What is active listening? Skills and techniques to improve communication

colleagues having a discussion

Has everything been "in one ear and out the other" lately? Pay more attention to your conversations with our guide to active listening.

If you’ve been struggling to follow conversations lately or you’ve found yourself asking others to repeat themselves, then chances are your listening skills may be a little lacking. Improving our listening is a huge part of effective interpersonal communication at work and in our personal lives. But when we’re lending an ear, what can we do to make sure we’re fully present and engaged with those who are speaking?

Active listening is a method we can use to improve the way we participate in conversations. Anyone can passively listen to a conversation, but by actively involving ourselves with what’s being said, we can reap the true benefits of speech.

To help you out, we’ll run through what we mean by active listening, how it can benefit you, and how you can start to improve your own approach to listening to others.

smiling businesswoman

What is active listening?

Active listening is a way to receive information from another individual or group. We can do this by paying attention to the conversation, avoiding interruptions, and taking time and care to understand what the speaker is talking about.

The “active” part of active listening comes by drawing out details that the speaker may not have otherwise mentioned. It’s a helpful skill that can benefit anyone looking to develop it, allowing the listener to truly understand what’s being said, rather than what you want to hear or think you hear.

Whether it’s conversations, meetings or job interviews, active listening is crucial to build a rapport with who you’re conversing with. In these moments, we tend to spend a lot of time preoccupied in our thoughts, rather than paying attention.

Active listening shifts the focus from our inner monologue to what is being communicated, allowing us to pay full attention to our colleagues, bosses and interviewers.

What are the benefits of active listening? 

Avoiding misunderstandings

Passive listening often leaves us in a position of misinterpretation. Beyond the simple mix-ups, the more serious misunderstandings have the potential to damage personal and professional relationships.

Mastering active listening lets us receive the message as it was intended, and certain techniques, such as paraphrasing, validates that we’ve understood what the speaker has communicated.

Builds stronger relationships

It’s always disheartening when someone is clearly not paying attention to what you’re saying. Neither is it a secret that people like it when they know they’re being listened to and understood.

Active listening brings both content and intent to the fore; we can understand what’s being said as well as the underlying emotions behind the message. This helps to instil greater trust between the speaker and the listener; the speaker is likely to be more transparent with the listener if they know they’re lending a sympathetic, understanding ear.

businessmen listening to colleague 

Improved productivity

We’ve all been in meetings where, despite our best efforts, our minds have drifted away from the topic. In workplace contexts like these, passive listening can be dangerous, leading us to miss out on key information and potentially damaging interpersonal relationships with our colleagues.

Using active methods of absorbing information, such as asking questions, listeners are primed to retain crucial information which can improve performance when returning to their duties.

Overcome disagreements

Active listening can also go a long way to disarm hostile moments in and out of the office. The default response to disagreements tends to respond in the same way, but by being more active in our approach, we can defuse situations more readily.

Sometimes, letting the speaker know they’ve been heard can be enough to soften their stance. From here, you can work on resolving things with other options.

Verbal and non-verbal tactics to improve active listening

Non-verbal signs

• Smiling: Small smiles and nodding your head can show the speaker we understand, agree with them, or are happy about what’s being said, affirming to them that they’re being listened to.

• Making eye contact: Eye contact is important, but there’s a fine line between too much and too little. While it’s normal and encouraging to look at the speaker, make sure you’re not burning a hole through them with your glare. Always gauge the situation and decide from there.

concentrating businessman

• Being mindful of our posture: If we’re slumped in our chair, it sends a message to the speaker that we’re disinterested in what they’re saying. Active listeners tend to sit up, lean slightly forward with arms uncrossed; even something as simple as this can be a powerful tool in how we approach listening.

• Mirroring the speaker: Reflecting the facial expressions and body language of the speaker shows them we’re being attentive; and can even help to communicate sympathy and empathy in more emotionally-charged conversations. Be sure to pay attention to how the speaker presents themselves.

Verbal signs

• Positive reinforcement: Signal attentiveness by using encouraging words in response to the speaker. But be careful not to go overboard, as this can distract the speaker; it’s better to elaborate and explain why you agree with certain points.

• Remembering previous points: Recalling key points that were made earlier in the conversation or from previous instances shows the speaker that you understand their messages. If you’re in a long meeting, don’t be afraid to make notes on details, ideas and concepts to help jog your memory later.

• Asking questions: Show you’re listening by asking questions or making statements related to what’s been said. This reinforces that you’re engaged with what the speaker has said.

• Reflection: Repeating or paraphrasing what the speaker has said shows that you understand the conversation and can be a hugely powerful component of active listening.

• Summarisation: As much for your own benefit as it is the speaker’s, summarising by repeating what has been said in your own words helps to reiterate the main messages clearly – allowing the speaker the chance to correct you if necessary.

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