How Active Listening Can Help Employee Engagement

Listening isn’t as natural as some people think. It is a conscious decision with strong implications in the workplace.

A study shows that people spend 55% of their day listening. However, we listen in varying degrees, absorbing only 17%-25% of the things we listen to.

Audiologist Jonathan Javid says that we are either active or passive listeners, depending on the amount of attention we give to the person we are engaged with and the amount of effort we put in understanding what the other is saying.

We are active listeners when we focus on the speaker’s words and give feedback, asking if we got the other person’s message right. Meanwhile, passive listening is simply hearing the other person without giving full attention and feedback.

Poor Listening Habits

Clinical psychologist Matthew McKay in his book Messages: The Communications Skills Book gives several habits of a bad listener:

Mind Reading and Judging

Mind reading is making assumptions about the other person’s thoughts and feelings. We make conclusions without asking questions. Closely related to mind reading is judging, wherein we’ve passed judgment as to what kind of person the speaker is.

Making assumptions can lead to defensive listening, wherein we view innocent comments as criticism or a personal attack. To avoid misinterpreting comments, we keep our conceptions in check then ask ourselves: “Am I defending my thoughts too quickly?”


Filtering is also called selective hearing/listening and gap filling. When we filter, we pay attention to just some parts of the message and ignore others that we don’t want to hear.

Normally, people listen to just the interesting portions of a message and assume they know the rest of it.


Rehearsing happens when we already start forming an argument in our heads while the other person is still talking. Conflict management specialist Tammy Lenski also calls this “listening with our answer running.”

We are unable to hear the entirety of the other person’s message when we are internally practicing what we’re going to say next and how we’re going to say it.


We also can’t listen well and don’t add value to conversations when we are in the argumentative or debating mode. Debating in this context is a kind of selective listening where we listen intently for points we can disagree with then counter or vent out criticism.


Often times, showing that we understand what is being said is more important than any advice we can offer. But we miss this opportunity when we jump in and offer a solution before the person we are talking with lays out all of the details of the situation.


Placating or responding in ways to pacify others might make them think we actually don’t understand the seriousness of their circumstance. We might come across as uncaring when we say things like “Yes, you’re right” and not show effort to really comprehend the other person.


We derail when we change the subject of the conversation, whether to bring the focus back to the things we want to discuss or because we don’t want to talk about the topic the other person is discussing.


We will miss out on details if we allow ourselves to be distracted and drift to other thoughts.

Quite related to daydreaming is “pseudolistening,” when we try to look attentive, but truthfully, our mind is on something else.

Employees Value Active Listening

Sideways6’s maiden “State of Employee Ideas” global report last year showed that 34% of employees feel that their bosses don’t listen to their ideas. Meanwhile, 18% decide not to share their ideas at all due to their fear of speaking up.

Various experts tell us why listening makes a difference in the workplace:

1. It is the foundation of employee trust and strong relationships.

The Anxiety Workbook author Arlin Cuncic says that active listening is recognizing that the conversation is more about our partner than about ourselves. People are more likely to confide in us when they can speak without interruptions and judgment.

2. It resolves problems and conflicts.

Conflicts usually happen because we don’t see things from the other person’s point of view. Putting our sense of self-righteousness aside helps us recognize another’s perspective and later appreciate and respect that person.

Paul Crosby from business analyst training provider The Uncommon League said that by openly receiving information from others without judgment or interference, we are able to gather various information that might help us arrive at a solution if our advice or actual help is needed.

Sideways6’s report also showed that 80% of employees have ideas about how to improve their organizations but only half of the employers chose to acknowledge and use those ideas.

3. It minimizes “do-overs.”

Crosby says that active listening makes it easy for people to seek clarification about tasks and voice any concerns they have about a project or idea.

As a result, there are fewer misunderstandings, “do-overs” or repeating work due to errors, and even potential disaster prevention.

4. It increases employee productivity and reduces employee turnover rates.

Based on Salesforce’s “The Impact of Equality and Values-Driven Business” report last year, employees are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to work at their optimum levels when they feel that they are heard by their companies or superiors.

The employees’ sense of belonging is ignited when they feel listened to. This kind of recognition is deemed by 59% of workers as the single biggest contributor to belongingness, according to LinkedIn’s Inside the Mind of Today’s Candidate report in 2017.

How to Cultivate an Active Listening Culture

Clinical psychologist Natalie Baumgartner recommends several steps so that active listening becomes a priority in your workplace:

Develop active listening skills.

Active listening starts with you. The Center for Creative Leadership says that “Big 6” of Active Listening are:

  1. Paying attention,
  2. Withholding judgment,
  3. Reflecting/paraphrasing the other person’s key points,
  4. Clarifying, summarizing,
  5. Sharing your ideas, feelings, or suggestions.

Find and create opportunities to listen to your team.

Use a variety of communication methods. You may want to schedule 10 to 15-minute individual meetings apart from the bigger open forum meetings so introverts can speak up.

Because you can’t be everywhere at once to listen to everyone, you can also use communication tools like social media networks and performance review software, as well as feedback and survey platforms.

Rob Catalano, co-founder of employee engagement website Work Tango, said that companies are shifting to the more frequent “active listening model” of engagement to know what employees are thinking regarding current happenings in the workplace or any organizational change.

Under this model, “pulsing” the workforce can happen weekly instead of just quarterly or annually.

Evaluate feedback and take action on their insights.

Baumgartner says that you don’t have to act on every suggestion, but try to see how your employees’ worthy ideas can be translated into action.

Then be sure to thank them for their feedback. Use communication tools to inform them of any actions done in response to their suggestions so your staff will know that their ideas were heard even if immediate changes aren’t possible.

Active listening can be learned and developed through effort and practice. Proficient listening can improve communication throughout the organization, improving happiness at work, employee engagement, employee productivity, and employee retention.