Active Listening is Hard Work

active listeningHarry couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  It was shift change. Rob was leaving the locker room and headed toward the operating floor. His colorful athletic shoes were in stark contrast to the soiled and well-worn boots of the other guys around him.

Rob gave a slight nod of his head as he approached Harry, one of the shift supervisors.

“Hey, Harry.  Did the machine run well on first shift?  I sure hope I’m not walking into a mess in there.  After last week, I was hoping for a routine day at work.”

Harry wasn’t in the mood for small talk.  He just pointed down at Rob’s shoes and asked abruptly, “Speaking of walking, what are you thinking?  You know everyone is required to wear steel-toed shoes.  No exceptions!”

“Oh, those,” Rob countered, a little taken aback by Harry’s tone. “Let me explain…”

Harry interrupted him.  “No explanation needed.  It’s black and white.  Either you are wearing the right shoes or not.  And those are definitely NOT work shoes!”

“I know that,” Rob responded, the volume of his voice rising to match Harry’s. “I was just going to…”

Harry raised his hand and stopped Rob again.  “Look, you’re not going anywhere near the operating floor with those on your feet.  So either borrow a pair of shoes – or go home and get some proper foot protection – ‘cause you are not working today unless you have them.”

Rob crossed his arms and glared at Harry.  “Can you take one minute and listen?”

“Make it quick,” Harry said in an irritated tone.  “I’ve got a meeting and I am already late.”

Rob took a deep breath.  “Yesterday I had some minor surgery on a toe.  The doc said I can walk on it just fine and I have permission to work.  But I can’t wear my regular steel-toed shoes because they rub against my sore toe.  So, I called the safety office. They told me to come down and get fitted for some temporary toe caps that I can wear over my regular shoes.  That way I can have the proper protection until my surgery heals in a few days.  That’s where I was headed when you stopped me.”

Harry felt his face flush. “Oh….” he said.  “Well…well let me know how you make out at the safety office.  Thanks.  I gotta go.”

Rob shook his head as they parted ways.  “I guess that’s what my wife must feel like when she accuses me of not really listening,” he muttered.

Listening is a skill

Most of us think we know what listening means.  But true active listening is hard work.  It requires a lot more effort than we may imagine.  Yet, this skill is crucial to enable effective communication.

In a previous post, I outlined a five-step process for a safety conversation.  After first framing the conversation, the second step is to listen for influences.  If we are not using active listening during this part of the conversation, we will miss some key learning.  Indeed, the outcome of any safety conversation is dependent upon our ability to listen well enough to bring potential influences (and error traps) into the light.

Here are some actions you can take to be a more active listener:

  • Remove all distractions
  • Listen to the speaker’s signs and sounds
  • Feed back that you have understood
  • Leverage silence to encourage more dialogue


In our story, we learned that Harry was distracted when he approached Rob about his footwear.  Harry proclaimed as much when he said that he was already late for a meeting.  While Harry had every right to question Rob about his choice of work shoes, the conversation was destined to not turn out well.  Harry had an internal clock in his head that dictated how much time he was going to spend talking to Rob.  And it wasn’t much.  As a result, Harry allocated 90% of this time to ‘telling’ and almost none to listening.

It isn’t always possible to remove all distractions.  But make every attempt to do so, especially when providing performance feedback or when soliciting viewpoints from others.  It’s hard for anyone to think you are caring or sincere if they know you are really not “in the moment”.

Visual Cues

Body language often tells us more than the words that are being said.  I may tell you that I agree with your decision, but if I do this while rolling my eyes, I’m really communicating dissatisfaction, skepticism, or worse.  Be wary of a manager who tells you that, “I really want to hear about any suggestions or ideas for improvements,” if they are telling you this while standing stiffly and crossing their arms.

Their words say “I’m open.”  Their posture says, “I’m closed.”

If someone’s body language contradicts his verbal statements, take time to probe a little deeper to determine their true sentiment.


Most of us listen with the intent to reply.  We are already planning what to say while the other person is still talking.  One way to force our attention is to listen with the intent to summarize what you heard.  If you go into the conversation with this objective, you are much more likely to be attentive to what is being said.

One technique that can be effective in assuring that we have received what was being communicated is to ask a number of questions after providing a summation of what we heard.  For example, we can ask,

  • Did I get that right?
  • Is that accurate?
  • Did I miss anything?

The Power of Silence

Here is an additional technique that is very difficult for most of us to implement.  When you sense that someone wants to share more, but they are reticent to do so – simply stay silent. By waiting for 15 or 20 seconds, you provide the opportunity for the other person to continue. The natural tendency for most of us is to “fill the void” of silence.  This short interval will feel like an eternity, but it could also lead to a richer conversation that gets to the crux of the issue.

Simply look the other person in the eye, read their body language, and invite them (via your silence) to “Tell me more…”


Active listening is hard work.  But the payoff comes in more effective two-way communication.  By removing distractions, reading body language, providing focused feedback, and leveraging silence effectively, we are more likely to have agreement between what someone says and what we hear and understand.


About David Galloway

David Allan Galloway is author of Safety WALK Safety TALK, instructor of an online course with the same title, leadership coach, keynote speaker, and President of Continuous MILE Consulting. He has over four decades of industry experience, with leadership roles in Operations, Research, Product Development, Quality, Engineering, Logistics, and Strategy.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.