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We all know at least one person where anything that you tell them goes in one ear and out the other.
Sometimes we’re that person.
It’s normal to not listen well occasionally but if it’s a habit, it will become a problem both in personal and professional situations.
The solution is to learn how to use active listening techniques to become a better listener.
You likely use some aspects of active listening naturally, but probably not all of them.
The good news is that you can learn. As Mortimer J. Adler said in How to Speak, How to Listen:
[S]kill in listening is either a native gift or it must be acquired by training.
Learning how listen actively will:
- Improve your memory and recall.
- Make people enjoy talking to you more.
- Strengthen your personal and professional relationships.
If that sounds like it’s worth the effort, this guide will help you.
We’ll go over some research-backed insights, the main elements of active listening, as well as tips and examples to apply active listening effectively.
Introduction – What is Active Listening? A Definition
Active listening is a style of listening where the listener is fully concentrated on the speaker. They focus on fully understanding the message before evaluating and responding to it.
Note: there is no single definition of active listening.
Active Listening Versus Passive Listening: What’s the Difference?
Passive listening really only has one step – hearing.
In an extreme case of passive listening, you physically hear the words being spoken, but don’t respond to them in any way. This is what happens when it seems like someone is just waiting for you to stop talking so they can say something.
We can sum up the main differences between the listening styles with a short table:
|Active Listening||Passive Listening|
|Reactions||Reacts to what’s said||Doesn’t react to what’s said|
In realistic situations, most people exhibit a mix of the two styles. Your goal should be to shift most of your listening towards the active side.
It will take an effort to acquire active listening skills but you may be surprised at the speed with which you progress.
Where is Active Listening Used?
Active listening is advocated for and applied in many professional settings.
Here are some notable scenarios:
- Health care and HIV counseling
- Conflict resolution in business and law
- Public interest advocacy
- In the U.S. State Department
- In the U.S. Institute of Peace
Whether you’re a business owner, employee, freelancer, or customer, active listening has many benefits.
Why is Active Listening Important?
Before we break down the key elements of active listening, I want to explore the benefits for learning and practicing it.
These will keep you motivated as you learn.
The biggest benefits of active listening are:
- Higher emotional intelligence – Emotional intelligence has the highest correlation to leadership success of any factor (including education and technical ability).
- Conflict resolution – Conflicts arise from differences between people, often due to misunderstandings. Active listening helps people get on the same page and can even prevent, mitigate, or resolve conflicts.
- People feel “heard” – People can only make positive connections with each other when they understand each other, which is what active listening helps with.
- Better outcomes – The clearer you can communicate with others, the better you can understand and respond in the best way. In business, this results in greater achievements. In your personal life it results in less frustration and more enjoyment.
When you put these all together in the workplace, workers develop better relationships, are better at working together, and are happier.
Active Listening Techniques and Skills
Depending on who you ask, there are several stages of active listening.
But there are no formal labels, so you may see slightly different names but with similar meanings.
Active listening is more about the concepts than a specific, rigid process that must be taught.
Let’s go over 5 stages, one-by-one.
Keep in mind that all these stages occur whether the conversation takes a few seconds or several minutes. Once you practice, they will become automatic over time.
Stage #1: Hearing and Attending
The first stage is sometimes called receiving and has two main components: hearing and attending.
“Hearing” refers to not only the process of processing the sound waves that hit your eardrum, but also receiving input using other senses. It includes what you see, and what you feel emotionally (similar to empathetic listening).
Attending refers to processing those inputs further to recognize the distinct words and actions you observed.
The biggest key to this stage is focus. You need to offer your undivided attention to the communicator if you’re going to receive the complete message that they are communicating.
Some techniques you can use to help focus are:
- Face the speaker
- Don’t multi-task
- Lean forward a bit
- Sit or stand still
- Nod when it feels appropriate
- Make eye contact, but don’t stare
Eye contact not only helps you focus but also assures the speaker that they are being heard.
At the same time, too much eye contact, especially if you don’t blink, may make the speaker feel uncomfortable. It also means that you may not pick up on body language if your vision is limited to their eyes.
Make eye contact but stay alert to body language.
Stage #2: Understanding
Once you’ve “heard” the message without interrupting, you can start to process the meaning behind the input.
Many people try to judge and respond before this process is over.
Instead, you want to give your mind a chance make sense of what you heard.
You do this by leaving some silence to make sure the speaker is completely done.
The biggest obstacle to being better at understanding is not judging. If you start forming a response before all the information is processed, you may ignore something important and end up with an awkward or incorrect response.
That can shut further communication down.
Stage #3: Evaluating
Once you’ve heard everything and are sure of what you’ve heard, now you can start evaluating the message.
Based on the meaning of the words, and the feelings you have from observing their non-verbal communication, you can decide on what your response will be.
Stage #4: Responding
At this point, the speaker is done talking, there’s been a brief moment of silence, and they are clearly looking for a response from you.
When you’re actively listening, your understanding may be that you don’t understand the message. Your response here may just be for clarification:
- Could you repeat that?
- Could you rephrase that?
