Technical Skill and Motivational Art
There are several ways to enhance listening effectiveness, especially in an
emotionally charged exchange. A fundamental technique is "Active
Listening" with its four components:
1) Clarifying. Asking the other party to provide more information, to
elaborate upon their statement or answer specific questions. Sometimes, a
clarification question also seeds an idea or suggestion,
2) Paraphrasing. Repeating the other's message in the person's words or
your own words, to affirm, "Message sent is message received,"
3) Reflecting Feelings. Inquiring about or acknowledging overt or
underlying feelings that are attached to the other party's communication; a
tentative or tactful approach is often best: "I know you are on board,
still it sounds like you have some frustration with the decision. Care to
discuss it?" Also, especially regarding the emotional component of
messages, both listening and looking for verbal and nonverbal cues - voice tone
and volume, facial and other bodily gestures, eye contact and physical distance
- will facilitate more accurate reflection. And,
4) Summarizing. Reviewing and pulling together such problem-solving
elements as mutual agreements, outstanding differences - factual as well as
emotional - action plans to be executed, time frames and follow-up.
Here's a scenario that illustrates the four "Active Listening" tasks in an
encounter between a supervisor and an employee. Only the supervisor's
words are provided verbatim.
On Tuesday late afternoon, Supervisor Pat invites relatively new and youthful
Employee Chris into her office. Pat had been expecting a status report by
Monday Close of Business Day. While usually reliable, Chris has been late
on occasion in completing tasks. The meeting begins with mutually pleasant
greetings and, then, Chris apologizes for not turning in the report by Monday
pm. Chris mentions that Supervisor Joe (in another department) pulled him
away for another project.
Pat: "Chris, did you inform Joe that you were working on a deadline
When Chris sheepishly says, "No," Pat asks in a straightforward manner, "Why
not?" After Chris shares not feeling he had the authority to turn down or
negotiate with Joe, Pat continues.
Pat: "Sounds like you believed you were caught in the middle of two work
Pat: "That position certainly can be awkward and feel frustrating.
And, of course, it's not uncommon for a new employee to be in this situation.
Were you left wondering, 'What should I do now?'" Chris non-verbally
Pat: "Chris, had you considered calling me or suggesting that Joe call me
before putting aside our work and taking on his project?"
Chris acknowledges having briefly considered this, but had assumed after talking
with Joe, that Joe's work would not require much time. Chris recognizes
that he miscalculated.
After affirming that a desire to be helpful is a good thing, Pat begins to reach
for closure, asking Chris what he's learned for the next time he's working on
deadline. Chris asserts his intention to both ask for guidance and to be
more selective when assisting others. Pat reaffirms the following key
Pat: "So when Joe or another supervisor asks you to take on a new project
when on a deadline:
1) assuming that the new project won't be a major distraction can be a problem,
2) our communicating about the request or having the supervisor or manager call
me is vital,
3) for any reason, when you know you'll be late on a deadline, give me a heads
up by the end of the day, and finally
4) with time, I believe you'll strike a good balance between being focused and
timely on our projects and being helpful with others.
Hopefully, this scenario brings to life these Four Active Listening-Questioning
Skills. One last point…don't expect the listening/questioning to always
unfold in the sequential order of Clarifying, Paraphrasing, Reflecting Feelings
and Summarizing. Though one good thing about the order is the acronym CPR
and S. These tools definitely can revive communications and relations that
are cycling towards cardiac arrest.
Active Listening: Science and Motivational Art
Yet effective listening is not just a technical skill. It is also an art
form and a motivational bridge for learning about team members, modeling being a
leader and, ultimately, sharing leadership with others. Here are three
listening and leadership concepts I strive to uphold in decision-making and
dealing with conflict:
** Demonstrating an understanding of people's positions and predicaments, pains
** Reducing, whenever possible, the obvious status and power differential
between yourself and other(s)
** Enabling people to accept gracefully their vulnerabilities, errors and
And, if I can recognize any humorous aspects or stimulate some laughs by poking
good-natured fun at myself, at my partner in conflict or, even, our power
struggle...so much the better. Let me illustrate through my work with a
small department of the Peace Corps. Tensions were increasing between a
new senior staffer and a veteran regarding qualifications and promotion issues.
And both were angry with the Director for her inability to resolve their
conflict. Almost everyone in the office was walking around on "ego
shells." Upon the recommendation of two staffers whom I had previously
trained, the group reluctantly agreed to hire me as a consultant.
The Director, herself, did some Organizational Development work. Her pride
was a bit wounded that an outside specialist was needed to tackle the in-house
conflicts. The Director had announced that she wouldn't stand in my way,
but she wasn't going out of her way to help me, either. (Not surprisingly,
the intractable interpersonal issues were taking a toll. She was pretty
burnt out.) Nonetheless, the Director was true to her word. She
didn't sabotage my interventions, which, gradually, started paying dividends.
One day, the Director acknowledged that laughter had returned to the halls.
She then invited me into her office for our first one-on-one discussion.
The Director immediately commented that I was "a really good listener."
This had not been an easy step for her, especially in light of the competitive
issues. I wanted the Director to know how "big" I felt her acknowledgment
was. I pounced on the "good listener" compliment. After thanking
her, I said, " You know, a high school French teacher helped me develop that
skill. This was when I was down on myself, my life, including school and
French class. The professor, Monsieur Gaston, during class unexpectedly
addressed me: 'Monsieur Gorkin, I don't understand the problem...You have
such intelligent looking ears.' So to achieve some balance between form
and function (and to prevent future public humiliation) I guess I developed my
listening skills." Well, the Director smiled broadly, then thanked me.
My personal anecdote had achieved the three aforementioned "listening and
leading" objectives. First, I empathically acknowledged my own history
with depressed moods and difficult periods. Second, using her compliment
to poke fun at myself made me a humble winner. And finally, by helping the
Director save face, she could accept my support and eventually return to her
rightful active leadership position.
In summary, by practicing "Active Listening" along with the "Art of Listening"
you just may transform listening into a dynamic process of learning, leading and
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, is an internationally recognized
speaker and syndicated writer on stress, anger management, reorganizational
change, team building and HUMOR! The Doc was recently featured on CBS TV's
Newspath segment -- Workplace Violence. He is America Online's "Online
Psychohumorist" ™ with a USA Today Online "HotSite" --
www.stressdoc.com. For more info, email email@example.com or