Active listening might sound like something that happens on a treadmill or an exercise bike. But while this communication technique doesn’t actually involve breaking a sweat, it does require you to invest some energy and stretch your comprehension muscles.
Let’s explore how active listening differs from the more halfhearted hearing most of us have grown accustomed to – and how you can condition your own active listening skills (no treadmill required).
What is active listening?
Active listening means listening to someone with the intent of hearing them, understanding their message, and retaining what they say.
You can think of active listening as the most engaged and committed form of listening to another person (you might also hear it called “attentive listening”). Beyond just hearing another person, you’re giving them your full attention.
The term “active listening” has been around since the 1950s and was first used in an article written by psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson, who wrote, “It requires that we get inside the speaker, that we grasp, from his point of view, just what it is he is communicating to us. More than that, we just convey to the speaker that we are seeing things from his point of view.”
Active listening examples
So what does active listening look like in the real world? Compare this attentive listening style to its pesky yet far more common counterpart: passive listening.
⛔️ Passive listening: Your direct report stops by your desk to vent about an interpersonal conflict. You listen to their side of the story while clearing out old emails, occasionally butting in to offer some advice and prove that you’re paying attention.
✅ Active listening: You remove your hands from your computer keyboard, silence your phone, and then turn to fully face your direct report. You wait until they’re finished before paraphrasing the details of the conflict and asking some follow-up questions.
⛔️ Passive listening: A colleague walks you through the steps of a process you’re taking over. You follow along quietly and politely (while mentally making your to-do list for the day). There are a few steps that are unclear, but you’ll sort it out later.
✅ Active listening: As your colleague breaks down the process, you ask clarifying questions to dig deeper into any confusing steps. When your coworker is finished, you quickly summarize the gist of the process as you’ve understood it, and your plan for what you’ll do next.
Why is active listening important?
Listening to understand, rather than just to hear, requires more of a conscious effort than the passive approach most of us are used to. So is it worth the effort?
Absolutely. It’s tough to overstate the importance of listening skills.
- It boosts understanding: The whole point of active listening is to improve comprehension. When it’s done correctly, both the sharer and listener have the chance to ask questions, give feedback, and reach a mutual understanding.
- It improves relationships: We all want to feel seen, valued, and understood. That doesn’t happen when someone gives us only half of their attention. Research shows that the concentration and sensitivity involved with active listening increase trust and benefits our relationships, amping up the harmony and collaboration on your team.
- It reduces bias: We process information through our own lenses. It’s human nature. But active listening forces you to step outside of yourself and see things from another person’s point of view. That can ease the biases and assumptions we tend to bring into our interactions – and when that happens, everyone wins.
Why is active listening so hard?
If active listening is so powerful, why don’t more of us do it? There are a number of challenges and roadblocks contributing to the uphill battle:
Too many distractions
Emails, instant messages, random thoughts, a pet in need of attention. Most of us are plagued by constant distractions that sabotage our focus.
Personal emotions and perceptions
Whether you’re doing it consciously or not, you bring your own perceptions and opinions to conversations, which can make it difficult to understand the speaker’s point of view. It also sometimes means you spend the time you should be listening on structuring your own defense and argument, rather than striving for true comprehension.
Some research indicates that the average person’s attention span is a measly eight seconds. Even if that’s a gross underestimate, this much is true: we have a hard time focusing on something for an extended period of time. If your conversational partner isn’t known for their conciseness, it becomes that much tougher to stay engaged with the information and commit to actively listening.
Our penchant for problem-solving
Humans tend to like solutions, not problems. So, particularly in circumstances when someone is sharing a challenge or describing a conflict, our natural tendency is to jump in with advice or an answer right away. Those reactions are well-meaning, but they can also be a major barrier to active listening when you’re only listening to find a potential answer, rather than understand the ins and outs of the problem.
The three a’s of active listening
Attitude: Approach conversations with a constructive attitude and an open mind.
Attention: Focus your attention solely on the content that’s being shared.
Adjustment: Maintain a degree of flexibility; follow the path of what your partner is sharing with you, rather than trying to anticipate what’s next.
How to improve your active listening skills
There’s no shortage of hurdles standing between you and becoming the go-to listener on your team. Here are a few active listening techniques to help you leap over those roadblocks.
