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Listen up: Learning this underused, empathic skill can reduce conflict at work

Mark Atkinson, CEO of Mursion
Key Points
  • Poor listening skills, which may manifest as a lack of empathy, are at the core of most workplace conflicts.
  • LinkedIn Learning's most recent Workplace Learning Report showed that interpersonal skills ranks among the top priorities for learning and development leaders.
Luis Alvarez | DigitalVision | Getty Images

Research suggests that the average adult spends about three-quarters of their waking hours communicating with other people in some form. But while nearly half of that time, more than any other facet of communication, is spent listening, most people are actually very bad listeners.

As it turns out, the average person only remembers 25% to 50% of what they hear. Perhaps with good reason, experts suggest that poor listening skills, which may manifest as a lack of empathy, are at the core of most workplace conflicts, and those conflicts impose not just cultural, but hard financial penalties.

According to one study, workplace conflicts cost the U.S. economy about $350 billion each year. And yet most professionals do very little to develop this skill. This means that in a labor market dominated by concerns about hard skills like coding, or human skills like collaboration, listening has received short shrift.

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The value of listening is nothing new. Stephen Covey's 1989 best-seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, advised readers to "seek first to understand, then to be understood."

Research shows that employers list listening skills as one of the most important factors affecting undergraduate employability.

Alex "Sandy" Pentland, the director of MIT's Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs, describes the best types of team members as "charismatic connectors" who engage many people in short, high-energy conversations.

What's new is that relatively recent advances in the science of learning now enable us to teach listening skills at scale. As a result, a growing cadre of employers is offering training to their workers to help them improve their listening and communication skills through new online learning platforms. With access to this sort of safe space – and the opportunity to practice often — employees of the future can become, as Pentland calls it, "democratic with their time, communicating with everyone equally and making sure all team members get a chance to contribute."

It's not about turning everyone into extroverts, but building a culture where team members "listen as much as or more than they talk and are usually very engaged with whomever they're listening to." Pentland refers to this kind of activity as "energized but focused listening," and research suggests that the greater the number of these charismatic connectors that an organization has, the more successful it will be.

Research also suggests that as the labor market tightens, companies that employ workers who can communicate effectively are more likely to experience lower turnover rates than their peers and are more likely to retain their customers. More than half of Americans say they have stopped buying products from a company after having uncivil interactions with that company's employees. The good news is that focused, attentive, and empathetic listening can be taught. Decades of research has demonstrated that listening is, indeed, a teachable skill.

That businesses are starting to invest in such initiatives is not surprising. LinkedIn Learning's most recent Workplace Learning Report showed that interpersonal skills ranks among the top priorities for learning and development leaders. And likewise, listening may just be the most important skill a person can develop for oneself.

By Mark Atkinson, CEO of Mursion, which offers virtual reality to teach interpersonal skills at companies including Best Western. Its technology was featured in studies from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that found simulations can change teacher practice in the classroom.

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Workplace stress has reached near-epidemic levels. These 4 tips can keep you sane

Peter Brussard, Bridge by Instructure's VP of product management
Key Points
  • Diminished productivity, absence from work and health-care costs due to workplace stress can impact the U.S. economy by as much as $300 billion a year, according to some estimates.
  • Working longer hours, engaging in workplace politics and being pressured to socialize outside of work are some of the biggest stressors, reveals a recent Bridge by Instructure survey.
  • There are simple steps you can take to reduce stress and keep your mental health in check.