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What Is Active Listening (+9 Skills to Become a Better Listener)

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Have you ever had an argument where you keep explaining your idea, but no matter how many times you repeat or rephrase it, it just feels like you’re not getting your point across? 

Have you ever talked to someone who’s constantly checking their phone? Chances are the person you were talking to heard what you said, but nothing more.

They weren’t paying attention, and there’s a big chance they didn’t make an effort to understand what you were saying. In short, they weren’t actively listening to you.

active listening
Good eye contact is an important part of active listening.

In this post, you'll learn about active listening and discover how to improve your listening skills.

What Is Active Listening Anyway?

Understanding the definition of active listening is the first step to improving your active listening skills. 

People listen in two ways. Listening to music while driving, watching TV while eating, and listening to a lecture while taking notes, are all examples of passive listening. You’re listening but you've got no intention to respond, and your mind wanders from time to time.

Active listening, on the other hand, means dedicating your full attention to the speaker and giving a thoughtful response to what they said afterwards.

Three Components to Active Listening

  1. Comprehend. The listener pays attention to the speaker’s verbal and non-verbal language to fully understand what they’re trying to communicate.
  2. Retain. The listener tries to remember key points of the speaker’s message using their memory or via note-taking.
  3. Respond. You respond to the speaker to confirm your understanding of their message and to further your discussion on the subject. This only happens after analyzing and remembering what they said (components one and two).

Why Is Active Listening Important?

It may sound like a chore compared to passive listening but like problem solving and creativity, active listening is a soft skill that can improve multiple areas of your life.

Your ability to manage a team, get promoted, build relationships, avoid conflict, raise kids, and persuade people are all improved as your listening skills do. This is why active listening is important to master.

Active listening draws you out from what’s going on in your own head to the ideas and emotions the speaker is sharing, so you can then use this information to respond better.

How to Improve Your Listening Skills Step by Step

You now know the benefits of active listening. Now it’s time to learn how to improve your listening skills step by step.

1. Face the Speaker

Face your conversation partner. Don’t look at your phone, watch, or other people. Look at whoever is talking, even if they’re not looking at you as in the case with lectures or seminars.

Looking at your conversation partner doesn’t have to be creepy. You can look at other things from time to time, but not so frequently that it becomes noticeable. If you feel weird staring into the person’s eyes, look at their shoulders or other parts of their face instead.

 2. Picture What's Being Communicated

Visuals and mental models naturally form in your mind as you hear information. This is normal, and is a sign that all your senses are engaged in analyzing what the other person is saying.

Remember keywords, dates, phrases, and other details to help you form a clearer picture of the other person’s story.

3. Withhold Judgement

Sometimes, people listen only to help them formulate a response. That’s not active listening.

Listening with your full attention means remaining neutral, and not forming any opinions on what the speaker is telling you until they finish talking.

It’s inevitable to feel negatively towards another person’s idea from time to time, but don’t dwell on these feelings too long. Don’t groan inwardly and say, “Of course, that won’t work!” because your attention and understanding of the speaker’s idea gets compromised as soon as you indulge these negative sentiments. Remember, good listeners are open to new ideas even ones that contradict their beliefs.

4. Don’t Interrupt

Interrupting the person talking to you not only makes you rude, it also limits your absorption of the information relayed to you.

Don’t finish the other person’s sentences, even if you think you know what they’re about to say. Sentence grabbers often get things wrong because they’re following their own train of thought—not the speaker’s.

Save your questions and counter-arguments for later, even if the speaker is discussing the exact subject of your question. Interrupting someone at the middle of an explanation can cause them to lose their train of thought, and besides, there’s a possibility that your question or counter-argument will be addressed later on in their explanation so you need not interrupt them in the first place.

5. Reflect and Clarify

Reflecting and clarifying are two ways to ensure that you and the speaker are on the same page.

Reflecting means repeating what the other person said in your own words to confirm that you understood their message, while clarifying means asking probing questions to clear up potential misunderstandings. Both techniques work hand in hand to make the speaker feel heard, and ensuring that nothing got lost in translation.

Examples of clarifying and reflecting statements:

  • “So I heard you say….”
  • “I understand that you felt…”
  • “Back up one sec, what did you mean by...?”
  • “What would you consider as…?”

6. Summarize

Summarizing is similar to reflecting, except that when you summarize you’re making it clear that you’re about to move on from your current topic. When you summarize, you only explain the main points of the speaker’s overall topic, the minute details you may have had to clarify before are no longer important in this part of the conversation. 

7. Share or Respond

You might think this is just another variation of steps five and six. It’s not. Yes, you’re the one talking in the two previous steps, but you only talked to confirm your understanding of the other person’s message then.

Now that you’ve gained a better understanding of their message, it’s your turn to introduce your ideas and emotions into the conversation. You've got to go through all the previous steps first before you earn the privilege to share your thoughts. This way, the speaker won’t feel like you’re just pushing your own agenda because you took time to validate their feelings and ideas first.

