987) indicate that active listening is “the art of listening for meaning” (p. 1) and that this requires careful listening, but even this alone is not sufficient. Active listening, according to Rogers and Farson (1987), brings about better self-understanding for the speaker who becomes “more emotionally mature, more open to their experiences, less defensive, more democratic and less authoritarian” (p. 1). The listener also benefits by obtaining more information from the speaker, developing deep positive relationships, and constructively improving attitudes. To achieve these results, the active listener must use the following techniques. •    Listen for meaning, not just content. Messages and conversations have content, but content can be surrounded by additional contextual information. For example, a colleague could tell you, “I just completed the quarterly report for the new project we’re starting,” and you would be likely to give a positive response. Suppose that colleague told you instead, “I finally got done with the quarterly report for the director’s pet project—now I can do some real work!” You would probably understand that a significantly different set of meanings was intended by your colleague. Even if you gave the same content response, such as “Congratulations!” it might be construed differently in the two situations by your colleague. In the first situation, you might find the meaning given to your word as a straightforward and supportive acknowledgment. In the second situation, however, your coworker might assume you are being ironic, which could still be seen as supportive but might be interpreted as disrespectful by the director if you were overheard. •    Respond to feelings. For active listening to take place, you must let the speaker know that you have comprehended both the content of the statement and the feelings that emerge with the content. In the same example, you could be a better listener if you replied, in the first instance, “Congratulations! That must feel good to have that finished!” and, in the second, “You sound like you’re not too happy with having to do that job. It must be a relief to move on to something else.” Neither of these responses takes much longer to say, but both indicate that you are trying to understand how your coworker feels about what has just been said. •    Note nonverbal cues. Communication happens through many channels, including voice tone, speed of talking, volume level, vocal hesitations, facial expressions, hand gestures, and another body language. To completely understand someone else’s meaning, you must decode what all these nonverbal signals mean. While the benefits of active listening are many, there are at least three reasons why people do not listen actively. Multitasking is a common behavior where we try to do something else while the speaker is talking. This frequently results in miscommunication because important nonverbal and emotional cues are not noticed. It is best to lay aside other things and focus on the speaker when you wish to listen carefully. Some people are unable to actively listen to a speaker because they are formulating their own responses to the previous statement the speaker said. They may even be lining up the reasons why the speaker is wrong instead of following along with what is being said. Remember that you are not engaging in a debate, but rather attempting to understand the other person’s viewpoint. Another barrier to active listening that frequently occurs at work is that the person speaking is of lower status than the listener. While we would all like to believe this is not true about ourselves, the facts are otherwise. Our supervisors and leaders usually receive our attention because what they say can affect our job situation positively or negatively. It is more difficult to listen attentively to someone who reports to you, particularly when you have a lot of other work to complete. It can be even worse if the person speaking is in a different department or is unknown to you. Unfortunately, we may respond to communications from clients with a lack of attention as well. Despite our best intentions, we may also harbor biases and prejudices about certain populations that get in the way of listening to them. The best way to guard against these tendencies is to stay aware of our own biases and to feel deeply that each person has inherent worth, just as Carl Rogers taught. Becoming skilled in active listening techniques will not solve every problem you encounter as a manager. You will still need to work with employees who are not performing well. Some employees may expect you to understand them using ESP, so they don’t need to explain to you what they are thinking. This is a challenge. Over time, however, using active listening will make your job easier because you will at least understand what your coworkers want to tell you. This will go a long way to making every day smoother because your colleagues will learn to trust that you will listen to them before you make decisions that affect them. Your colleagues will have seen you seeking to understand their views first before you take action. Even if they don’t agree with your final decision, they will be more likely to follow your lead because their ideas have been heard.