How Your Listening Skills Can Make Your Employees Better Problem Solvers

Simply by improving your listening skills, you become a better problem solver.

Simply by improving your listening skills, you become a better problem solver.

Your actions directly affect employee behavior and productivity. If your team members need you too much, never solve their own problems and won’t speak up, you might actually be largely to blame.

And there’s one element of your behavior — listening — that makes an enormous impact. Simply by improving your listening skills, the people that report to you can become better problem solvers and more effective at their jobs.

Understanding Active Listening

When we encourage leaders to listen to their employees, we are focusing on a specific type of listening strategy. Active listening is more advanced than passive listening and carries myriad benefits to your team, company and leadership skills.

Active listening requires the listener to fully concentrate on what is being said, Dom Barnard, founder of VirtualSpeech, explains. It requires the listener to make a conscious effort to understand what is going on instead of passively hearing what is being said.

“Listening is not something that just happens; listening is an active process in which a conscious decision is made to listen to and understand the messages of the speaker,” he writes.    

There are a number of ways you can improve your listening skills and practice active listening, healthcare writer Arlin Cuncic says, with small steps you can work on over time to improve your listening ability. A few of her recommendations include:

  • Listen to the end what someone has to say before coming up with your own thoughts — their last few words could change the meaning of the sentence.
  • Ask questions and paraphrase what someone says to make sure you understand.
  • Be patient. Listening isn’t a race to give your opinion the moment the other person is done talking.

Some of these tips are easier said than done for leaders. While you may not interrupt, you could be guilty of not paying attention or hoping the other person finishes their story quickly.

A popular trend that employers are testing to improve their listening active skills is setting a talk-to-listen ratio.

A popular trend that employers are testing to improve their listening active skills is setting a talk-to-listen ratio.

Setting a Talk-to-Listen Ratio

A popular trend that employers are testing to improve their listening active skills is setting a talk-to-listen ratio. This means measuring the amount of time spent talking compared to hearing what others have to say.

In a study of more than 25,000 calls, the “highest-yielding B2B sales conversations” had a 43:57 talk-to-listen ratio, marketing expert Chris Orlob at Sales Hacker writes. The more a salesperson talked during their pitch, the less effective it was. The bottom 20 percent of closers talked for an average of 65 percent of the conversation.

Good listening doesn’t mean limiting yourself to only asking questions, but it does mean you have to develop a healthy give-and-take with the person you are talking to.

Each person has their own talk-to-listen comfort levels, CEO coach John Millen writes. Extroverts tend to talk more while introverts listen and absorb what is being said. However, they have one thing in common: they need to feel heard. Just because an introvert takes a few minutes to speak up doesn’t mean what they say isn’t important.

A leader can adapt their communication style to meet the needs of the people they talk to and make them feel more comfortable.  

Making Listening a Physical Activity

One of the easiest ways you can practice active listening is by physically focusing on the person in front of you as well, Krista Brubaker at BizLibrary says.

Face the person, make a healthy amount of eye contact, and remove distractions like your computer or phone. People know when they are losing your attention, or never had it to begin with, and will shut down or gloss over what they want to say. This leaves you without a complete understanding of the problem and an employee who feels ignored.

Listening well allows you to problem solve more effectively.

Listening well allows you to problem solve more effectively.

How Listening Improves Problem Solving

While active listening can make your employees trust and respect you more, it can also change how the company operates. Your team members are more likely to solve problems themselves, or come to you with suggestions instead of just problems.

Your Employees Already Have Ideas to Solve Problems

In the 2018 State of Employee Ideas report by Sideways6, you can see exactly why employees feel frustrated when they are ignored. Out of more than 1,000 responses, a full one-third of employees felt like their ideas were ignored. More than 80 percent say they have ideas to improve their workplace, but half report that their employers fail to act.

Management often gets in the way. Many of the respondents said they don’t even voice their ideas because the company only cares what senior managers have to say.  

“If you listen properly, you often realise that people do want to be involved in fixing the issues they raise,” employee engagement consultant Frazer Rendell explains. “They probably already have the solution.”

