When employees fail to listen to colleagues or customers, they risk screwing up deliverables or losing opportunities. Managers might be aware of their performance or output problems, but if they don’t see them in action or review an outcome that misses the mark, they might not peg poor listening as the culprit. L&D leaders are poised to improve listening skills across the organization and on their own team. They understand better than most leaders how to teach, practice, and measure this key soft skill whose absence can hinder careers and harm relationships.

Listening is a multifaceted skill that involves asking questions, summarizing points, exhibiting nonverbal behaviors, and inviting others into dialog. It fluctuates with power dynamics, topics, and other factors specific to a situation. An employee who listens well with their manager might overtalk, interrupt, or fail to take in important information while interacting with colleagues or clients.

Old habits die hard

Ineffective listening, like any habit, strengthens over time. Think of the person who over-explains or rehearses their next point instead of attending to the coworker who is speaking. These behaviors can escalate due to being distracted or emotionally charged. An attentive manager seeks to maximize the outcomes of their staff members’ meetings and interactions. One key way to getting there is by reducing poor listening and replacing it with more productive behaviors.

This process starts with a conversation with the person to establish an understanding of what the problem is and that you want to support their improvement. Managers can start by saying something like this:

I’d like us to work together on a skill that will serve you in this job and beyond: listening. How you listen to a coworker or a client makes a difference in your and our success. What’s your sense of how you listen and engage team members and clients?

This initial conversation offers a chance to model good listening, including letting the other person speak. You are asking questions to fill gaps and to uncover the roots and contexts of communication breakdowns. The goal is to learn more about your employee, including the extent of their self-awareness, and to gather material to write a conversational template. 

Partner to develop a template

Your L&D team can collaborate in creating a conversational template—a script to guide behavior. An employee might be aware of their problematic listening and welcome this type of scaffold, and even help create it. Once the template is set, the employee can use it to lead an internal meeting, a setting where structure matters. The template can be useful in helping other team members or employees in the organization improve their listening and communication skills as well.

Let’s break the initial template meeting into sections and create language that will help the employee practice new skills.

1. Start the meeting by inviting others in

Thanks for your time, let’s get started. I’m interested in what’s top of mind for all of you. Items to put on our agenda today?

(After each proposed item, say:) Thank you. Got it. What else?

(After all items have been collected:) Here are a few things I’d like to discuss…

This immediately validates the ideas of others and requires unskilled listeners to focus on collecting them before adding in their own.

2. Pass the first item to a teammate

Alex, you want to talk about our X systems integration. Can you start this one?

(Listener takes notes, demonstrates acknowledgment through nodding, smiling, and facial expressions.)

The developing listener is now practicing two behaviors—note-taking and nonverbal behaviors—that show they are listening. Note-taking also keeps their hands busy and captures information to inform how they will respond and, later, summarize and follow up. Nonverbal listening behaviors divert energy away from disrupting and interjecting while others speak.

3. Guide a conversation around the first agenda item

Thanks Alex. Does anyone have comments or questions?

(Wait five seconds. If some:) Any other comments or questions?

(Wait five seconds. When no further ones:) Great, let’s move on.

4. Respond to comments, summarize, and identify actions

This is moving nicely.

(Respond to Alex:) I know it was a challenge to get this far on the project. From our conversation, I have these as the main threads: (Short itemized recap.)

So here are the action items to follow up on: (State each action, person responsible, and deadline.) Does that sound okay?

(Scan the room for responses.) Before moving to the next agenda item, the listener is acknowledging contributions and summarizing the issues and action items. This step serves as an accountability check for the listener because it manifests how they have listened in the preceding minutes. Doing it after each item means more practice opportunities.

5. Proceed through the agenda using steps 2, 3, and 4; occasionally call on someone for input

Amaya, I think you worked on this deliverable. Anything you’d like to discuss—new ideas or risks to consider? (Wait five seconds for responses).

Team members of a long-time poor listener might be in the habit of disengaging or withholding ideas. Calling directly on someone can establish a responsive listening relationship. It may take time for people to register the listener’s improved behavior and respond to it.

6. At the end of the agenda, offer support

How can I help? (Wait five seconds.)

Asking this question at this point engenders more conversation, and stanches the end-of-meeting rush that sometimes suppresses conversation.

7. Share notes and actions from the conversation

Take a look at these notes. Anything I misstated or forgot? Something to change, add, or omit? (Wait five seconds.)

The listener shares the notes and action items, another accountability step that can lead to productive feedback in the moment.

8. Close the meeting and request feedback

I appreciate your participation. Please be in touch with anything I can do to help this team or to improve our interactions working together.

(Wait five seconds.) Thank you.

Soliciting feedback can help build a listener’s reputation. Likewise, following this template likely improves the odds of a positive outcome. Over time, the listener might receive positive comments from colleagues, beyond acknowledgment for how they ran the meeting.

9. Send a summary email

The employee sends all attendees the notes, action items, deadlines, and persons responsible for seeing them through. It’s a good time for an improving listener to restate their openness to hearing about how they can achieve more productive relations with co-workers.

Observe and deliver feedback

After the employee has led a meeting using the conversational template, there are three ways a manager can observe their performance, even if they were not in the meeting.

  1. Ask the employee to report on how using the template (the “script”) went. Then work together to refine it.
  2. Review the agenda and meeting notes.
  3. Review the summary email that outlines action items.

Through these performance artifacts, the manager can tell if the meeting was unidirectional or collaborative. The first meeting, or meetings, won’t be perfect, but with time there will be improvement. The increasingly skilled listener will be less reliant on the template as they form new habits. The manager will then be able to coach them toward similar success in other settings—client meetings, difficult conversations, everyday listening, and so forth.

After the employee has worked with the template in a few meetings and practiced on their own, the manager might sit in on a meeting or conversation to observe them and debrief afterward.

During the debriefing, point out the employee’s successes and use positive language to motivate the employee in their next steps.

Ask staff who previously reported a problem with the employee if they’ve noticed any changes. Encourage them to acknowledge noticeable differences to the listener as part of promoting a culture where listening and other forms of self-improvement are valued.