Trouble communicating? Stop talking: Listen!

Gabrielle Lis

A quick guide to the advantages and basic techniques of active listening.

Communication can make or break return to work. So how do you become a better communicator? It might seem self evident that the best way to improve your communication skills is to learn to express yourself more clearly. However, before you run out and get lessons from a latter-day Professor Higgins, you might want to ponder this fact…

The average listener only hears, understands, evaluates and retains approximately half of what is said to them. And within 48 hours, that has diminished to a mere 25%.

The key to improved communication is not, as you might think, expressing yourself with greater clarity (although this can be useful), but rather learning how to listen actively and responsively. Sounds difficult? Well, the good news is that listening more attentively is a skill that can be learned.

Why is listening so important?

“When an individual feels understood, an enormous emotional burden is lifted; stress and defensiveness are reduced; and clarity increases.” Gregorio Billikopf Encina

In the return to work context, active listening may help:

  • Establish rapport;
  • Demonstrate care;
  • Develop a deeper mutual understanding;
  • Place the listener in a position where they have more control over the direction of the conversation;
  • Increase motivation; and
  • Increase the employee’s sense of ownership over the solutions to RTW problems.
What are some barriers to effective listening?

The first barriers to attempt to overcome are the assumptions and pressures that may cause YOU to listen less attentively. These may include:

  • Your personal beliefs and feelings about the employee / their injury or health problem;
  • Production demands and time pressures;
  • A lack of support from your own managers; and
  • Resentment that your precious time is being monopolised by one employee.

Similarly, the employee’s interactions with you may be influenced by their:

  • Beliefs and feelings about you;
  • Beliefs and feelings about their injury / illness in question;
  • Fears about job loss;
  • Cultural background;
  • Concerns about confidentiality;
  • Expectation that they will be disbelieved / viewed with suspicion;
  • Sense that it is improper to share personal / medical information with the “boss”;
  • Concerns over sharing information with someone of the opposite gender; and
  • Experience of pain, which can be stressful and distracting.
What are some tricks of the listening trade?

If you suspect that you aren’t listening to the best of your ability, it may be appropriate to seek training in active listening. The list below can get you started on the path to listening glory, but if a listening deficit is impacting poorly on RTW, training is probably the best option.

The basic principles of active listening include:

  • Set aside time to focus solely on the person you’re communicating with. Don’t get distracted by other things in the room or other tasks you need to perform. Make a conscious decision to devote yourself to listening.
  • Ask lots of open ended questions such as “How are you feeling?” and “What can we do to help you cope?” Bear in mind that “what” and “how” questions are better than “why” questions, as too many of the latter can put people on the defensive.
  • Make it obvious that you are listening. This might involve:
    • Making eye contact;
    • Nodding along; and
    • Repeating key words and phrases.

You might feel a bit self-conscious to begin with but perservere. Listening is all well and good, but remember that a lot of the value comes from the person you’re listening to feeling that they’ve been understood. Make it obvious for them!

  • Look as well as listen. Pay attention to visual clues, including facial expressions and body language.
  • Confirm that you understand what the person means, by paraphrasing what they have said to you. This doesn’t mean that you are agreeing with or endorsing their opinion, simply that you recognise and comprehend it. You can make this clear by saying, “So what you’re saying is…”
  • Be aware of how a need to assert yourself / desire to help / conversational competitiveness might influence your communication style. To listen effectively, you need to be aware of and in control of these potential barriers. Don’t worry, we all have them - and we can all learn to tame the beast!