- Could you elaborate about that a little more?
Stage #5: Remembering
Has a friend ever told you they were going to do something, and you responded to confirm that you heard them. And then a few hours later when they leave you ask “Where you going?” because you already forgot.
That’s passive listening in effect. One of the biggest markers of passive listening is that almost nothing is remembered.
Just by going through the other stages, you’ll automatically start to remember things mentioned in conversations better.
However, it’s also a good idea to take a bit of time after a conversation to think about what was said in detail to further improve how well you remember it.
Active Listening Examples
It’s hard to get a full picture over text, but let’s look at a few potential response scenarios when active listening is used.
Example #1: Paraphrasing
Sofia: I don’t think our department should take on this new project at this time because we already have a lot on our plate. I don’t think we’ll be able to get it done on time.
Mariana: So, your department is resource-constrained. And you don’t believe this project could be done on time, because of this. But you’re open to taking the project on at a different time? Is that correct?
Sofia: Yes, that’s correct.
Example #2: Empathy and Clarification
Mariana: Well, we definitely don’t want your department to become over-extended. You’re doing an excellent job, and we want you to have ample resources for completing the current project. If we pushed the deadline for this proposed project 4 months out, would that work for you?
Sofia: Yes, if we could delay the start of the project until the current one ends, we’d have enough personnel to take it on and deliver it on time.
Is There More to Good Listening?
Recent research published in Harvard Business Review (What Great Listeners Actually Do) revealed that managers perceived as having good listening skills had some common approaches to listening that stood out.
Based on their findings the researchers suggest the following:
- “[P]eriodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. These questions gently challenge old assumptions but do so in a constructive way.”
- Strike a tone that is cooperative, not competitive.
- View good listening as a two-way dialog that bolsters the other’s self-esteem. How is this done? By making the other feel supported and confidence in them; and by creating an environment in which others feel safe discussing issues openly.
- Provide feedback and suggestions: “Good listening invariably included some feedback provided in a way others would accept and that opened up alternative paths to consider.”
Practicing Your Skills: Active Listening Exercises
While you can certainly practice and develop active listening during your regular conversations, it also takes a lot of motivation and effort to sustain this practice.
If you’re in a professional situation where many people could benefit from learning about active listening, you may want to consider using some of the exercises offered by the U.S. Peace Institute of Peace.
The Institute recommends pairing off participants and practicing a few scenarios.
This could include:
- Asking each other what they did during the weekend.
- Asking about what the other is currently working on.
- Asking about the most recent professional problem they faced (or are facing).
Each pair should take turns being the initial asker and listener. The benefit of doing this in a controlled session is that you can take time after the conversation to discuss whether each party felt understood.
If you have several students, you can switch up the pairs for more practice.
You should focus on all the elements of active listening we’ve looked at so far:
- Eye contact.
- Noticing non-verbal communication.
- Focus (sitting still, not looking at phones, etc.).
- Leaving a moment of silence after a question or response.
- Not interrupting.
Here are a few questions that you might have in the back of your mind.
What’s the History of Active Listening? Where Did it Come From?
The term “active listening” came from a paper titled “Active Listening,” published in 1957 by Carl Rogers and Richard Farson.
You can buy a hardcopy here if you wish.
In the paper, they state:
People who have been listened to in this new and special way become more emotionally mature, more open to their experiences, less defensive, more democratic, and less authoritarian.
When is it Appropriate to Use an Active Listening Style?
More and more research is showing that active listening seems to be effective in almost any other situation.
However, there is some criticism by psychological researchers like John Gottman.
In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work he said the following:
“Active listening asks couples to perform Olympic-level emotional gymnastics when their relationship can barely walk. . . . After studying some 650 couples and tracking the fate of their marriages for up to fourteen years, we now understand that this approach to counseling doesn’t work…
So while active listening is a great tool, there may be certain situations where it’s not the best immediate solution.
What’s the Difference Between Active and Reflective Listening?
Most people get active listening confused with reflective listening because they share a lot of elements.
Reflective listening was coined by Dalmar Fisher and is a specific type of active listening strategy.
It involves all the same elements but has an added focus on empathy.
How Can You Be a Good Listener If You Are Easily Distracted?
It’s not uncommon for people to check their smartphone multiple times in the middle of a conversation, dinner, or in an important meeting.
Reducing multitasking habits may not come easy, but recognizing it is a problem that’s affecting your communication is an important first step.
Becoming more mindful (staying in the present) is the next skill to practice to overcome this issue. Here’s a guide to getting started with mindfulness.
Everyone should strive to be a better listener.
For most, that means learning about active listening and practicing it.
Improving your listening habits requires conscious effort. So focus on developing one or two of the elements we looked at in this guide on a daily basis.
Over time, you will become a more active listener.
If you know anyone that doesn’t listen to you, consider sending them this guide!
Next Steps: Recommended Reading
Research shows that emotional intelligence is the most predictive factor when it comes to leadership success. Read this short introductory guide to learn how you can hone and develop your emotional IQ.
Active listening is part of interpersonal communication. Advance your communication skills — and career — with these practical tips.