Do you ever find yourself in a conversation, only to realize that you haven’t truly been listening? In our fast-paced world, it’s easy to let your mind wander or become distracted, but active listening is a valuable skill that can enhance your relationships and communication abilities. Let’s explore some practical tips to help you improve your active listening skills.
Active listening definition
Active listening is a communication technique that involves not only hearing the words someone is saying but also understanding their message, feelings, and perspective and engaging with the speaker. It requires your full attention and a genuine interest in what the speaker is saying. Active listening is crucial in both personal and professional settings.
Some characteristics of active listening:
- Non-verbal cues
- Reflective responses
- Withholding judgment
- Open-ended questions
Many of us have heard the advice that we can be better listeners by smiling, nodding, and paraphrasing back what we heard the speaker say. Those behaviors have their place, but to be a truly great listener requires more, says the Harvard Business Review: “Listening is an active, noncompetitive, two-way interaction.”
Listening is an active, noncompetitive, two-way interaction.
Active listening tips
1. Give your full attention.
To be an active listener, start by giving the speaker your complete attention. Put away distractions, such as your phone or computer, and focus solely on the person speaking.
One study showed that the visible presence of a phone—even if it’s not in your hands—made conversations feel less meaningful and intimate.
Focused attention can be difficult in busy public places with lots of interesting people walking by, or if there is a TV on somewhere in your sight line. (Active listening in a sports bar should be its own Olympic category.) But it’s important. Maintain eye contact as much as feels comfortable for both of you and is culturally appropriate. Show that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say.
2. Quiet your internal monologue.
Putting aside distractions doesn’t just mean your phone. You should also put aside distracting thoughts. As the conversation starts, set the intention of being a good active listener. To the best of your ability, press pause on thoughts about what you have to get done after this conversation or what happened earlier in the day. Clearing or calming your mind can help you not get in your own way as a listener.
Quieting your internal monologue also means making a commitment that when the other person is talking, you will listen instead of taking that time to formulate what you’ll say next.
3. Listen without your own agenda.
Respect the speaker’s agenda and priorities. Their need to talk or share something may differ from what you originally had in mind, but valuing their agenda is crucial for open listening. Sometimes people just need to vent, but other times they want help finding a solution. If you’re not sure which kind of conversation this is, it’s usually okay to ask.
Your agenda should be to assist the speaker in processing what they’re talking about. Psychologist Tania Israel suggests approaching the conversation from a place of intellectual humility. What can you contribute by listening that the speaker wouldn’t have gotten from talking into a mirror?
4. Determine which listening style fits the conversation.
We all have listening styles that come more naturally to us. For example, someone with a DiSC C style might be a naturally analytical listener, while an iS-style individual might feel most comfortable with a relational style of listening. The Harvard Business Review recommends assessing the conversation you’re having and deciding whether your natural listening style is the best fit. Maybe a different mode of listening is better suited to this moment, so you can stretch your style in the direction of what the speaker needs.
5. Use cues that show you’re listening.
Use open and inviting body language, such as positioning your body toward the speaker and not crossing your arms. Nonverbal cues like nodding and appropriate facial expressions can signal your engagement in the conversation. Verbal cues such as “How did that feel?” or “Tell me more” reassure the speaker that you want the conversation to continue.
6. Notice their nonverbal cues
Observe the speaker’s demeanor beyond the words they are saying. Listen with your eyes. Notice facial expressions like frowns or raised eyebrows, body language like leaning backward or fidgeting, and hand gestures. Consider the tone and speed of their voice. These and other cues can add depth to what the speaker is talking about. They tell you what the speaker is excited about or reluctant to share. They tell you if your questions are opening the conversation up or shutting it down.
7. Stay patient and avoid interrupting.
According to this NPR article, to grow your listening skills, “there is one super simple, super important, but very hard to actually do tip: Stop talking.”
Resist the urge to interrupt or finish the speaker’s sentences. Be patient and allow them to express themselves fully without feeling rushed.
It’s not a competition where you’re waiting for your chance to challenge them or one-up them with your own story. Don’t take over the conversation. You can share personal experiences that are helpful to the speaker’s goals for the conversation, but you shouldn’t always be diverting attention back to yourself.
Let them be the main character of this conversation. (You might get to be the main character of the next one.)
8. Don’t just remain silent, though.
In their research, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman found that “good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. To the contrary, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight.”
Ask questions “that benefit the speaker, not just your curiosity.” A person who is silent could be thinking about anything, but a person who engages demonstrates that they are paying attention. Good listeners are cooperative, not passive.
9. Be a trampoline, not a sponge.
Zenger and Folkman illustrate this type of cooperative listening with the image of trampolines (amplifying and bouncing back ideas) vs. sponges (absorbing ideas, sending nothing back).
“While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.”
Active listening in virtual settings
Virtual environments make active listening more difficult. However, many of the tips above can be adapted for these situations. A large part of being a good listener has to do with intention and focus, and this is true across channels. In addition, consider these tips for active listening in virtual settings:
- Minimize distractions: Just as in face-to-face communication, minimize distractions when engaging in virtual conversations. Close unrelated browser tabs or applications, silence your phone, and create a quiet, focused environment. Resist the temptation to multitask.
- Use video when possible: Facial expressions and body language can provide valuable cues for both the listener and speaker.
- Use verbal cues: Since nonverbal cues may be less visible in virtual settings, use verbal cues to show you’re actively listening—affirming statements like “I see what you mean,” or “Go on.”
- Practice patience: In virtual communication, there may be slight delays in audio or video transmission. Be patient and avoid interrupting the speaker, allowing them to finish their thoughts.
- Follow up: Since details can be lost in virtual conversations, you may want to follow up with a summary email or message to confirm your understanding and any agreed-upon actions. Or, you can offer to meet again to continue the conversation.
Good listeners make valuable friends, coworkers, and leaders. Active listening is a skill that anyone can develop with practice and intention. When you become a better listener, you strengthen your connections with others and enjoy more meaningful and productive conversations.