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Specialisterne Canada Inc., a charitable not-for-profit Canadian organization, focused on building a bridge between neurodivergent job seekers and employers. We support employers to tap into the talents of a neurodiverse workforce and build inclusive organizations through education, training, and advisory.

Specialisterne Foundation

Specialisterne Foundation is a non-for-profit organization that works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges.

In the modern workplace, effective two-way communication between employees and managers is a standard employee expectation. And yet, many managers are unprepared to listen. In a recent study, three out of four managers were identified as not listening to employees. This gap between the expected manager performance and the actual listening means that most managers could benefit from developing listening skills. Moreover, to support inclusive workplaces, this development of listening skills must be situated in the context of inclusive communication, with specific attention to neuroinclusive listening communication.

This article outlines the key principles of active listening and provides listening tips that can help support neuroinclusion.

What is Listening?

Listening is a complex concept that, while lacking a universally agreed-upon definition, is widely understood to encompass affective, behavioral, and cognitive processes. These processes include:

    1. Affective processes – Being motivated to pay attention to others.
      • An example would be a manager actively seeking feedback from team members, showing genuine interest in their concerns, and valuing their input, thus fostering an open communication environment.
    2. Behavioral processes – Responding with both verbal and non-verbal feedback.
      • For example, during a team meeting, a manager nods in agreement, takes notes while a team member is speaking, or repeats back a summary of what was said to ensure understanding. Moreover, in many cases, employees feel truly heard when there is a follow-up resulting in a change that supports or benefits employees.
    3. Cognitive processes – Attending to, understanding, receiving, and interpreting both content and relational information.
      • For example, a manager, upon hearing a concern raised by an employee, not only understands the surface-level issue but also grasps the underlying emotions or potential interpersonal conflicts at play.

How Can a Manager Listen Better?

A substantial body of research emphasizes the importance of effective listening in the workplace and highlights the gap between what employees perceive as good listening and what listeners (or researchers) might consider good listening. Here are some specific evidence-based tips for managers:

1. Recognize Specific Needs: Effective listening is not just about responsive behaviors during a conversation. It’s also about meeting the subjective needs and expectations of the speaker. Take time to understand what your employees need from your interaction. Clarify your understanding with the employees as needed; do not rely on your assumed understanding, especially when working with neurodivergent employees or people from different cultural backgrounds. Some people communicate in more direct ways than others; it is important to get to know employees’ cultural and personal communication styles. An autistic person may ask a blunt question; do not read a hidden manipulation into that question just because other people ask questions as an indirect way to achieve other communication goals.

2. Actions Speak Louder: Sometimes, listening requires taking action beyond the conversation. Pay attention to situations where action is necessary to make employees feel heard and take appropriate steps to follow through on their concerns or suggestions.

3. Consistency is Key: Good listening isn’t just about initial conversations; it’s about consistency. Be sure to follow through on commitments made during discussions; a failure to do so can counteract what might have been perceived as good listening initially.

4. Don’t Give Up on Employees: Recognize that employees may give up on sharing their concerns or feedback if they do not feel heard. This is a form of learned helplessness. To break the cycle of learned helplessness, engage with empathy; help yourself and your employees by naming the feeling and then taking control in solving the problem. Encourage ongoing communication and be persistent in addressing their needs and concerns.

5. Adapt to Individual Needs: Different employees may have different needs and expectations when it comes to feeling heard. Tailor your listening approach to each individual to ensure they feel valued and understood. This might be particularly critical for neurodivergent employees and people from marginalized groups.

6. Focus on Critical Conversations: Certain crucial interactions, such as employee requests to job craft or promotion conversations, can have an outsized impact on employee perceptions of your listening skills. Be open to critical conversations and make sure to also be especially attentive. Make sure to get a form of record of the conversation – perhaps offer to exchange notes of the key points. This will ensure you are on the same page, there are no misunderstandings, and you are prepared to follow up.

7. Encourage Feedback: Create a feedback-rich environment where employees generally feel safe to express their feelings and needs. Active listening is not a one-time act but a continuous process of learning and adapting.

Effective listening in the workplace is more than just the act of listening itself; it is about meeting employees’ specific needs, taking appropriate action when necessary, and maintaining consistency in your communication and follow-through. Managers should also be aware of the importance of adapting their listening approach to individual employees to support better relationships and achieve positive outcomes.

Considering neurodivergence is one important aspect of adapting communication to employee needs. In addition to general principles of good communication, there are a few considerations that can improve listening specifically by making it more neuroinclusive.

Neurodivergent Body Language

Neurodivergent people’s non-verbal expression may differ from neurotypical norms. Recognizing and respecting these differences is key to successful communication. It is crucial to avoid assumptions: for instance, limited eye contact from an autistic person might not signify disinterest – it might be a sign of focusing on the content of communication. Likewise, an autistic person or ADHDer might fidget not out of impatience and definitely not out of disrespect, but as a self-regulation mechanism.

Focus on what the neurodivergent person is saying, and do not be distracted by trying to read their body language, unless something appears to be a clear sign of discomfort. In that case, it could make sense to ask directly how someone is feeling, rather than jump to a conclusion – they might be stressed by the topic of your discussion, or they might simply be cold. Understanding what is happening can help address concerns immediately and make necessary adjustments.

Unique Communication Needs

To ensure that everyone can participate in building good working relationships, it may also be helpful to use multiple channels for communication. For example, some employees may prefer written interactions that involve technology and asynchronous communication that allows time for careful expression of points. To support these employees, managers then can communicate active listening via written, verbal, and especially behavioral follow-up. Providing multiple communication avenues, in general, is a good practice.

Conclusion

For diversity and inclusion to become more than just buzzwords, it’s essential for managers to hone their communication skills. By integrating active listening with a nuanced understanding of neurodivergent body language and communication styles, managers can improve communication for all, cultivate trust, and maximize the collective strength of diverse teams.