What's The Primary Skill To Bring To Your Annual Planning Session? Active Listening!

By Erin Wilson

dateThu, Oct 20, 2022 @ 06:00 AM

Active listening skills are more critical than ever, especially as we head into the annual planning season. When we pause to think strategically about the business and spend our valuable time and resources to bring people together, we need that time to be productive. If you haven't cultivated a culture of active listening, that essential time may be wasted!


The Role of Active Listening in Communication

To plan well, open and honest communication is vital. People need to feel empowered to speak up, add their input to the conversations, and be allowed to disagree respectfully. If we want the best out of our teams and value their participation in the direction the company is heading, we must create an intentional space where their contributions are welcomed. Active listening is an essential part of this process. When done effectively, it motivates people and makes them feel invested in the organizational path of progress. Active listening creates an environment where your team can collaborate and innovate and focus on the needs of the business.

This skill may be more critical than ever, considering we are in the era of resignations and a highly competitive workforce. This employment atmosphere makes it vital to do the granular work of active listening and developing the habit of being present when people are our most valuable resource.  


The Difference Between Hearing and Listening

While we all know our people matter and listening is critical, it's often difficult to distinguish hearing from listening. These soft skills are unfortunately not always taught though to lead well, they must be learned. "Hearing is a passive, physical act that requires one sense and has to do with the perception of sound. It does not rely on concentration… Listening is a mental, active process that requires multiple senses. [It] is a voluntary act… [that] revolves around actively paying attention to the words and sounds that you hear to absorb their meaning and develop an emotional response." 


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Listening is Hard

Listening with this amount of effort and intention is not usually our first inclination when life is busy. When rushing between appointments, multi-tasking, and making lists, our focus is usually on doing our daily work. The habit of pausing our own priorities and agendas and seeking to understand gets pushed to the back burner. We get caught up in our own obligations and hear but do not genuinely listen.

Joel Peterson, the former chairman of JetBlue Airways, put it best, "senior executives may find it challenging to remain fully present in meetings when they have ten things on their minds at any given moment. But it's a necessary discipline if they are to draw people out, and it requires that you listen to achieve understanding and withhold judgment." This practice, while difficult when we are so focused on achieving, can be cultivated and will be the most important tool in your toolkit as you walk into your planning sessions. The intentionality of actively listening to your team can lead to key pivots and significant wins!


Try This Simple Method to Improve Your Active Listening!

EAR Listening Method

The EAR method is a three-step process. 

"E" stands for "explore," "A" stands for "acknowledge," and "R" stands for "response." This method is a sequence that will help you authentically engage in active listening.

  • “E” = Explore 
    • When someone is speaking to you, explore their words with open-ended questions followed by questions to engage further, clarify, or validate. 
    • "What …?" "How …?" "What else?" "Please share an example." "Help me understand." "Anything else?" "Explore" questions are curiosity-based, where you're genuinely trying to find out what the other person thinks.
  • "A" = Acknowledge 
    • Once you've explored the other person's position, move to "acknowledge." 
    • Get the person to acknowledge that you understand him or her, not the other way around. "If I understand you correctly ... Is that accurate?"
    • If the person says, "No, that's not my position," you simply go back to the "E." "I'm sorry. Please explain what I missed."
  • “R” = Respond
    • After you've confirmed with the other person his or her position, you're ready for your "response." 
    • How you respond is up to you. The key is that by following this sequence, your response will be (a) more thoughtful, (b) more likely to be received well, and (c) not derailed by an erroneous assumption.

Other Great Tips for Active Listening

  • Listen with Empathy: Try to put yourself in the other individual's shoes and give him or her the benefit of the doubt. 
  • Listen with Awareness & Openness: Utilize your emotional intelligence and give yourself time to process others' words, thoughts, and emotions. 
  • Listen with Patience: Don't interrupt or attempt to impose your will on others. Everyone has an opinion that is uniquely theirs and to understand their perspective, you have to table your own judgments, solutions, or advice.
  • Be aware of your body language: 70-80% of communication is non-verbal, so face the speaker, maintaining good eye contact to inform them you are focused on them.
  • Being aware of body language also means avoiding distractions. Put down your phone, stop writing that email, pause your multi-tasking and be present.


Self-Assess. Where do you fall in the Degrees of Active Listening?

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Rhythm Systems Annual Planning Facilitation Guide


Check out these resources to learn more about Annual Planning.

Annual Planning: 9 Tips to Focus & Align Your Team with a Great Plan

Annual Planning Playbook: 5 Steps to Create a Winning Annual Plan

How CEOs Can Avoid High-Cost Mistakes in Annual Planning

Best Practices for Annual Planning

Rhythm Systems Annual Planning Resource Center

Erin Wilson


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images