Active Listening in the Workplace: Using the Golden Rule & LAFF Model

Active listening is fundamental in work and society; it helps to form meaningful relationships and efficient understanding of issues, concepts and ideas. Most of the time, we don’t listen the way we should during a conversation.

We are always distracted by things in our environment such as phones, television, other people’s conversations and even our internal thoughts and chatter. All of these divert our attention.

Meaningful and productive conversations take second fiddle to this ‘noise’ around us. As a leader, it’s hugely important that you lead by example, respect those around you and are efficient with your time.

All of this points to being a great listener and being able to effectively and efficiently use active listening in the workplace; to engage with others in a meaningful way, build rapport, show you care and understand issues with ease.

What is Active Listening?

Active listening is a method of listening that keeps you positively engaged in a conversation with the person you are conversing with. It involves paying attention to them in order to understand, comprehend, and respond thoughtfully to what is being said.

It is a highly interpersonal skill that enables you to understand and engage in a conversation by paraphrasing and reflecting on what is being said without the speaker having to repeat themself.

People feel valued, eased and understood when their counterparts are actively listening during a conversation; hence, active listening in the workplace is key for any successful conversation and leader alike.

In a study Harry Weger Jr. of Nicholson School of Communication, monitored over 115 participants, who had received either active listening, advice or simple acknowledgements, they found that those who had received active listening, felt:

  • More understood than those receiving advice or simple acknowledgement;
  • People who received either advice or active listening, were more satisfied with their conversation;
  • People who received either advice or active listening, thought the person listening to them were socially more attractive than those who just gave simple acknowledgements.

How we Express our Messages

The fact is that to ourselves, each of us intrinsically knows what we mean and think. The challenge is that when we express that message, it can sometimes come across to another person as rather ambiguous and confusing.

Have you ever spoken to someone, where you thought they were waffling and not getting to the point?

Ever heard someone say, “you know what I mean..” when they are stuck for words to describe the situation?

We’ve all been there.

The point is that it is not always  an easy thing to do – to think and then describe and for someone else to interpret that message in exactly the way it was intended.

And in the workplace specifically, this opportunity for error gets harder the more conversations centre around increasing technical topics that most non specialists would find it hard to understand.

That said, it’s important that when listening, we implement active listening, so we improve the chances of avoiding mix ups and missed communication.

Contrary to what you may think, when it comes down to using active listening in the workplace, it’s actually quite simple.

The trick is to focus on one thing and do it extraordinarily well…

Active Listening in the Workplace – The Golden Rule

Your sole intention when listening, is to listen with comprehension.

This is the number one bit of advice Kevin Sharer, MGEN Chairman was given by IBM CEO, Sam Palmisano. He confessed that this inspirational, but simple advice, transformed how he communicated and indeed listened in his role as a senior manager.

This method involves simply understanding what the person talking to you is saying and meaning.

Don’t try to understand anything else.

This means:

  • No listening to critique them and provide your own thoughts;
  • No listening to object;
  • No listening to convince;
  • Non listening to reply.

Just listen to truly and unequivocally understand what they are saying – and that’s it.

So, the next time someone asks for your attention, stop and seek to truly understand them.

During the conversation, ask yourself, do I fully understand what they are saying and their message?

  • What are the main points?
  • What are the main issues?
  • What is it they really want?

Once you have understood, only then can you help them uncover the next step to take.


Researchers McLaughlin et al, in their 2008 research paper on listening in education, created a simple model that allowed teachers to effectively listen for greater retention of information and more effective teaching. They called it the “LAFF – DON’t CRY STRATEGY.”

It turns out that you can use this LAFF part to help improve active listening in the workplace, too.

In turn, it allows you to comprehend each conversation thoroughly in a simple step by step basis.

LAFF stands for:

  • Listen;
  • Ask Questions;
  • Focus on the Issues;
  • Find a First Step.

Listen: Just listen and give that person your total attention. Remember, your goal is to comprehend what they are saying and understand it. Don’t think of anything else. Follow Kevin Sharer’s one bit of advice that’s worked wonders over his career.

Ask Questions to Gain Deeper Comprehension: During the conversation, you may need to drill down to find more meaning as you search for greater comprehension. At this point, ask questions to help become clearer in your understanding:

Examples could be:

  • That’s interesting you say xxxx, Tell me more?
  • I heard you say xxxx, what do you mean by that?
  • How did xxx happen?
  • What made you think that?

Notice they are inquisitive, open ended questions. All you are doing is asking questions so you get a detailed answer back, which helps you understand the conversation more (point one – the golden rule).

It’s like being a detective. Find the true problem or meaning to what everyone is saying with each conversation. Ask why, how, when, who to dig deeper every time and peel away each layer. Each time you do, you’ll gain more insight.

Focus on Issues: Listen out for issues and major challenges raised. Ask more questions around these, so you can drill down further and get a firmer grip on your understanding as well as possible reasons for the issues they may be facing.

Here are some examples:

  • You said that you really struggle with xxxxx, What’s the biggest reason?
  • You said that xxx is a problem to you. Can you explain how?
  • What made you choose this option?

Keep repeating until you don’t have to drill down any further and the layers have been removed.

Find the next step: Once you have a good understanding, ask them what the next step to take is. Alternatively, it may be suggesting the options or next step.

Here are some examples:

  • Thanks for telling me this. If you could fix the issue right now, what would that one thing be that you’d fix? Let’s see if we can take a step forward with this;
  • I know you are struggling with overcoming this, what next step would you take to overcome this problem;
  • You highlighted that xxx is happening. What exactly do you want to happen? What does success look like? In light of this, what could you do about it.

This last stage wraps things up and takes them from discussion to solutions mode. All you have to do is listen and understand.

Simplicity is key

Active listening doesn’t have to be hard. In fact it’s easy, as long as you stick to the goal of just comprehending what the other person is saying.

To help you develop your reflective skills further, you may like our conversation reframing guide and how to reframe a problem into a solution.

Treat it as a Game

In order to make it a habit, try to treat every conversation as a game. By this, I mean, why not see how quickly you can get to fully understand each conversation that you engage in.

I’m not saying to hurry people up and put each conversation on a timer. Merely see how many questions and drill downs you can take to get true understanding.

By being conscious of the LAFF process, and actively monitoring yourself, you’ll soon get extremely good at placing full attention on each conversation you have, whilst seamlessly comprehending quickly.

Many years ago, I used to work predominantly on a help desk, helping business owners answer queries they may have in general business management and operations.

I got so good at active listening and being able to comprehend problems and real issues over the phone, I could often ask one or two pertinent questions to get total comprehension.

See how effective you can be with your active listening. Perhaps you could speed up the amount of time it takes to comprehend a technical issue from a team member?

Or how quickly you can get to real issues that people are describing.

The more you practice and improve, the more effective you become. The good news is that this skill is easy to learn and can be applied very quickly indeed.

Just focus on understanding every conversation that you engage in.

That’s all you have to do.