Are you using the most effective listening skills at work?

Nicole Lowenbraun

Written by

Nicole Lowenbraun

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
— Epictetus

“The quieter you become, the more you can hear.”
– Ram Dass

“Listen more than you talk. Nobody learned anything by hearing themselves speak.”
– Richard Branson

Most of us are familiar with these kinds of sayings. They teach us that, to demonstrate effective listening, you simply need to avoid speaking. Remain silent, nod your head, make eye contact, don’t interrupt, and voila! You’re equipped with the listening skills you need to be successful.

These quotes resonate with us because they confirm what we were taught as children in our earliest school days. Effective listening = paying attention. And many of us have carried that philosophy with us into adulthood. One way this is showing up in the workplace is through a big push for active listening — a strategy with countless models and sources, largely centered around maintaining attention and paraphrasing what you’ve heard.

Sure, those are good things to do, but paying attention is the bare minimum. As we were taught, paying attention, even actively listening, makes you a decent person, but those are not the only listening skills you need in the workplace.


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Effective listening strategies

Being an effective listener means listening in a way that meets the goals and needs of the person speaking to you. In most cases, that involves a lot more than nodding your head and making eye contact. It takes critical analysis and observation to figure out what your communication partner needs. But you can build more effective listening skills by implementing Adaptive Listening™ – a better way to listen at work.

Adaptive Listening is for those wanting to improve the way they, and their teams, communicate up, down, across, internally, and externally. The model teaches listeners how to process and respond in a way that meets the speaker’s goals during an interaction. Adaptive Listening requires you to ask yourself this fundamental question:

“What does the person speaking need from me?”

This is something most listeners simply don’t do. Instead, we tend to focus on, “What’s in it for me?” or “What’s the speaker going to say that could impact my job?” We rarely, if ever, think about what we can give the speaker when we’re listening.

Adaptive Listeners™ are different. They ask themselves what the speaker needs and then deliver on those goals. By doing so, they can expect better outcomes, too. The benefits of effective listening in the workplace are numerous. Effective listening can:

… just to name a few. How can you achieve these effective listening benefits? Become an Adaptive Listener! By doing so, you’ll be able to determine one, or a few, of the following goals the speaker needs your help to achieve …


Effective Adaptive Listening strategies

In the workplace, speakers either want you to:

  • Listen to Support™
  • Listen to Advance™
  • Listen to Immerse™
  • Listen to Discern™



These goals are easy to remember because they form the acronym S.A.I.D.™ After all, effective listening requires you to listen to what the speaker has said (and even what they haven’t said). Let’s break each one down …

1. Support Listening™ skills

Everyone experiences challenging workdays. But we also enjoy moments of celebration at work. While on opposite spectrums, both situations lead to a desire for human connection. We want comfort when things are rough, and we want congratulations and celebration when things are going great. Effective Support Listening skills require you to acknowledge and mirror the speaker’s feelings.

If they say something like, “I’m having a horrible day,” or “I have the best news!” that’s your cue that the person speaking needs your Support Listening skills. In this case, your job is to respond with words and actions that will validate the speaker’s emotions, whether that’s to commiserate with them or celebrate with them. Your job is to either be the confidant or the cheerleader, depending on the context and situation.

2. Advance Listening™ skills

When the people we work with are overwhelmed or pressed for time, they’re often looking for someone to unburden them or lighten their load. Being an effective listener in this case means listening in a way that will move people, projects, and processes to the next step.

If the person speaking says something like, “I don’t think I’ll have time to finish all of this,” or “I don’t know how I’m going to keep this project moving,” that’s a sign they need your Advance Listening skills. You might take on some of that work yourself by saying, “I can take some of this off your plate,” or you might choose to delegate tasks to help the speaker get to the finish line.

3. Immerse Listening™ skills

There are many workplace situations in which the speaker needs you to absorb the material they’re delivering without comment or judgement. When the speaker’s message is meant to inform or simply entertain, being an effective listener means learning the information and soaking it all in.

If the person speaking says something like, “I’m here to give you an update today,” or “Sit back and enjoy!” that’s your cue that they need your Immerse Listening skills. In this case, your job is to take notes or mentally catalogue the information you’re hearing. You might ask clarifying questions or confirm what you’ve heard for the purposes of understanding, but your main goal is to be a content sponge.

4. Discern Listening™ skills

We all need judgement and critique at some point in our work world. The workplace requires critical thinking, especially when evaluation is needed on presentations, projects, processes, even people! Without it, costly, even dangerous mistakes, might go unnoticed or unchecked. When the people you work with need you to evaluate information or identify potential risks and rewards, they need your Discern Listening skills.

Being an effective listener in this case means you need to consider the strengths and weaknesses of their situation or project. Your job is to help the speaker find red flags and pinpoint positives. If they say something like, “I need some feedback on this,” or “I’m not sure if this makes sense,” that’s your cue to be a Discern Listener. Respond with words and actions that will help the speaker identify what’s working and what’s not.


Adaptive Listening is a skill you can learn

Each of these four S.A.I.D. Listening Goals™ (Support, Advance, Immerse, and Discern) puts empathy at the heart of your listening skills, because it encourages you to truly understand what the other person needs. This model for effective listening paints a very different picture from that of the listener who simply pays attention.

You might be wondering, “How do I know which of these effective listening strategies is needed when? And with whom?” It can be tricky to determine how and when to adapt your listening skills to meet the needs of the person speaking. Don’t worry, there’s a book for that!

Researched and tested exclusively in the work setting, the book Adaptive Listening helps readers up-level their listening skills in a way that moves beyond active listening. Whether listening to:

  • Direct reports
  • Peers
  • Managers
  • Customers
  • Or stakeholders

Pre-order our book today. It includes effective and easy-to-remember techniques that reduce ambiguity and tension amidst the realities of a hectic workday.

After all, our work lives are dynamic. Speakers need different things at different times, and it’s not always easy to figure out what their goals are. But if you start by asking yourself, “What does the person speaking need from me?” you’ll be well on your way to dramatically improving your listening skills.


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About the authors

Nicole Lowenbraun, M.S., CCC-SLP
Nicole is a communication nerd who uses her unique speech-language pathology background – and decades of business acumen – to help clients excel in speaking, writing, and listening. With a Master’s in Communication Disorders, Nicole is passionate about fostering more inclusive communication in the workplace. She’s a Content Director at Duarte, Inc. and the proud co-creator of Adaptive Listening™ – the new gold standard for listening in the workplace.

Maegan Stephens, Ph.D.
Maegan started earning her “10,000 hours” back when she was a competitive public-speaker in high school and college (yes, that’s a thing). From there, she sharpened her research skills with a PhD in Communication Studies from The University of Texas at Austin. She is the co-creator of the Adaptive Listening™ methodology and currently leads a team of Duarte, Inc. strategists, writers, and speaker coaches to transform the way people communicate.

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