Use Active Listening to Help a Colleague Make a Hard Decision

Imagine a colleague is faced with a high-stakes decision. They’re likely stressed, conflicted, and overwhelmed. In these situations, many of us default to the role of problem-solver. We try to support our colleague by providing our opinion or offering a solution. But to effectively support decision makers in your organization, you need to step back from your own ego and just listen. This article outlines practical strategies for exercising four types of active listening: emotional, informational, analytical, and reflective. Active listening can be hard to do, but it’s a great skill to practice. It allows you to strengthen key relationships while giving decision makers the space to make decisions for themselves.

Arnaldo was the chief operating officer at a successful investment firm. Recently, the firm’s results had been underperforming expectations. This poor performance was due to one large investment that the chief investment officer, Russ, was committed to holding. Arnaldo had fielded several calls from investors who wanted Russ to sell the money-losing investment. So, when Russ asked for a meeting to discuss the fund’s performance, Arnaldo’s instinct was to make a pitch to sell — to solve the problem.

In meetings such as these, when a colleague is faced with an important decision, many of us default to problem-solver mode. We try to provide our opinion or offer a solution. We try to step in to solve a problem that isn’t ours to solve.

This was exactly the position Arnaldo found himself in: His career and investments were both deeply tied to Russ’s portfolio management. Investors were complaining. But Russ was the investment expert; decisions about what to keep or sell were his to make. Arnaldo knew he was not an investment expert. He did not want to take responsibility for this decision and yet he needed to answer investors’ questions, which made him uncomfortable.

When the two met, Arnaldo knew he had to step back from his instinct to solve the problem, but he didn’t know what to do instead. How could Arnaldo best support Russ and the difficult decision he needed to make?

By practicing active listening.

Many of us are familiar with the term “active listening.” It’s a craft that combines many skills — paying close attention to cues, engaging verbally and non-verbally, and remaining calm and empathetic — which can make it difficult to do in practice. This is especially true when we want to support a decision maker who may be stressed, conflicted, and overwhelmed…and when the outcome of their decision directly impacts us.

In this article, I break down four types of active listening and offer ways you can make each type actionable when supporting decision makers. I recommend active listening support to my clients who are regularly involved in collaborative decision making, and I believe it will help you in those moments where appearing neutral is uncomfortable but necessary.

4 Types of Active Listening Support

Based on my work as a decision scientist, Cornell University educator, and investigative journalist, I’ve identified four types of active listening support: emotional, informational, analytical, and reflective. None of the support types involve providing your opinion or offering a solution. But all of the support types involve listening carefully and responding with empathy.

Emotional support.

Emotional support means listening without judgment and responding with empathy. The goal here is to resist your impulse to try and fix things or to talk someone out of how they are feeling. The decision maker might say things like: “I’m feeling…,” “I’m experiencing…,” or “I just need someone to listen…” A statement from you that allows space and validates the decision maker’s emotional experience might be: “It’s hard to…,” “That is difficult…,” or “I hear your frustration.”

Informational support.

This means offering a decision maker the information they want rather than the information you want to give them. This type of support provides knowledge, facts, and data. Offering informational support can help someone better understand a situation and assess potential next steps. It also allows you to remain objective in your supporting role. The decision maker might say things like: “I wish I knew…,” “Have you ever…,” or “Can you find…” Offer this type of information if you feel confident and comfortable providing it. If you’re not sure whether the decision maker is asking for informational support, you can ask: “What information or data would help you make your decision?”

Analytical support.

Analytical support assists the decision maker with examining, interpreting, and analyzing information they already have but don’t know where to go with it. The decision maker might say things like: “How would you interpret…,” “What do you think this means…,” or “I’d like to understand the impact of…” If you know the impact or have done the analysis and feel comfortable providing it, you can offer this type of support. If you’re not sure whether the decision maker is asking for analytical support, you can ask: “What kind of analysis would help you think this through?”

Reflective support.

This involves asking questions that act as a mirror for the decision maker. This kind of support assists the decision maker in better identifying their own thoughts and priorities, and bringing them to the forefront of their awareness. The decision maker might say things like: “I need help thinking about…,” “I’m conflicted with…,” or “I can’t decide…” Reflective support can be very helpful when you think that the decision maker has a solution in mind but is hesitant to act upon it. Questions to ask to provide reflective support include: “What is the goal you want to achieve?” “What are your priorities with this decision?” Or, “What outcome are you hoping for?” 

Some situations may require you to practice multiple types of active listening support at the same time. You may find yourself toggling between emotional and analytical support, for example, or circling back to reflective support questions for clarification.

Active Listening Support in Practice

Arnaldo, an actual a client of mine, sought my advice after being disappointed with the outcome of a meeting he had led. (Names in this scenario have been changed for anonymity.) We discussed the four active listening strategies and how he might practice them to achieve more positive results in future meetings. When it was time for Arnaldo and Russ to regroup, Arnaldo was ready to support him.

He listened carefully to Russ for clues. He recognized Russ’s concern about the portfolio’s poor performance, as well as his determination to stay the course. Russ said, “I think I’m doing the right thing for now, but I don’t want to leave the investors in the dark about my thinking.”

Arnaldo offered emotional and reflective support by saying to Russ, “I hear your concern. What is your goal at this point?”

Russ said, “I want to be able to reassure our investors. I’d like to know who’s concerned and what they’re saying.”

Arnaldo heard that Russ was asking for information: “I’d like to know…” was the tip-off. Arnaldo responded to Russ by asking another question, to confirm that Russ did in fact want informational support. Arnaldo asked, “Would it be helpful for me to give you the names of the investors who’ve called?”

“Yes!” said Russ.

After their meeting, Arnaldo emailed Russ with a list of investors and their specific concerns. Without judgment, Arnaldo provided the information Russ wanted.

Notice how carefully Arnaldo listened and how his responses to Russ mainly took the form of questions, rather than opinions or solutions. Arnaldo kept his ideas to himself, listened for clues, and responded with curiosity and empathy.

. . .

Effective, non-judgmental support requires you to step back from your own ego and just listen. While that’s not a natural inclination for many of us, especially when we think we have good advice, it’s a great skill to practice. By exercising these four types of active listening, you will not only strengthen key relationships but you will allow decision makers the space to make decisions for themselves.

Listening skills, Decision making and problem solving, Interpersonal communication, Digital Article

Cheryl Strauss Einhorn
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn is the founder and CEO of Decisive, a decision sciences company using her AREA Method decision-making system for individuals, companies, and nonprofits looking to solve complex problems. Decisive offers digital tools and in-person training, workshops, coaching and consulting. Cheryl is a long-time educator teaching at Columbia Business School and Cornell and has won several journalism awards for her investigative news stories. She’s authored two books on complex problem solving, Problem Solved for personal and professional decisions, and Investing In Financial Research about business, financial, and investment decisions. Her new book, Problem Solver, is about the psychology of personal decision-making and Problem Solver Profiles. For more information please watch Cheryl’s TED talk and visit

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