Communication usually tops the list of skill sets you can bring to the workplace. And it makes sense; after all, an organization is primarily a team of people, and you’ll be much more effective at collaborating and problem-solving if you communicate well with others.

But which communication skill do you consider to be the most important — speaking, writing, or listening?

Considering the emphasis we place on interviews, presentations, and meetings, your initial response might be speaking skills. On the other hand, most of us spend significant portions of our days at computers, so you could decide that written communication skills are critical. What you might overlook, however, is arguably the most powerful communication skill of all: listening.

Ellie Hearne works with leadership communications company SNP, where she helps companies like Google, Oracle, Microsoft, and Facebook achieve a higher standard of innovative and strategic communication. We spoke with her to find out why she rates listening as the most important communication skill and how we can improve our own practices.

“Listening is something we all do and have done for our whole lives,” said Hearne. “But there are two ways to listen: actively and passively. Only one of these is going to help you to become a better leader, a better communicator, and frankly, a better friend or significant other.”

boy listening ears
Boy pulls himself over the ears by Anelina

While most of us like to think of ourselves as good listeners, it turns out that very few of us are doing it well. In fact, it’s been suggested that the average person listens with only 25% efficiency. Research offers a number of interesting explanations for this, including our fondness for talking about ourselves, our tendency to interrupt and swap stories, and our inclination to go into “helper mode,” where we try to fix the speaker’s problems. Add to that our brain’s limited capacity for paying attention, and all the stimulation and technology that surround us, and it’s easy to see why listening can be such a challenge.

What separates someone as an exceptional listener, according to Hearne, is their ability to overcome these tendencies, tune out distractions, and give priority to the speaker. “People like to be listened to. It feels good, it limits misunderstandings, and it’s a shortcut to trust. All things we could use more of, especially in the business world. It also helps the listener in many ways, such as gaining a deeper understanding of business objectives or defusing tense situations.”

When we actively listen to someone, we give them our full attention — we show that we have respect for them and the information they’re sharing. We also do more than simply hear — we notice their body language and expressions, hear the intonations of their voice, and find it easier to understand the emotions behind their words.

Active listening workplace
Young group of people/architects discussing business plans by AstroStar

Hearne offers three tips for incorporating active listening into your everyday practices:

1. Be Aware

Recognize when you’re passively listening and keep it in check. You might be nodding and making great eye contact, but you might also be checking your cellphone, thinking about your to-do list, or perhaps most distractingly — planning your next response and waiting for the other person to stop speaking so you can start.

2. Try Doing Playbacks

Active listening makes you actively engage in the conversation — even when you’re not talking. “Playbacks” are mini-summaries that net out the essence of what you’ve just heard. They force you to really listen, and help you ensure that the other person feels heard. It’s not a word-for-word repeat, just a brief paraphrase to make sure you’re tracking.

Playbacks can start with lead-ins like:

  • “So it sounds like…”
  • “If I’m understanding you correctly…”
  • “What you’re saying is…”
  • “In other words…”

When you use a playback, you make it about the other person. You don’t steer the conversation — you give them permission to keep talking and to be the one in control. You also give them the chance to correct any misunderstandings so that you both walk away on the same page.

Active listening communication
People using different devices at one table by Pressmaster

3. Practice

Practice using playbacks as often as you can, whether you’re with friends, family, or colleagues, in person or remote. It will become second nature before you know it.

For example, playbacks can be used in business meetings to make sure everyone’s on the same page. They can help uncover a lot of information (ask any salesperson) and they can defuse difficult or emotional conversations. Often when people are upset or worked up, they just want to be listened to for a while.

At home, well, we’ll leave it to you. When you tell someone close to you about your day, chances are you’d rather they listened first, and chimed in with opinions and questions later. It’s all about giving someone your attention and being fully engaged in the moment.

And if you’re still not sold on the benefits of active listening, Hearne leaves you with a final thought: “Think of it this way — how much do you learn when you’re the one doing the talking? Exactly.”

Do you rate listening as the most important communication skill? And do have your own tips for engaging in active listening? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

In the meantime, you can read more about communication in the workplace below:

Ellie Hearne leads relationships for SNP. From helping entrepreneurs talk to investors to improving the executive presence of CEOs, she and her team work to make content persuasive and delivery unassailable. Follow her on Twitter @_ebh_, and learn more about SNP Communications at snpnet.com.

Top image: Woman gossip retro illustration, polka dots background by lavitrei.