I often run out of words. Not great for a writer. Or is it?

This is about listening.

Maybe you’re in the middle of a meeting. You want to contribute. But each time you’re about to speak up, a louder voice chimes in. You settle back down, wait your turn. Then someone else says the thing you wanted to say. Shit. Now what?

You wrack your brain and… nothing. You’ve got nothing to add. Everyone else has said something, except you. And now they’re all looking at you (they’re not, of course, but it feels that way). Before you know it, the meeting wraps up and all you manage to squeak out is a paltry ‘thanks!’.

When I started out as a copywriter, this happened to me again and again. I piled all this pressure on myself to speak up, to say something, when I was actually doing the most important thing: listening.

It’s by listening that I learned how to present. I saw art directors draw clients in with the way they talked through ideas. I watched client partners defuse tension with thoughtful questions. I heard healthy debates that pulled in different perspectives and made our creative work miles better. Listening taught me how to speak up, when to speak up, and why to speak up.

But there’s listening, and then there’s ‘active listening’.

Harvard Business Review describes it as, ‘When you not only hear what someone is saying, but also attune to their thoughts and feelings. It turns a conversation into an active, non-competitive, two-way interaction.’

It means doing much more than keeping schtum and nodding along when someone else is talking. It’s about self-awareness and empathy. It’s about tone of voice. It’s about managing your emotions. It’s about contributing, in a way you’re comfortable with. Speaking of, our Katy wrote a wonderful article about the problem with the classic ‘Make eye contact to show you’re listening’ rule – and the importance of respecting different processing styles.

So, how can you become a better listener? Here are some top-line pointers:

  1. Ask open questions – it shows the speaker you not only heard them, but you’re engaged and interested in understanding more or adding to the discussion. A tip: an open question sparks more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, encouraging deeper exploration e.g How did that make you feel?
  2. Create a safe space – try to make it a constructive, calm and supportive experience, not one that puts people off speaking up again for fear of criticism.
  3. Don’t make it about you – good listeners still challenge, debate, agree and disagree of course, but they don’t hijack the conversation so that their issues or experiences become the focus, even if it was done in a well-meaning way.
  4. Keep distractions at bay – an obvious one, but if it’s an online interaction, it’s all too easy to get distracted by your Teams notifications popping off or emails pinging through. Close ‘em all and focus on the speaker.
  5. Be a trampoline – rather than simply absorbing what someone’s saying, try to amplify and energise them. Bounce ideas around. Boost their confidence. Make considered suggestions. Actively show your support.

No matter someone’s role or level, public speaking can be a scary thing. If it were you, would you want to be in front of an audience that’s multitasking or being combative? So it’s important we’re considerate of each other.

By actively listening, you’re listening without agenda, judgement or distraction. You’re being present. You’re not adding noise for the sake of it. You’re opening up the floor to different perspectives. You’re supporting your colleagues in a way that might mean more to them than you realise.

For everyone from an apprentice to a senior leader, I think active listening is something we could all do with trying out a bit more.

There, I’ve said it.

Turns out I did have something to say.

Thanks for listening.

Emily Fieldhouse-Moakes

Creative Director

p.s. if you’re interested in learning more about active listening, here are some really great links: