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July 13, 2020 4 min read

Would it be a surprise to you to learn that most athletes have a key skill that has nothing to do with their ab muscles? It’s a skill that works well with receiving constructive feedback and comes down to listening. Not just any listening either; we’re talking about active listening. Those coaches on the sidelines need to deliver advice fast, and their players need to cut through the adrenaline, distraction, and noise to listen well and follow through on the field, or court (pick your sport). When it comes to receiving constructive feedback in a workplace environment, luckily for you there won’t be that much physical commotion, but the pressure is just as high. With Steve Joordens’ help, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, and Sheldon Rodrigues, VP of Marketing & Strategic Initiatives at the CMA, learn how to develop your active listening skills to achieve growth and better decision making.

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Passive versus Active Listening

Do you have that one friend who is just a great listener? You go to them for everything because no one listens quite the way they do. They’re empathetic, they validate your feelings, and they offer advice at the prime moment. Not like that other friend of yours that just interrupts you or changes the subject. You’ve made that mistake before, and that’s why you don’t bother to go to them with your problems or successes. Does it seem like they even care?

Two businesswomen having a discussion in the cityThat’s the difference between active and passive listening. Passive listening is that one friend who only seems to be half-listening to you, and not reacting to what you’re saying. Now, passive listening isn’t necessarily a bad reaction to receiving constructive feedback. You’re in a passive state, and just taking in the information of what’s being said to you. You might even be thinking of action items you could do after the conversation ends. But your boss doesn’t know any of what’s going on inside your head. Like our friend Steve says, just because we live in a multitasking work environment, doesn’t mean we should stay in that mindset especially when getting constructive feedback. To truly understand the feedback you’ve been given, you need to switch to active listening mode. That means a laser focus on not just what’s being said but understanding the why behind it.

And that's the kind of listening we want you to do where you focus on the information that's being said and try to get to the meaning of what's that all about. — Steve Joordens

Active Listening Techniques

So what does active listening look like in practice? Is it just nodding and mumbling through your constructive feedback session? That’s where you’re wrong. Shake off those bad habits, and get practicing with these techniques for active listening:

Don’t Interrupt

Two young professionals sitting at table looking up and listening. When receiving feedback, Steve explains that you’re going to enter the fight or flight mode. An emotional response where one, you’ll become defensive and want to explain yourself. So, you interrupt. Or two, the other end of the spectrum, flight mode which leads to passive listening. You’re thinking of how to get away from the situation rather than listening in that moment. Steve advises that you acknowledge and own these emotions and put them aside to actively listen. By doing this, it’ll become a habit of your mind, cancelling out that other habit of jumping to that emotional state. 

 Quote: By actively listening, you make the other person feel relaxed and heard. It becomes a conversation, and not an argument.Summarize, Don’t Repeat
Next, after listening to what’s been said without interrupting, you’ll want to summarize what’s been said to you. Say it in your own words rather than repeating it. (You’re not a parrot!). By doing this, you’re laying out what you’ve picked up from the feedback and sharing your perspective. Plus, your manager will appreciate you listening to what they’ve said.

Ask for Clarity
Once you’ve summarized your take of the feedback, end with questions for clarity. If there are next steps for you to do, here’s a good spot to ask for clarification on that. Remember, your boss isn’t a mind reader, and neither are you. Sometimes miscommunication happens because we all assume different meanings of a concept even if we are speaking the same language. Ask away for clarity.

Better Understanding, Better Decisions

So how do all these techniques for active listening come into play with decision making? That’s where Sheldon brings in his expertise and explains that with successful active listening, you’ve switched on a part of your mind, what’s called the reticular activation system. It’s the part of the brain that helps you stay focused and questions the information you’re receiving. You’re processing the feedback you’ve been given and your mind is whirring like an engine, ready to take action. Sounds a lot like decision making, doesn’t it?

Outside basketball net against clear blue sky. Keep in mind that receiving constructive feedback isn’t just about your own improvement, it’s also about showing that you care about your team’s goals and initiatives. By moving forward on decisions, you exhibit the marks of a person who is willing to learn and wants to achieve for the team. Your manager will see that you have the potential to grow not just in this role, but others, including promotions. And it all came down to, truly, listening to constructive feedback.

Listening Pays Off

If we haven’t influenced you on the perks of active listening, then it could be you’re in passive listening mode soaking in all this great information. Flip the switch and get in the habit of practicing some active listening techniques with your family, friends, and colleagues. That way, when constructive feedback comes knocking on your door, you’ll be ready. You’ll show you’re coachable, and the one to watch out for – no one will know what to expect from you!

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