Listening should be active, not passive

In the previous article, we mentioned the key to a successful interview lies on the listening part. The listening we meant is a combination of empathic listening and active listening.

Empathic listening is an act of listening with empathy; the process of hearing what other people are saying and trying to understand what it means by understanding what they feel. Listening with empathy looks like this: when someone is talking to you, you imagine yourself in their situation. When they are speaking, you make an effort to think of where they are coming from and why. You imagine what they feel and what struggles they are facing, their challenges.

However, emphatic listening is often not enough to uncover the real or deeper challenges. Seeking to understand them is the first step, but we also need to be active in asking the follow-up questions to their answers. This is called active listening.

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Active listening means the act of listening in which we fully concentrate on what is being said rather than just passively hearing the message of the speaker. We concentrate on the message or information that’s being said, understand it, and then process it. The last part is the key to active listening. The processing of the information happens in our brain and it needs to happen quickly. The goal is to find out whether their response makes sense to us and what should we do if it doesn’t.

We ask ourselves: does this information help to answer my question? Are they being honest? Are there things that I need to dig deeper? What should I ask to get more information around this topic?

An example of active listening could be derived from one of our interviews. We asked about the main challenge in the company in the previous year, to which the interviewee answered communication. She went on to explain about the problem that happened between the Sales and Engineering teams in the past. She added that this communication issue didn’t happen too often and it had been solved.

We came prepared with a set of questions for every interview. However, because we thought her answer was interesting, we chose to ask her these follow-up questions instead of moving on to the next question on the list: what caused the communication issue between Sales and Engineering Team? How did they solve the issue?

By actively listening to her during the interview, we found an opportunity to get her to clarify her answers, and in the process, we were able to get more information about the topic.

Both empathic listening and active listening require us as interviewers to be fully present and engaged during the interviews. The difference is in the motivation behind each type. Empathic listening requires us to do so in order for us to understand the interviewee as a person, without judgment. In active listening, however, we need to be fully present to process the information and, whenever necessary, guide the interviewees to clarify or add more details to their answers.

Based on our experience, we find some interviewees are more open. They are not guarded and even happy to elaborate on their answers. This makes the interview easier. But in some cases, they often went off topic because of this. They were trying to give as much information as possible, which was very generous of them to do so. That is why it’s important for an interviewer to actively listen to them. By quickly processing the answers, we could sense whether they go off topic or there are potentially more insights we shall dig deeper. Understanding and practicing this help us to decide what kind of follow up questions we should ask.

The hardest part of the interview process is to combine and balance both empathic listening and active listening. Knowing when to listen and not interrupting the interviewee; and knowing when to speak up and ask questions. This is the constant balancing act we do and practice during interviews.

There is no silver bullet to balance this balancing act. No one size fits all. It depends on a case-to-case basis. If we’re to suggest a rule of thumb, then look into the purpose of the interview. It should inform you on how to balance these different types of listening.

In our case, although we conducted the interviews to find out about the current company situation that’s happening, that’s not the main goal for us. What we aim for instead is to build a good rapport with all of the interviewees, especially considering we will be working closely with them for several months during our program engagement with them. We want to get to know them as a person and to find our common ground, before gradually getting the answers and letting them explain about the company challenges (our core questions). Thus, we need both types of listening.

To recap: There are two types of listening. The first is empathic listening, in which we listen to understand. We seek to understand the interviewee as a person to fully form a picture of who they are. This is crucial to establish trust and a safe environment during the interview. The second is active listening, in which we listen with the following intentions: to actively process the information that’s given to identify valuable insight and to guide the interviewee whenever necessary, especially if they go off topic. Balancing these two types of listening requires lots of practice. And you might find the sweet spot differently in each interview.


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