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The Case for Active Listening

Natalie W. Loeb, MS

David B. Sarnoff, Esq., ACC

Loeb Leadership

Yes, we’re connected more than we’ve ever been by technology, but are we connected as human beings?

It’s simple but not easy. Existing in the midst of an on-going pandemic, the transition to remote work and living with restrictions, there is no doubt that the secret to our success lies in our ability to effectively communicate. One of the highest skills to possess during these times is genuinely and actively listening to each other. Active listening is a strong interpersonal skill. When done well, it proves our humanity, builds trust, enhances relationships, offers empathy and compassion, and makes those being truly listened to feel valued and important. It also offers the opportunity to gain new knowledge, perspective and information to help us grow personally and in business and to practice self-management.

When we are truly actively listening, we suspend judgement and leave space for the speaker to continue. We use both non-verbal and verbal expressions to demonstrate that we are receiving information and interested in what the speaker has to say. We are extinguishing random thoughts that come into our minds, so we can intently listen and give the speaker our full attention.

Active listening is hard work. It is strenuous and requires intention, effort and focus. However, at a time when many of us are feeling disconnected, isolated and lonely, active listening is the human gift we can choose to give to others. When done well, your hard work will pay off in numerous ways.

How to Actively Listen

Active listening is a commitment to intentionally listen to the speaker with your ears, eyes and body. It requires you to ask questions to clarify assumptions and to demonstrate interest by testing your understanding with the speaker to confirm that you heard what the speaker intended to share with you. When you are practicing active listening, you are not waiting for a chance to jump in and speak. Instead, you are trying to understand fully. It’s not unusual to find ourselves waiting to speak when a good response comes to mind while another person is speaking or to feel eager for them to stop talking so we can express our point. When we notice this happening and resist the impulse to interrupt, we know that we are practicing active listening. More than ever, human beings are striving to be heard and understood. But problems occur when more than one person in a conversation wants to be heard at the same time. When people are interrupting each other, feelings of frustration grow. If one feels they are not being heard, you will notice stress levels increase and a breakdown in communication. These breakdowns in communication can lead to a number of unfortunate outcomes, including strained professional relationships.

Active listening communicates to another person that they are valued and respected. Imagine if someone comes to you to seek advice or share an experience for your feedback. How do you think that person would feel if, in the middle of what they are saying, you decided to send a text or check emails? It is a safe bet that the other person would feel disrespected and not heard. It is imperative while actively listening to be present, focused on the speaker and to maintain comfortable eye contact. As stated earlier, active listening is a physical activity that requires practice to increase proficiency and ability.

How Active Listening Can Benefit Attorneys

It is particularly important, as an attorney, to actively listen for multiple reasons. Firstly, being an active listener builds trust amongst members of your team and encourages them to communicate their ideas, challenges and feedback. It also models the way for others in your firm to practice active listening. Typically, in a high stress work environment such as a law firm, people tend to listen for the least amount of information they need to complete a task, in order to be able to move on to the next assignment. This is not the most productive way to listen; by practicing active listening, you may identify a deeper level of understanding that could raise the caliber of your work product.

An example of this is when a litigator conducts a deposition. Litigators are typically trained to never ask a question they don’t know the answer to. While that may be solid advice, attorneys tend to focus only on the questions they prepared and may not listen deeply to the witness’s responses, which could potentially lead to other lines of questioning. Active listening will not only focus on the witness’s specific words, but also on how they are saying these words. Are they sweating? Is their volume elevated? Are they touching their face while they are speaking? These are all observations that should be noticed. It also requires an attorney to focus on what the witness is not saying and if they are uneasy and nervous. Active listening taps into our intuition and experiences to focus completely on the witness’s verbal and non-verbal responses and requires a heightened sense of what is actually being communicated.

Similarly, when presenting an argument in front of a judge, active listening is just as important as the legal research supporting your brief. Often times during oral argument, an attorney is hyper-focused on their own argument and how they will use the facts of the case to support their legal citations; and then a judge interrupts with questions. For many attorneys, this can be unnerving, and if you do not put your thoughts on hold and focus on what the judge is saying, you may fumble your response. How many times have you heard a judge say to an attorney, “you did not answer my question.”

When a person is performing active listening at a high level, they do not focus on their own thoughts or responses. Instead, they are focused on the person who is speaking. Your awareness is tuned in to the expressions, emotions and communications being transmitted from the person speaking to you. In order to do this, it requires a mind shift from wanting to reply immediately with only your own thoughts to focusing on how to flesh out more from the person who is speaking. This skill will in most cases provide a deeper understanding of the person who is speaking and their thoughts, aspirations and, in some cases, their competency.

How to Become an Active Listener

Active listening is an important life skill, not only for cultivating and nurturing personal and familial relationships, but also for effectively building a high-trust workplace. Attorneys who elevate their active listening skills will also strengthen their emotional intelligence and self-awareness and improve how they are perceived by their colleagues.

Below are some strategies and practices to help you raise your active listening abilities. The more you practice them, the better your listening skills will be.

  • Choose to actively listen and provide your full attention.

  • Set any distractions aside and give your full attention to the speaker.

  • Use your eye contact, body language and non-verbals to show that you are paying attention. These efforts will also help you to remain engaged in the conversation.

  • Pay attention to the speaker’s verbal and non-verbal messaging. In addition to the words being used, their body language and voice speed and tone can provide you with valuable information. Identifying emotions being expressed along with the words will show the speaker that you are connecting and interested and value their input. This leads to building trust, enhanced relationships and improved productivity and outcomes.

  • Ask thoughtful clarifying questions to demonstrate that you are “hearing” the speaker and want to learn more. Open-ended questions that begin with “What?” and “How?” can prompt new details about what you are really trying to understand. There’s also a place for closed questions (questions requiring a one-word answer to help you gather some facts).

  • Be mindful and strategic about the question types you choose to help you focus on understanding the speaker and gaining information. A closed question can help you paraphrase what you think you understand and give the speaker the opportunity to correct your understanding.

  • Suspend judgement and put your desire to be heard and understood on the back burner.

  • Be patient with yourself as you practice. This is not the natural way in which we communicate with others—especially in a disagreement. It won’t go perfectly at first, and that’s fine.

For a For a free quiz to evaluate your listening skills, visit Psychology Today. For more information about the benefits of active listening, check out the authors’ Active Listening is a Critical Skill for Attorneys to Practice Law at a High Caliber During Coronavirus and Beyond program, available from PLI Programs On Demand.

Natalie Loeb, M.S., is the founder and CEO of Loeb Leadership, a preeminent management and leadership development company, based in the United States with over 50 consultants in the USA and Europe. With more than 25 years of experience as an executive coach to leaders and high potential managers in law firms, Natalie is recognized as an innovator in the area of leadership within the legal profession. For her core clients, medium to large AmLaw 100 firms, Natalie and her team create and execute flexible programming to enhance leadership capacity and build high-trust work cultures.

David B. Sarnoff, Esq., ACC, is an executive coach and leadership trainer with Loeb Leadership. As a former attorney, experienced executive search consultant, business owner, and former board of education president, David is uniquely qualified and experienced to understand the mindset, demands and challenges of corporate executives, attorneys, managers and individual contributors. David is also a member of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee of the NYC Bar Association.

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Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Practising Law Institute.

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