Active listening is the ability to focus completely on a speaker, understand their message, comprehend the information and respond thoughtfully, in a relevant way. Compared to passive listening, this highly valued interpersonal communication skill ensures you’re able to engage with your peer and later recall specific details without needing information repeated. Your partner will feel cared for and listened to, which results in building genuine and honest relationships.
To practice active listening, you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, the complete message being communicated, subtle hints and non-verbal messages included, such as tone, emphasis, facial expressions and body language.
Active listening is always neutral and nonjudgmental from the listener’s side.
Finally, to practice active listening, you turn an otherwise passive process into an interactive flow by techniques such as eye contact, asking follow-up questions and reflecting back what was said.
First and foremost, it helps you build trust. When people know they can speak freely to you without interruptions and judgment, they’ll be more likely to confide in you. This is especially helpful when meeting a new customer or business contact with whom you want to develop a long-term working relationship.
It helps you build genuine and honest connections. Active listening helps others feel comfortable sharing information with you. When you demonstrate your willingness and ability to listen to what others have to say truly, people will be motivated to communicate with you on a regular basis. This can open up opportunities to collaborate with others, get work done quickly or start new projects. All of these things can help lead you to success in your career. As a manager, this skill is also essential to your success – in fact, the lack of it is one of the key ways to fail.
It helps you increase your knowledge and understanding of various topics. The best employees are always striving to learn something new and grow their knowledge base. Because active listening helps you retain information, it will also help you better understand new topics and remember what you’ve learned so you can apply it in the future.
It helps you identify and solve problems. Actively listening to others will help you detect challenges and difficulties others face or problems within projects. The more quickly you’re able to spot these issues, you sooner you can find a solution or create a plan to address it.
Active listening is beneficial throughout the whole process of searching for a job.
When you look at job advertisements and research companies, you can look for clues that might help you learn more about the company before you apply. Don’t just look at the words, though. Try to identify the tone of the post. Does the job posting use formal language? Casual? Conversational? Does it use a lot of technical jargon or industry language? Does it seem frantic? All of these can help determine what the job and company are like and help you decide if you want to apply. Actively listen to the company website’s tone to learn more about the company culture. What images do they use? Are they stock photos, formal portraits, or candid images? Are there videos you can watch (and listen to!)? How formal or informal is the narrator? What do you find on social media? All of these clues can help you figure out if the company is the right fit for you.
Naturally, the best place to utilize your active listening skills is the interview. You gather much more information this way, both because of encouraging your interviewer to be more honest with you and asking clarifying and follow-up questions. Active listening can also boost your evaluation during and after an interview. More and more companies recognize that good communication skills are essential for job success and even company culture and are actively looking for it during interviews. Even if you interview at a company which does not focus on this, you will leave a good impression by being an active listener – you’ll seem more interested in the job than other candidates. It will be in general much more enjoyable for the interviewer to talk to you. Last but not least, actively listening to your interviewer, you’ll get a glimpse of what kind of communication standards are present in your target company and whether you’d enjoy working there.
Active listening starts with the right intent. If you don’t actually care about what the other person wants to say it will be tough to listen genuinely. We are frequently rushing from meeting to meeting, and our minds are already on the next thing we need to do when talking to someone. Slowing down and taking some time (even a minute can help!) to refocus our attention and prepare right before the discussion starts is essential. If you know the topic in advance, think a bit about it while considering your peer’s context with regards to it. What is their potential goal with the conversation, what do they hope to get out of it? What mindset would that result in, and how could that influence the discussion? How can you best support them?
Be curious about what the other person has to say. Actively work on putting your judgment aside and be neutral, even when what they say strikes a nerve. Giving feedback is generally not a part of active listening, it comes after that and only if the other person asked for it.
Giving verbal and non-verbal affirmations and cues is key so that your peer actually feels that you are listening to them.
Don’t interrupt your partner while they are speaking. Use non-verbal cues to demonstrate that you’re following along.
Shut down your internal dialogue – this both helps you focus and keeps you judgment-free.
Be patient with the other person – you might feel the discussion is dragging on but remember your role is to listen, not to enforce your agenda! On a related note, don’t abruptly change the subject until you’ve made sure your peer said what they wanted to about the topic at hand.
A 2011 study concluded that active listening was primarily associated with verbal social skills.
One of the most important techniques to verbally demonstrating active listening is paraphrasing. This is a form of reflecting on what you’ve heard by summarizing the message’s main points in your own words. When you do this, you show that you understand the message and you’re also giving a chance to your peer to clarify or expand it further. An example: “So you’re basically saying that our training process works in general, but could use some improvement, right?
Asking open-ended follow-up questions is equally important. Ask these questions in a way that demonstrates that you’ve gathered the essence of what your partner was saying and also guide them to share more or more in-depth information. This technique can be used together with paraphrasing. Open-ended questions are ones that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” but instead require your peer to elaborate. An example, building on the previous paragraph: “I understand you feel our training process could be improved – what changes would you like to see?”
