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Man listens carefully to a woman

Just listen....

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Man listens carefully to a woman
Published: 29 Feb 2024

Last month we took a look at the noble art of questioning. Let’s now explore an even more important skill – how to listen to the answers we get.

When it comes to the art of conversation, a wise person once said "we have two ears and one mouth, and they should be used in that proportion." But, at some time, we have we have all been guilty of waiting for our turn to talk, rather than actually listening to someone. Or maybe even interrupting to talk about our own experiences instead.

For anyone working in the quality sector, good listening is vital for information gathering. And active listening can take us further – teasing and coaxing every last drop of knowledge by making someone feel listened to, appreciated and important.

Active listening is the practice of using verbal or visual cues to encourage someone to say more. This doesn’t mean interrupting them to talk about your own experiences; it’s about demonstrating you are listening attentively, understanding what’s being said, and are retaining the information for later.

Active listening keeps both parties in a conversation engaged and builds trust – essential for auditing and assessment. Here are six ways to use active listening in a quality setting. 

1. Using open questions

It might sound obvious, but using open questions is so important that it’s worth restating. Asking someone if they think a process is good or bad only requires a one-word answer, and risks shutting down a conversation at the outset. But asking someone to describe a process instead or suggest improvements (“what could work better here?”) requires the other person to engage in conversation.

If an open question seems too broad and overwhelming, narrow it down to strike a middle ground – "if you could improve just one thing about this procedure, what would it be?"

2. Encouraging and reflecting

Once someone is talking, use occasional short words of encouragement to make it clear you are listening, you understand and are interested. These could be visual (nods and encouraging smiles) or auditory (mmm, uh-huh, yes). Be subtle and don’t go over the top here – it’s easy to come across as insincere or artificial.

You can also repeat words from the other person’s answers – a practice known as reflecting. This demonstrates you have heard what they said and are playing close attention.

Questioner: "What could work better here?"

Respondent: "The tools I use aren’t always in the place that I need them."

Questioner: [nods] "The tools…"

Respondent: "Yes, what I need is…"

3. Clarifying

Rather than make assumptions to fill in the gaps in a conversation, use a clarifying prompt to get the other person to do it.

These are simple questions of fact you can ask when you are not sure: "when you said ‘the tools’, which tools do you mean exactly?"

Don’t worry that they will think you haven’t been listening; this shows you are genuinely interested in what they have to say and you want to paint a clear picture in your head.

4. Reacting

Related to reflecting, reacting is built around empathy and shows that you are on the side of the person you are talking to.

"That sounds really frustrating" is a good example of reacting. It shows you are thinking about a situation from their point of view, not your own. This fosters trust and encourages the conversation to go deeper and reveal more.

5. Summarising

This is your chance to not only make your subject feel like a million dollars by showing how closely you’ve been listening, but also to fact-check what you’ve learned. After the person you have been chatting to has been talking for a while, take a moment to summarise what has been said.

"So, what I’m hearing is that if your tools were in the right place then you wouldn’t have to go searching around for them so much and you’d be able to concentrate more on what’s happening."

Your comprehension of what they have said will only strengthen your bond, and keep the conversation flowing nicely.

6. Shut up!

What sounds like the easiest thing to do is often the most difficult: remember to give your subject the space they need to answer your questions by being quiet.

There is nothing worse than listening back to a recorded conversation only to realise that just as the subject was about to say something crucial or revealing, you interrupted them with a story about how you once did that too. What you should have done was let them speak.

This can feel unusual to begin with, but you will get better information for remembering to use silence effectively.

Remind yourself of how to ask the right questions

Don't miss our previous article on how to get the answers you want or need.

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