Active E-Listening: Is That Even a Thing?

Leader Effectiveness Training developed in an era when the bulk of workplace communication happened face-to-face. And most workplaces continued in that vein until the tech explosion of the 2000s. leader leadership training active listening at work

Right now, paradoxically, in the search for lean, efficient project management and team communication, sometimes it can seem as if we’ve more ways to electronically communicate with colleagues than we have things to communicate about: Go2Meeting, Skype, Hangouts, Chat, iMessage, Slack, GChat, Basecamp, Redbooth, local intranets…it can all be overwhelming, especially when you’re getting notifications from three of them at once (while you’re trying to actually focus on getting your work done).

Add the complexity of geographically distributed colleagues, partners, vendors and other key players in other time zones and now you’re looking at a wild, wild web of potential for miscommunication.

So how do you use “active listening skills” when there’s no actual listening involved at all?

The Letter and the Spirit of The Gordon Model

In face-to-face communication, we have the full spectrum of verbal and nonverbal signals to help us Active Listen. The sender isn’t only speaking words—they’re also sending body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and subtle indicators like eye contact to help the receiver “read” the full message.

In a Slack message or an email, we don’t get those kinds of paralinguistic (“around the language”) clues to help round out the full message. Things could be open to misinterpretation, which can lead to rapid (unhelpful) response and escalation.

Consider the following:

To: Marie Bryson
From: John Gordon
Subject: I need this done

Hey, Marie

I need you to do some work. Here’s an attachment.

Deadline is Thursday.



———–(Notes: Short. To the point. States a need. OK for now.)

To: John Gordon

From: Marie Bryson
Re: Subject: I need this done

Hi, John,

You may remember that a few months back, our department instituted an approved intake process to help manage work requests, assignments and workflow; the process helps us prioritize and complete projects on time for everybody in the organization, and working outside the process puts other work in jeopardy.

So when you email me with this request not using our process, it causes me extra work (including having to now email you about this) which I don’t have and I am feeling a bit stressed and also irritated.


———– (Note: The email above contained Confrontive I-Message: It responds to a direct request for work outside the chain of command with a reminder that there’s an established process. It states how the behavior [outside-of-process work request] would negatively impact the individual and the team, and the link to the proper resources is a bridge to help the requestor get what s/he wants. Let’s see if it worked!)

To: Marie Bryson
From: John Gordon
Re: Re: Subject: I need this done

We just got notification that this is happening this morning and I don’t have time to go through the whole Project Request song and dance, because that takes two weeks and this is a priority for the VP. He wants it done by Thursday.


———(Note: Well, gosh, that was disappointing. The I-Message didn’t work like magic! Now what? Well, there are at least three different options. 1) Fire back a note sticking to guns, saying, “That’s how it works; I’m sorry, but we can’t make exceptions.” 2) Forward the whole string to the boss and hope s/he can deal with this, including the implicit threat to kick the whole matter up to a higher level because ugh, who needs that? 3) Try shifting gears.

To: John Gordon

From: Marie Bryson

Re: Re: Re: I need this done

It’s a last-minute request for you as well, and your department didn’t get any more notice than our department did. You’re feeling frustrated.

…and the VP wants this work done by Thursday, which puts everybody in a tough and stressful spot.  Especially because he signed off on the intake process for our department.



To: Marie Bryson
From: John Gordon
Re: Re: Re: Re: I need this done

Yes, I’m feeling really frustrated because I feel like we’re always putting “new processes” into place but then there are never any changes to expectations, so we’re under pressure to just “hurry up and do things the old way.”

There’s no way to follow the new process and get this done in the timeframe he wants.


So, how will it end? Nobody knows, but for sure an I-Message to the VP is in order or better yet, it might be time for a (gasp) face-to-face meeting about.

But that’s a whole ‘nother blog.

The point here is that, after three or four email exchanges, it’s usually best to get on the phone, or Skype, or some other means of communication that does let some of those paralinguistic factors enter the communication stream.



Still, I hope you can see that it’s possible to send I-Messages and to shift gears, even when your ears aren’t involved in “listening” in our increasingly dispersed workplaces.

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