Effective Listening in Small Groups
It's no secret that meetings are a way of life in the workplace. The reason we have so many meetings is because we think collaboration is the most effective way to accomplish a complicated task. In theory this is right. Yet these gatherings of work groups, task forces, committees, and other groups present a thorny problem. While they can be very effective, most are boring, lengthy, unfocused, and characterized by poor communication between the participants. More often than not a meeting will end with a lack of resolve, which of course prompts the scheduling of yet another meeting. It's not long before workers feel imprisoned by meeting mania. Maybe you can relate.
Do inept groups result from poor group leadership? Sometimes. But productive, focused, and solution-oriented small groups need more than good leaders. They need participants who are effective at listening to one another in ways that help clarify a topic, keep the discussion on track, consider the whole idea, and resist judgment.
Effective listening in small groups requires several learned skills. These can best be understood by seeing both the potential pitfalls and the desired behavior side-by-side. They include:
- Pseudo-listening vs. Active listening
- Sidetracking vs. Focused listening
- Premature replies vs. Context listening
Pseudo-listening vs. Active Listening
Pseudo-listeners pretend to listen, but are really someplace else mentally. You may nod at the appropriate time, look the speaker in the eye, or respond on cue. But behind the mask they are daydreaming, solving a personal problem, or forming a response to what is being said. A pseudo-listener cannot contribute to the group process in an effective way because he is not carefully listening to what is going on in the group.
In contrast, active listening requires full attention. It's involves directing all of your mental and emotional energy to understand what someone is saying. One excellent way to stay engaged is to verbally rephrase main points as your first response. Not only do you stay tuned in to the content, it also communicates to the person speaking that you value their comments enough to understand them. Paraphrased summaries also clarify important points for you, the speaker, and those in the group. Active listening is the single best way to move a group forward in a timely and purposeful way.
A recent situation that occurred in a college course on group communication that I teach provides a good example of active listening. A student was explaining to a small group of peers how he was applying his research on communication at his workplace. But, he was not explaining himself clearly. It was obvious from looking at the student's faces that several were confused about his main point. After a few minutes one of the group members waited for him to pause and said, "What I'm hearing you to say is this…" She went on to paraphrase in two succinct sentences what she thought he had said. He replied, "Yes, that's what I was trying to say. Thanks for helping me to say it better." Active listening is hard work. But in this case it brought clarity for the entire group and moved the discussion forward.
Sidetracking vs. Focused listening
Groups frequently lose their focus because they drift into irrelevant and unrelated topics. It's like a game of word association. For instance, someone might mention the "branch office in London" in a passing comment. The next person to speak picks up on the word 'London' and states they've been waiting for an opportunity to go the British office. A seasoned traveler in the group then feels compelled to recommend 'must see' sites in London if anyone does get the call to go. And so on. With each contribution to the tangent the group drifts further away from the original purpose of the meeting. Time is wasted, work is piling up on desks unattended to and no one ends up going to London.
Focused listening helps avoid this pitfall. It works especially well toward avoiding tangents during brainstorming sessions when the purpose is to think outside the norm. The idea is to keep the main point in front of you - literally. Write the stated purpose of your discussion on a notepad. Then listen for and record the main points, key words, and essential facts that directly relate to the topic under discussion. When the conversation drifts off the main topic, simply glance at your notes to reorient yourself and the group. If every person in the group followed a similar plan, there would rarely be any tangents to deal with.
Premature replying vs. context listening
Another barrier to effective group communication is cutting others off before they have a chance to fully explain their point. This is especially common among people who know each other well. It's easy to assume you know what your co-workers are thinking. So you finish sentences for them or simply cut their comments short to insert your own.
Aside from being rude, this behavior prompts abrupt topic shifts and fosters a competitive spirit for participation in the group. Less verbal members tend to become quiet while the more dominant members may continue to verbally spar with each other. When this happens you no longer are working as a group.
In addition, speaking out of turn can leave some members feeling prejudged. And when we feel vulnerable we typically don't listen well. Our first response to feeling misunderstood or judged is to assume a defensive posture. This emotional "checking out" can affect the whole tone and direction of a small group unless it is addressed.
A better approach is to establish a rule of respect within the group that gives each member the opportunity to express their opinion without interruption. If someone is long-winded, use the active listening technique of paraphrasing to bring them to the point. This will encourage all to participate, extend value to everyone's comments, and keep unnecessary emotion out of the process.
Finally, the role of the group leader is to facilitate these skills both through modeling and encouragement. For instance, when the one speaking is unclear with their message, ask another group member to try and paraphrase the main points for the sake of clarity. State at the beginning of each meeting what the objective is and the general path you intend to take to reach it. This helps create a mental map for the participants to follow as the conversation unwinds. If you stray too far from that path, it is more likely that engaged participants will help bring it back on topic.
If more employers took even a little time to explain and teach their groups about these skills there would be fewer meetings because more would be accomplished in the ones you did have. Employees would have more time to do their work, be freed from much of the frustration that surrounds countless unproductive meetings and perhaps even enjoy their jobs more. That's a return worth investing in.