“The most basic of human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them” (Dr. Ralph G. Nichols).

As professionals in learning and development (L&D), we have a special talent for reading the room. It is something we learned early in our careers, and most of us think we have mastered the skill, even in a virtual setting. We know if our audience is listening, and we know when people are faking it while nodding in agreement … or do we?

How many times have we faked our own listening, our face engaged and our mind elsewhere? That person who has far too many words to say before he or she reaches the point can easily send us off into Never Never Land. Remember the saying from Epictetus: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Sadly, many of us have forgotten or lost the art of listening. It might be that we value the information we want to share more than we value the other person’s thoughts, or it may be that we are overly passionate about sharing the subject matter. The truth is that most of us prefer talking to listening.

If we want our audience to be better listeners, we need to be better listeners ourselves. We need to practice listening and change our behavior before we can help others do the same.

Being an effective listener is a challenge, and when we practice it in a meaningful way, we improve. We become better training professionals, better leaders and better learners. Here are some suggestions to put you, your training team and your learners on a path to better listening.

1. Know Your Typical Behavioral Style, and Be Self-aware

As L&D professionals, sometimes it’s hard to remember that we don’t always have to control the conversation. Good meeting and training facilitation sometimes means letting conversations happen organically. If we feel like we have to quickly respond with a solution, we aren’t giving others space to grow.

As a result, knowing our communication style and preferences is important. For example, if your style is directive, you may have a tendency to talk first and listen second. If this is the case, take a breath, think about what you want to say and ask yourself:

    • Is what I want to say adding value to the people who are listening to me?
    • Am I uncomfortable with silence? Some styles may be processing information, and silence is OK.
    • Do I feel the need to explain something again?

Working through these questions helps us determine whether we are hearing words without paying attention to the other signs (e.g., tone of voice or facial expressions) others are sending. Thinking about your initial reaction, based on your own style, will help you become more emotionally intelligent and will make you a better listener. You will start to recognize signs like an increase in heartrate or flushing cheeks when you really want to jump in and/or interrupt. Our audience wants us to be fully present and react to them based on information. If we can’t read their signs and don’t know our own, we will never be able to do so.

2. Purpose and Context Matter

Tell your audience why they need to listen, what they need to listen for and in what context they should be listening for it. In other words, set the stage for them. Your role is to listen without judgment and to shut down your own internal monologue as your audience responds to the environment, scenarios and subject matter.

Separate fact from emotional response when topics are challenging or the scenarios evoke highly charged opinions or reactions. Part of your success will be teaching your audience to do the same. Be aware that your facial expressions speak volumes, and pay attention to your nonverbal cues until you become proficient.

3. Feedback Is a Great Opportunity to Listen

When giving feedback, incorporate information on listening. Use all of your senses, lean into nonverbal cues and give feedback that shows that you paid attention to more than words. Respond with information that makes the other person feel heard by restating something that he or she said. As you discuss the feedback, be direct and concise to make it easier for others to practice their own listening.

4. Use Engaging Activities That Promote Listening

Start by asking people to remove their electronic distractions. Then, make your presentation so engaging that they forget they have other things happening around them. Use scenarios, chats with open-ended questions, polls etc. Mention you will choose someone to summarize what he or she learned at the end of each section. As your audience chats and responds, ask questions, reflect back on some of the statements made and show that you are engaged as well. Your energy matters to them, and when you are engaged, they know you are listening.

5. Keep Listening

In the case of training, the feedback you receive after a session is another opportunity to listen. How are people performing? Did the performance bar move? Has there been any impact on the business’ strategic goals? What’s the story telling you? In order to communicate or act on data, you must hear it. Although this process is not listening in the conventional sense, it is necessary for organizational effectiveness.

Listening builds better relationships and better organizations. It makes us more empathetic and more effective. Becoming a good listener takes practice, patience and self-reflection. If you want to know how good you are now, ask a trusted friend. He or she will be glad to tell you the truth; whether you want to listen to it is up to you.