Future of Work Skill – Listening

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Welcome to the key skills series

Since March we have been forced to adapt our ways of working, and it’s no secret that people don’t want to simply go back to the old way of working and with that, we need to nurture and develop a new set of skills that are needed for the future of work.

In the next four weeks I will be sharing my thoughts on the top skills needed for the future of work and some tips on how to develop and implement these skills.


Listening has always been a fundamental skill but one I think more now than ever is so important. Although we are coming out of lockdown, the world as we knew is still upside down for a lot of us. People are working remotely, connections have been lost, and fear and anxiety is still prevalent.

We’re hearing more and more than companies like Atlassian, Google and Twitter, will allow their teams to work remotely indefinitely, with many companies following suit and developing a distributed workforce. This presents an opportunity to really develop skills that will be needed for this future way of working.

Without being in person and not everyone being in the same room, we really need to make a conscious effort to listen to what is being said and what is not being said as without that in person connection, it is hard to pick up on some of those body language cues that identify people’s reactions and how people are feeling.


NUMBER 1 – Ask yourself why is someone telling me this?

If we took a moment and asked ourselves this question, we can start to understand the person’s mindset and motivation. We’ve been told in the past that by repeating back what someone has said to you, it shows you have been listening. However, what this doesn’t show is your understanding of why you are being told this and what it means to the person telling you. Instead of paraphrasing what the person has said, a top tip is to try responding with ‘What I’m hearing is…’ or ‘It sounds to me like…’ to ensure you have understood correctly. This allows the speaker to confirm you have understood why they are telling you this. If you’re not entirely sure on something, probe a bit deeper and ask ‘What do you mean when you say…’ or ‘Is this what you mean…’.

Sometimes people aren’t entirely sure themselves of why they are telling you something but by listening and asking why, you can help each other to uncover the real meaning and issue to find better solutions and better connectivity by allowing the person to feel listened to and understood.

NUMBER 2 – Avoid assuming you know how the conversation is going to go

Thinking you already know how a conversation will go stifles the possibilities that can come out of conversations. Trying to control the conversation and grabbing the narrative makes for one-sided conversations and kills collaboration, mutual understanding and appreciation, so it is best to go into a conversation with genuine curiosity about what the person is saying.

Take yourself back to a situation when someone has said to you, ‘can we have a chat?’. Our minds go into overdrive, we start playing out scenarios, plan what we will say in response. But by doing this, we are hindering the possibilities of the conversation; we are listening out for what we think is going to be said, armed ready with our response and can miss the opportunity to listen to identify the real issue.

A top tip here is to go into the meeting genuinely curious. Say to yourself ‘I’m intrigued to find out what this person would like to talk about’. And if you don’t know how to respond in that moment, that is okay. Use the clarifying questions below to gain the information you need, take a few seconds before you respond and understand it is okay to say ‘I’d like to think about that some more’ – you are honouring what that person has said by taking time to think properly.

NUMBER 3 –  Ask open ended questions

A common problem with questioning is that we tend to ask questions that can lead to us getting the answer we are looking for, trip someone up or aiding confirmation bias (where we search for information that confirms or supports our beliefs or ideas). If we ask clarifying, open ended questions, we gain a better understanding of what is going on and allows us to find solutions to the real issues. This is especially important in a time where we are still trying to adapt and learn to navigate this new world of work.

Asking open ended questions with genuine interest and curious can avoid the recipient feeling as though they are being interrogated, which can bring out defensiveness and it is far more useful to listen to how people came to their conclusions and understand what you can learn from them.

A top tip is to use open ended questions to gain a better understanding, instead of closed questions which have a yes/no answer. Another top tip is to try and avoid using questions that start with Why as it can make the recipient defensive and feel attacked.

Here are some examples of open-ended questions you can ask

* Closed Questions Open Ended Questions
Begins with Do Does Did Is Are Would What How
Answers sound like Yes/No One word I don’t know Story-like Invite more clarifying questions Unscripted

*Source – Ask Powerful Questions, Will Wise & Chad Littlefield

NUMBER 4 – Avoid distractions and pay attention to the person speaking

This seems like an obvious one, but it is so crucial for connection when working remotely. It is so easy to multi-task when on video calls, responding to an email, checking Slack etc. And whilst we think we are listening; our brains can’t give 100% attention to both at the same time and we can miss important parts of the conversation. A top tip here is to shut down your email, Slack etc. whilst on calls so you can pay full attention to what the speaker is saying. Simple, yet effective!

Not only is it distracting for the speaker, we also miss part of the conversation, even if for a few seconds, and subconsciously fill in the gaps as we return to the conversation. Instead of admitting that you are lost, we complete what we THINK was said. A top tip here is to acknowledge you missed part of the conversation and ask the speaker to repeat what they had said. Again, simple but avoids any misunderstanding or miscommunication.

NUMBER 5 – Learn something about the person you are speaking to

According to a widely circulated story, Dick Bass, who had travelled many places and had many adventures including being the first person to climb the highest peaks on each of the seven continents, was on a flight when he started speaking to the person next to him. The person listened to Bass tell the stories of his adventures about how he climbed Everest, how he nearly died in the Himalayas and his future adventuring plans. Just as the plane landed, Bass realized he hadn’t asked the person anything about himself including his job or even his name. The person next to him shook his hand and responded with ‘Hi, I’m Neil Armstrong. Nice to meet you’.

Can you imagine!? When we only focus on ourselves, we miss so many opportunities to learn about others; especially in a time when we are working remotely, and we miss those random office chats that offer up information and learning about one another. A top tip here is when you go into a meeting, have a conversation etc. set yourself a goal to learn something about the person you are speaking to. When you leave a conversation ask yourself – what did I learn about that person? What was most concerning to that person today? How did that person feel about what we were talking about?

NUMBER 6 – Get multiple perspectives

We have a natural tendency is to tune into what we find interesting or important, but this can lead to misunderstanding of priorities. Something that might not be important to you, could be important to someone else. By having a combination of different interpretations of what was said, it allows a more rounded picture of information. A top tip is to have multiple people in a meeting take notes and then compare notes and actions afterwards to define the correct priorities. 

NUMBER 7 – Avoid interrupting or finishing someone’s sentences

Sometimes this can come with good intentions, we can jump in and say ‘me too, when I did….’ because we want to create a connection with shared experiences and show empathy, however, what this actually does is interrupts the person and can detract them from what they are saying or what they meant to say. A top tip is to wait until that person has finished and instead use the questions we mentioned before ‘What I’m hearing is…’ to create the connection. Connection does come from shared experiences and a way to do this could be to ask ‘Can I tell you my similar experience of this…’        

However, interrupting can be because someone just wants to dominate the conversation and have their voice heard. To avoid doing this yourself, you have to dig into your self-awareness and notice how often you do this or the situations you do this in and understand why you do this. A top tip is to find someone you trust to hold you accountable for this and get them to let you know the situations you might have done this following a call or a meeting.

NUMBER 8 – (A bonus tip because I don’t like leaving things on odd numbers), is challenge yourself to listen to someone with a differing opinion to yours.

Whether it is a podcast, an interview or in person, practice listening without judgement to that person and practice understanding where their beliefs come from. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but it helps you understand where that person is coming from and allow for better compromise, negotiation and understanding.

And if you need more tips on active listening, this clip from Everybody Loves Raymond perfectly explains it: