- Active listening requires the entirety of your attention. That means removing distractions and listening for understanding.
- To fully comprehend someone’s message, you must also consider cues other than their word choices.
- Rephrasing what the other person has said reassures the speaker that you were attentive to their message and allows them to clarify any inaccuracies.
We’ve all been there. You’re speaking to someone and even though you know they’re hearing you, you get the sense they’re not really listening.
As frustrating as that can be, most us would probably admit that we’ve also been the inattentive person on the other side of the equation, as well. It’s proof that we could all afford to work on our active listening skills.
Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would have rather talked.
– Mark Twain
What is active listening?
Active listening means listening to someone else with the intent of hearing them, understanding their message, and retaining what they say. Think of active listening as the most engaged and committed form of listening to another person. Beyond just hearing them, you’re giving them your full attention while signaling to the speaker that their message is being received and comprehended. It also helps you, as the listener, to engage with and understand the message more effectively.
The term “active listening” has been around for a while and was first used in a book written by psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson. In the book, they describe active listening like this:
“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 must convey to the speaker that we are seeing things from his point of view.”
The 3 steps of active listening
1. Preparing to listen by orienting yourself to the anticipated topic. For example, in a one-on-one conversation, you may simply ask what the other person would like to talk about. That gives you an opportunity to switch gears to the new topic – and away from whatever you were previously working on.
2. Observing verbal and non-verbal messages from the speaker. Research shows that up to 55% of communication is non-verbal, so it’s important to not only listen, but observe.
3. Providing feedback that signals your attentiveness to the speaker. Rephrasing key points also helps you process and retain the information you just heard. But keep in mind, this step is not about judgment or agreement, just comprehension.
What are examples of active listening?
How do we build the self awareness to ensure we don’t fall into a default approach of passive listening, where we tune people out, give half of our attention, or simply wait for our own turn to speak?
Here are a couple of examples of what it can look like in the real-world.
🛑 Passive listening: Your direct report has stopped by your desk to vent about an interpersonal conflict that’s happening on your team. You listen to their side of the story while simultaneously clearing out old emails, occasionally butting in to offer some advice or encouragement and prove that you’re paying attention.
✅ Active listening: You remove your hands from your computer keyboard, silence your phone, and 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 is walking you through the steps of a process that you’re going to take over. You follow along quietly and politely (while mentally making the rest of your to-do list for the day). There are a few steps that are unclear, but you figure that you’ll sort it out later. You just need to get through this meeting.
✅ Active listening: As the 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 and your plan for what you’ll do next and when you’ll take over.
The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent.’
– Alfred Brendel
Why is active listening important?
Active listening is about listening to understand rather than just to hear. That isn’t inherently difficult —but it does require much more of a conscious effort than the passive approach most of us normally take.
Is it worth the effort? Absolutely. Active listening offers a number of advantages:
1. It boosts understanding
The very point of active listening is to boost comprehension. When it’s done correctly, both the sharer and listener will have opportunities to ask questions, provide feedback, and work together to reach a mutual understanding.
As a result, it’s an effective communication tool for reducing the crossed wires and miscommunications that can send projects and teams veering off track.
2. It improves relationships
Who are you more likely to approach with a question or problem: the person who gives you only half of their attention or the person who genuinely seeks to understand the information you share and your feelings about it? The second one, right?
We all want to feel seen, valued, and understood, and research shows that the concentration and sensitivity involved with active listening increases trust and benefits our relationships — which can amp up the harmony and collaboration on your team.
3. It reduces bias
It’s human nature that we receive and process information through our own lenses. However, active listening requires that you step outside of yourself and see things from the other person’s point of view. That can greatly reduce the biases and assumptions that we bring into our interactions.
One study of door-to-door canvassers that were addressing anti-transgender prejudice found that a single 10-minute conversation that incorporated “active processing” and “perspective taking” actually reduced prejudice and even increased support for a nondiscrimination law.
When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.
– Ernest Hemingway
What are barriers to effective listening?
If active listening is so great, why don’t more of us do it? Well, the short answer is that it doesn’t come naturally — especially since we’ve become so used to dealing with the following challenges and roadblocks:
- Too many distractions: You want to listen intently, but your computer keeps dinging with new emails and instant messages. Your phone won’t stop buzzing. You just remembered something that you need to add to your grocery list. Most of us are plagued by constant distractions (both internal and external), and one Harvard study found that the average person’s mind wanders 47% of the time. You can’t be an active listener if those constant interruptions continue to sabotage your focus.
- Personal emotions and perceptions: It’s tough to check your own perspective at the door and enter into a conversation with a totally open mind. Whether you’re doing so consciously or not, you’re far more likely to bring in your own perceptions and opinions, which can make it increasingly difficult to put yourself in the speaker’s shoes and understand their point of view. It also means you can spend a lot of the interaction structuring your own defense and argument, rather than listening to comprehend.
- Information overload: 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 and instead provides unnecessary details or drones on and on, it becomes that much tougher to stay engaged with the information and commit to actively listening.
- Problem-solving: Most of us don’t like problems — we like solutions. So, particularly in circumstances when someone is sharing a challenge or issue, our natural tendency is to jump in with advice or an answer right away. Those interruptions are well-meaning, but they’re also a major barrier to active listening. You’re only listening to find a potential answer, rather than understand the ins and outs of the problem.
How to improve your listening skills (and transform into an active listener)
There’s no shortage of hurdles that stand in between you and becoming the go-to good listener for your team. Here are a few strategies 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. What that involves will vary depending 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.
- Try to tune out your own internal dialogue so you can focus intently on the other person.
- Institute a “no devices” rule in meetings that require full attention.
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. Here’s an easy way to make that request:
“I can tell this subject 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 carries a lot of weight. You can show someone you’re listening with some (or all) of the following actions:
- 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
This one will be more of a challenge for those of us who are used to jumping in and cutting other people off.
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
Summarizing is a key part of active listening. It involves condensing the main points of what someone has shared into your own words.
It can feel a little unnatural at first, but it’s crucial for confirming that you have the right understanding 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…”
- “Here’s what you just shared with me…”
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 to offer any necessary corrections or clarifying information.
5. Ask open-ended questions
Ultimately, the goal of active listening is to fully understand the information that’s 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.
What are the 3 A’s of active listening?
As you continue to research and practice active listening skills, you might hear people refer to the “three A’s” of active listening or “triple-A listening.” These stand for:
Attitude: Approach conversations with a constructive attitude and an open mind.
Attention: Avoid concentrating on your concentration, so to speak, and dedicate your attention purely to the content of what’s being shared.
Adjustment: Maintain a degree of flexibility to follow the course of what a speaker is sharing with you rather than trying to anticipate what will be said.
What are some active listening exercises?
Want to work on building active listening muscles with your entire team? Here are a few simple active listening exercises you can try that are equal parts informative and fun:
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 chance for them to practice listening 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 about 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.
Pssst…are you listening?
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.
But in reality, effective listening is complex, especially when there are a slew of barriers that sabotage our ability to fully comprehend another person. That’s where active listening comes in. Put it into practice and you won’t just hear information—you’ll actually understand, process, and retain it. That’s when the real communication magic happens.