The art of listening to build positive relationships at work

When was the last time you truly listened to someone?

You know; taking the time and making an effort to sit with another person and not be distracted. Engaging and being fully present in the moment. Suspending your own judgements and opinions from creeping into your head. Not letting your mind wander to what you were planning for dinner, or whether your boss read the email you sent to them earlier about a project.

It’s hard, right?

Listening ishard. Unless you are a psychiatrist, counsellor or therapist, you’re probably not trained in how to actively listen. It’s a skill. It’s an art. I’m not joking here. Listening is something we have to work at and — just like every other skill we come across in life — if we want to be good, we have to practise regularly.

Go back to your school and college days; do you remember receiving listening training? How about when you first started out in your career? You may have had sessions on how to write reports or workshops on how to present to clients, but I would 100% guarantee you had no listening training. Would it surprise you if I said that during our school years, we only receive up to half a year’s training for listening compared to reading and writing, yet we use listening 45% of the time! Swanson, C.H (1984)

Of course, there are some people who are naturally good listeners. Think about public speaking. Some people just get up there, no matter whether there are 50 or 500 people in the audience and their performance appears effortless. But, as a natural public speaker, I can tell you that you still need to practice, especially if you want to be better and not slip into bad habits.

In the workplace, positive relationships are fundamental to creating a culture of positive mental wellbeing. In the book Flourish(2011), Seligman defined wellbeing as part of five pillars: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships,Meaning and Accomplishment — or PERMA. Positive relationships between colleagues, peers, management and stakeholders are critical to how an organisation thrives. The Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) model created by Demerouti et al. (2001) provides a framework to understand how burnout can affect employees; job demands include recipient contact, with supervisor contact being on the alternate side of the job resources. If either of those relationships are not viewed positively, it could seriously impact on the engagement and wellbeing of the employee.

We all know what it feels like not to be listened to; sadly, we have all experienced that situation on more than one occasion. Can you remember the emotions evoked from the experience: frustration, isolation, worthlessness, a lack of self-confidence, anger or loneliness? Did you go home and talk to your partner or a friend and tell them how this relationship was not positive? Perhaps you asked for their opinion or advice, looking for a reassurance that you didn’t receive from the interaction earlier that day.

What does it mean to actively listen? We can break it down into several elements:

  • Empathy

There is a difference between being empathetic and sympathetic. Empathy is finding a connection within you on the same level as the person you are listening to. You may not understand their experience, but you don’t have to; listening and being there for them is enough.

  • Genuine

We all know how it feels to talk to someone who is not being genuine; we see it in body language and facial expressions, we hear it in their tone of voice and the questions they ask us. Be aware of what you are not saying when you are listening.

  • Acceptance

The person who is listening should be accepting of the conversation, whether they agree or disagree, whether they would have done it differently or know of a better way or answer. Allowing the individual to have space to talk gives them an opportunity to verbalise their own thoughts and feelings and, often, they may come to the solution themselves.

  • Non-judgement

Listening non-judgementally is hard; we must be aware of our own biases and views of the world, to be able to stand back and observe when we might be allowing our own biases to creep in. You’re only human so you won’t remove your judgements, but do be conscious of how they will play out in a conversation. Slow down your thinking and provide a filter before you speak.

Here are five top tips to remember when you have a conversation and must actively listen to build a positive relationship:

  1. Allow silences: it’s the most powerful way to give someone the space to speak.
  2. Remove distractions: phones and smart watches are a big no!
  3. Take the conversation out of the workplace: walking meetings are great to connect with someone.
  4. Ask open questions to give the individual an opportunity to be more open, to share and build trust with you.
  5. Check in on the person after a conversation; it shows you care and, more importantly, that you have listened.


Swanson, C. H. (March 1984). Monitoring student listening techniques: An approach to teaching the foundations of a skill. Paper presented at the 75th annual meeting of the Eastern Communication Association, Philadelphia, PA.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Published by Free Press.

Demerouti, E., Bakker, A., Nachreiner, F., & Schaufeli, W. (2001). The job demands-resources model of burnout. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(3), 499-512. doi: 10.1037//0021-9010.86.3.499

Picture credit: @emilianovittoriosi

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