Pro Tips for Effective Listening

  • Be honest, but assert your opinions with respect.
  • If you’re afraid that your suggestions will be seen as an attempt to control the other person’s actions, preface your suggestions with, “If that happens to me, I would…”

9 Active Listening Techniques

Practice the following active listening exercises with every conversation you have. Be careful though, as some of these tips may not be appropriate in certain situations or cultures. When in doubt, follow your instincts or observe how the people around you are conducting their conversations.

1. Smiles and Nods

Smiling from time to time suggests that you agree with the speaker’s message. If you combine this with nods and the occasional “uh-huh,” the person talking to you will feel that you’re paying attention to their message.

Smiling and nodding isn’t always appropriate, of course. You’re not supposed to smile if you’re hearing bad news or are being reprimanded. You shouldn’t nod when you don’t agree with what you’re hearing, as well. In both cases, a simple “I understand” or “I get it” would suffice.

2.  Eye Contact

Maintaining eye contact is tricky because not everyone is comfortable doing it, or being the one stared at for that matter. There’s no perfect duration of how long you’re supposed to gaze at the speaker, it just depends on you and the other person. You’ll have to play it by the ear. Steven Aitchison, social entrepreneurship expert, suggests breaking eye contact every five seconds by looking to the side, as if you’re trying to remember something.

If you’re worried that your gaze is too strong or a bit creepy, practice relaxing your face and your eyes will follow suit. Close your eyes for a few seconds and breathe deeply. Your facial expression will be more relaxed when you open them.

 3. Posture

You can tell a lot about a person’s interest in what you’re saying with their body language. Arms folded suggest the listener is defensive or not in agreement with the speaker’s message, for example.

Attentive listeners tend to lean in towards the speaker. Sometimes, their head is leaned sideways or resting on one hand. You can learn more about body language here:

4. Mirroring

Mirroring is the act of mimicking the speaker’s facial expressions, and is often used to show sympathy and agreement to their message.

For example, a friend who just got accepted to a new job will break the news to you with an excited look on their face. As a friend showing your support, the natural reaction would be to smile and look excited as well.

5. Practice Empathy

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try to feel what the other person is feeling while they’re talking to you. Imagine yourself in their situation. What would you feel? How would you react? This is the practice of empathy.

Don’t confuse this with sympathy, which is merely the act of feeling sorry for the misery of others, according to Psychology Today. When you’re sympathetic, you feel concerned for the other person’s welfare and wish them to feel better. Empathy goes beyond commiserating because when you empathize; you’re not only feeling sorry for the person, you’re also trying to see the situation from their perspective.

Empathy is helpful in communicating stressful and hard to explain experiences, because some stories are just hard to explain—you kind of have to be there to understand.

Check out this guide to learn more about practicing empathy at work:

6. Avoid Distractions

Turn off your phone’s notifications and don’t fidget too much, as this will distract the person talking to you. It makes them feel like you’d rather be somewhere else.

7. Positive Feedback or Reinforcement

Long conversations will feel terribly one-sided without the positive feedback of the listener. If you’re listening to a long story, use verbal signals such as “uh-huh,”  “okay” or “I understand” at strategic pauses in the conversation to confirm that you’re still following the story.

You can find more tips about starting and maintaining a great conversation here:

8. Redirect the Conversation If the Topic Gets Off Hand

A few weeks ago I was telling my friend about how I finally finished my CMAS Open Water Diving certification, and all the wonderful sea creatures I saw during our dives. Over the course of this talk, she mentioned our mutual friend, who was supposed to join that trip and get certified as well. The mere mention of his name caused me to go off tangent, explaining why he couldn’t come because of his work schedule and his brother coming from home from the holidays.

Before we both realized it, we’re trading stories of this friend’s previous car accident. I never got to finish my story about my weekend diving trip.

Conversation tangents like this happen all the time. One question can lead you into a whole other conversation, and before you know it you’ll have covered three topics without ever finishing one of them.

In this case, either you or the speaker will have to purposely redirect the conversation back to the original topic. 

Say something like, “It’s great to hear about XYZ, but continue telling me about (original topic) first.” This way you can finish the conversation before moving on to another discussion.

You might wonder, what’s so important about finishing one story before moving onto another? You’ll hardly feel the effects of conversational tangents if you’re catching up with a friend. But you'll notice it once you’re going around in circles in an argument or important team meeting.

9. Remember Small Details

Remembering key points of a conversation will help when it’s your turn to talk. Dates, names, locations, and other pertinent information can help you ask probing questions to clarify the speaker’s message.

Even if you understood what they said, repeating details of their story when you summarize their point shows that you understood and paid attention to them.

If you take note of these details, you can mention them next time you reconnect with the person, as in often the case with people you meet at networking events.

Practice Your Listening Skills

We've just answered the question: why is active listening important? Now it's time to improve your active listening skills. 

Try to observe how well you listen to conversations this week. Do you comprehend and retain information before you respond in conversations?

Once you get a baseline of your listening skills and identify your specific areas for improvement, such as eye contact or verbal cues, you can then follow the steps listed here and practice your listening skills with every conversation you have.

It might feel awkward at first, don’t worry about that. If it helps, you can tell the other person that you’re doing active listening exercises to improve your communication skills.

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