1. Set yourself up for peak focus
First things first – you need to create an environment where you’re able to zone in on the person who’s speaking. Exactly what that looks like depends on your circumstances, but here are a few ideas:
- Set your devices to “do not disturb” for the duration of the conversation.
- Find a quiet place where you and that person can talk, if you’re discussing in-person. If you’re chatting virtually, close out all other browser tabs.
- Try to notice and tune out your own internal dialogue so you can focus intently on the other person.
Even if you employ those tricks, you might not be in the right headspace to fully listen to another person. Perhaps you’re in the middle of a challenging task or dealing with a personal problem that’s consuming your mental energy.
If that’s the case, ask the other person if you can connect later when you’re able to give them your full attention::
“I can tell this is super important to you and I want to be able to give you my full attention. Can we reconnect on this when I’m not feeling so distracted and preoccupied?”
2. Use nonverbal cues to reinforce your attention
If you’ve ever conversed with someone who couldn’t stop fidgeting in their chair or checking their watch, you know that nonverbal communication can be a powerful force. Show someone you’re listening using these nonverbal cues:
- Maintain eye contact for three seconds before briefly looking away. Psychologists say that’s the ideal length for showing interest without making people uncomfortable.
- Lean forward to show your engagement with the information that’s being shared.
- Nod or use positive facial expressions such as smiles or raised eyebrows to express agreement.
- Place your hands in front of you rather than crossing your arms or resting your chin in your hand (which can indicate boredom).
3. Avoid interrupting
Struggling to keep your lips zipped until it’s your turn to ask questions or offer feedback? Rather than placing your hands in front of you as suggested above, try to keep one hand over your mouth. It’s a subtle but powerful reminder that you should wait your turn to speak.
This is even easier if you’re conversing remotely – simply keep yourself on mute until your conversational partner is finished.
4. Summarize what has been shared
Paraphrasing is a key part of active listening. It can feel a little unnatural at first, but it’s crucial to demonstrate that you’ve understood what the other person is saying before moving forward with the discussion. Try using some of these segues:
- “It sounds like you’re saying that…”
- “My understanding is…”
- “What I’m gathering from this conversation is…”
- “Am I right in thinking that…?”
From there, you can hit the major pieces of information from your conversational partner. This gives them a chance to affirm that you’re understanding them correctly or offer corrections or clarifying information.
5. Ask open-ended questions
Ultimately, the goal of active listening is to fully wrap your head around the information being shared with you — and that might not happen right away. In those cases, you’ll need to wait until the speaker is finished and then ask some clarifying questions to get more information.
The most effective questions are open-ended, meaning they require a full response from the other person, rather than a quick “yes” or “no” (that’s known as a closed-ended question). Here’s an example of the difference:
- Closed-ended question: “Have you told the customer that we’d give them a full refund?”
- Open-ended question: “What have you already tried to smooth this over with the customer?”
Why does that distinction matter? Closed questions box people into thinking there’s a “correct” answer, rather than giving them an opportunity to openly share information with you.
6. Use active listening exercises
You don’t need to work on developing good listening skills all on your own. These simple active listening exercises will help you and your team practice top-notch communication and effective listening together:
Swap introductions: Pair up team members and have them share a one- or two-minute introduction with each other. Come back together as a group and have the team members introduce their partner to the entire team, using the information they just learned. It’s a low-pressure way to practice focusing and summarizing.
Practice silence: Again, split your team into pairs. Have one person tell a story about their life and instruct the other person to say nothing at all. They should sit in silence. Afterwards, connect on how that felt for each person – including whether the silence was uncomfortable and what nonverbal cues they noticed.
Askers and tellers: Choose one person to share a story and split the rest of your team into “askers” and “tellers.” Askers can only ask questions of the speaker, while tellers can only share their similar experiences. Afterwards, connect to debrief and figure out what helped the sharer feel the most heard.
Active listening takes effort
On the surface, listening seems like it should be simple. All you need to do is sit there, keep your lips zipped, and take in information. In reality, effective listening is complex – especially when there are a slew of barriers that sabotage our ability to fully comprehend another person.
But better comprehension and improved relationships are well worth the effort.
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