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The value of non-judgemental listening in the workplace


“Listening is a positive act:

you have to put yourself out to do it.”

David Hockney

Listen …

We live in a time-deprived society where a screen is never far away and email together with social media has led face-to-face communication to be diminished, along with our attention spans.

However, we ignore the power of listening at our peril.  Effective listening brings many benefits to our relationships and leads to fewer errors and less time being wasted.  It can also solve problems, improve our ability to negotiate and help avoid conflict. Perhaps most importantly, non-judgemental listening builds relationships and facilitates communication.  This is true to life both within the workplace and outside it.

And yet, studies confirm that we are not very good at listening and only remember between 25-50% of what we hear.  Turn that around, and it’s worth remembering that whoever you are speaking to will only retain a quarter to a half of what you say!

As Stephen Covey states, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. When those replies take the form of a random question, the conversation can quite often go off at a tangent, sometimes never returning to the original topic and important messages thus being lost.


Listening for the message and not just hearing the words

Anyone who’s ever tried an active listening exercise will tell you not only how much self-awareness they gained by listening to the whole message being communicated, rather than just hearing the words spoken, but also how incredibly difficult it was to listen and not interrupt.  Effective listening doesn’t come naturally but, like so many skills, it gets easier with practice and the benefits far outweigh the initial unease.

Non-verbal communication plays a large part in our dialogues and the words that are spoken only represent a small part of the whole message.  Much of the message will be lost if the listener is not paying full attention to the speaker.

One of the most widely quoted models for the effectiveness of spoken communication is that by Professor Mehrabian.  His formula is often misquoted to cover non-verbal communication per se.  However, the Mehrabian formula only applies to communication concerning feelings and attitudes.  In such conversations it’s worth remembering:

  • 7% of a message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken
  • 38% of a message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way the words are said).
  • 55% of a message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression.


Creating the right environment

How do you feel when you’re trying to talk to someone, and you know they’re not listening?  It’s frustrating, hurtful and not conducive to you continuing.  So, the first thing to do is to create a safe environment for a conversation to take place, which may mean finding a quiet place or by at least turning away from electronic distractions, noise and interruptions.

A non-verbal communication tool that has been used since the 1970’s is the acronym SOLER.  It was introduced by Gerard Egan in his book, “The Skilled Helper” as a micro skill and a way the listener can be ‘physically present’ with the speaker.

S – squarely. Sit (or stand if they prefer) opposite the speaker or with a slight angle between if you prefer.
O – open posture. One where no arms or legs are crossed.
L – lean towards the other. This is to show interest in what is being said.
E – eye contact. Maintain good eye contact but don’t stare the speaker out.
R – relax. Don’t fidget or demonstrate nervousness.


5 tips for non-judgemental dialogues

Once the right environment has been created, here are 5 tips to help with the ensuing conversation:

  1. Show that you’re listening by nodding, smiling, making short affirming comments
  2. Don’t interrupt the speaker but wait until they have finished a point or ended their story before clarifying your understanding.
  3. At such a pause, you may need to ask questions to confirm you understand what the speaker has said. This may be to clarify your understanding “Do you mean …” or to summarise by paraphrasing and reflecting back what they have said “What I’m hearing is …” or “It sounds like what you are saying is …
  4. Show empathy, put yourself in the shoes of the speaker and their situation. Pay attention to the whole message, the words that are being spoken as well as the non-verbal cues such as their posture and facial expressions.
  5. Respond non-judgementally. The purpose of active listening is to allow the speaker to express their thoughts and feelings, increasing trust and respect. If you mentally judge them, you’ve conceded your ability to be an effective listener.


A final thought

The importance of non-judgemental listening, together with relevant exercises, are included in many of our courses.  As specialist mental health in the workplace trainer, Christine Clark, advises:

“Listening to a person’s story is fine
but it’s so important to hear the meaning. 

We all have our own judgements and perspectives on things
but to truly listen we have to park these judgements
and hear their story.”


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