Besides open-ended questions, you can ask more specific probing questions too. These questions drill deeper into topics or can be used to narrow down the scope of a subject that might be too broad to discuss in one setting. Example: “Could you elaborate a bit on how the sequencing of training sessions was unhelpful?”
Learn more about questions as a coaching technique here: Coaching Questions vs. Giving Directions.
Displaying empathy goes a long way in conversations and is key in active listening. Ensure your peer understands that you recognize their emotions and maybe even share their feelings. Go a step further with showing compassion which will help you connect with your partner and establish mutual trust. Example: “Going through that kind of an experience must have been hard for you; I’m really sorry!”
You can share similar experiences to show you deeply understand what your peer is talking about. It will also help build the relationship and – depending on the goal of the situation – can turn into you giving valuable advice about how you’ve solved similar challenges in the past. Example: “I also had a tough time with the training process years ago. This is how I made it better: ….”
Short verbal affirmations and cues are probably the easiest way to show that you’re following along and are still engaged. Some of these can even be used while the speaker is talking without interrupting them. Examples: “Mhm”, “I see”, “I agree”.
Nothing demonstrates that you care about your peer and the topic at hand than recalling relevant, previously shared information. Example: “Oh, true, and I remember you shared your ideas about improving our training process – let’s make sure we implement those ideas!”
Non-verbal cues are just as important as verbal ones in active listening, and there is a set of simple things you can do here. Use a combination of the following techniques:
Maintaining eye contact is a sure way to make the speaker feel you’re focused on them. Make sure your gaze is natural and conveys a feeling of interest and care.
Smiling is one of our best tool to display positive emotions. Use it generously during your active listening sessions. A smile can take the place of a short verbal affirmation in helping to diffuse any tension and ensure the speaker feels comfortable.
Nodding is a helpful and supportive cue and can not only signal that you’re following along and even agreeing with your peer but can also make the discussion more natural by breaking the eye contact for a very short while.
Avoiding distracted and distracting activities is a must. Don’t look at your phone, out of the window or at your watch. This goes hand in hand with maintaining eye contact but goes beyond that – it’s very easy to seem distracted even when we aren’t.
Much of the above can be still practised in a video call. Still, there’s a significant difference: the non-verbal feedback is often dampened because the two communicators seem further away from each other, and many times only their faces are visible.
Those who frequently speak on camera know that the camera pulls down your face, making a neutral expression look unhappy. If you don’t believe me, try this: open the video app on your smartphone, turn on selfie mode, and record yourself with a “neutral” expression. Chances are, you will look like you are frowning or bored. Imagine your team members or clients were speaking to you on video, and you had that expression – how would they feel? Now record yourself with a half-smile or lift in your cheeks and observe the difference – now you’ll look attentive and warm. Keep this positive expression while on video, even when you’re not speaking.
In video meetings, I always encourage speakers to use “gallery view” to see the others in the video meeting. This helps speakers to read the room more effectively and also helps audience members be more supportive. Audience members can actively nod their heads or use other visual cues in response to the speaker to help the speaker feel more immediate and positive feedback from their presentation.
One of the biggest challenges we face in virtual meetings is speaking into a camera lens instead of looking at everyone else’s images. When you’re an active listener, this is a great time to practice looking at the camera lens, so the speaker feels like you are looking at them, and then periodically look down at the screen to see the speaker’s expression. Practising that back and forth movement helps you observe the speaker and give them the positive feedback of your attention. It helps when the video platform and your camera are both on the same screen, so you don’t have to move your head back and forth.
As with most of our skills, the best way to improve is deliberate practice.
The first step is to identify our gaps in active listening skills.
One simple way is to think about the conversation you just had with someone and analyze it, keeping the traits of active listening in mind. While this is a limited technique and prone to blind spots and our subjectivity you’ll be surprised how much this can already surface! If the situations allow it, you might even want to record your conversations to more objectively analyze later.
A more professional way is having regular practice sessions with known good active listeners and ask for their feedback on your performance.
Once you’ve identified your gaps, you can begin to work on them.
Set one goal at a time – it’s deceivingly hard to both be present in a conversation and think about it on the meta-level. For example, if you’ve identified that you’re not good at paraphrasing, you might set the goal to paraphrase at least once in your next discussion. You can also look back to previous sessions and practice paraphrasing by replaying them in your head.
Observing proficient active listeners helps, too – monitor actively and analyze what they do and how they do it. Learn to identify key techniques in their discussions. You can then try to implement these yourself.
Active listening is a piece in the puzzle that we call positive, empathetic social interactions. It’s obvious why forming such relationships is important in our personal lives. Still, more and more companies realize and acknowledge that these are required skills, not only for leaders but also for everyone in the workplace. A healthy workplace is a key to performance, and communication skills are essential there. When it comes to building and scaling teams, motivating employees and loyalty, forming such a culture is not optional. Honing this skill will both make your life better and make you more appealing to your dream employer.