If your employees feel heard, they will speak up and try to solve problems. If they feel ignored, they will keep their ideas to themselves and wait for you to tell them what to do.

Listening Provides You With Creative Ideas In the Future

Art Markman, Ph.D., author of Smart Thinking, dove into the science of creative problem solving to explain why better listening today means better solutions tomorrow.

When you are given a cue, your brain retrieves all of the information related to it. He uses the example of a salad, which conjures up visions of lettuce, dressings, and tomatoes. The same concept happens when the cue is related to a problem in your business. All of the information related to a project or issue travels to the forefront of your mind, including past solutions and risks.

Ultimately, how you define a problem through your memory determines how — or even if — you solve it. By paying attention to the information fed to you as a leader, you will have a better dataset of information to review before proposing a solution.   

To take this abstract concept and put it into action, business consultant Robert Tanner suggests addressing one question each time an issue arises: “Who have I sought out to question and listen for their input on how to solve this problem?” If the answer is no one, then you’re not tapping into the vast sources of information available to you and you’re not giving your employees chances to lead and feel heard.

Listen Reduces Conflict

Listening has significant psychological benefits for employers and employees. It promotes trust, life coach Caren Osten at Psychology Today writes, meaning your employees will feel like they can come to you for problems or will have your support when they need to solve them.

Plus, listening and sharing stories helps build emotional connections and empathy, reducing conflict or at least allowing people to approach conflict in a healthy manner. Listening is essential if you want to connect with your employees and really motivate them. The best leaders try to really connect with their team members and form emotional bonds.

“Each one of your employees has different beliefs, skills, motivations, and lived experiences,” Alida Miranda-Wolff, cofounder of talent strategy firm Ethos, writes. “To make them feel understood, you must communicate with them on a truly individual level.”

The more you listen to your team, the more you can learn to tailor your approach when working with people.  

There are a lot more benefits to listening well.

There are a lot more benefits to listening well.

Additional Benefits of Effective Listening

Along with improved problem solving, you are likely to notice other benefits to incorporating active listening in the workplace. These will range from small benefits (like fewer disagreements) to significant improvements.

Reduced “Do-Over” Work

Strategic listening can grow your business as your employees make sure they deliver the work you want.

Financial expert Elle Kaplan says when employees feel like they are heard, they are more likely to voice concerns about a project or idea — potentially preventing a disaster. They also feel more comfortable asking questions and seeking clarification, leading to fewer misunderstandings and costly “do-over” work.

This is tangible and measurable in your company. Look for reductions in errors and rework to see how much your company is benefiting just by listening.

Better Client Relations

Highly-developed listening skills can also benefit your external communication and client relations, Kristina Udice at workplace review company, Fairygodboss, explains.

Not only will your clients require fewer changes because you understand them better, they will also feel like you really know what they want and care about their needs. Listening and trust-building are hard skills to hire for and even harder to train, making your client relations and sales teams invaluable to your business.

Lower Turnover Rates

Being able to express opinions in a way that feels heard is one of the top ways employees develop a sense of belonging in an organization.

Nearly 60 percent of employees feel like they belong when they are recognized for their accomplishments, according to LinkedIn’s Inside the Mind of Today’s Candidate report, Maxwell Huppert writes. Furthermore, 50 percent of respondents value the ability to share their opinions and feel like their thoughts are heard.

By listening to team members, you’re creating a sense of belonging and loyalty to the company.

Increased Safety

Improved listening skills can even increase workplace safety. Mike Hart at supply-chain management firm, Verst Logistics, says listening makes it easier for managers to tell the difference between healthy discussion and unhealthy arguments. It also changes how you gather information and respond to problems.

If there are issues in the workplace, you may react differently after listening to all available details than if you only hear the first bit and make a decision from there.  

By being a better listener, your employees feel more comfortable sharing ideas, taking risks and solving problems. This will also make you a better problem solver and more in-tune with their needs. Take a few steps today to become an active listener and see how your team reacts to the change.

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