BLOG ARTICLE
Last updated: 26.05.21

What are Active Listening Skills?

If you want to be a successful team player, manager or leader, you need to have good listening skills.

Listening attentively and making other people feel heard is just as important as being able to clearly communicate yourself. In many cases, the ability to actively listen and show your engagement will benefit you just as much in your career and personal life as being about to take charge and speak your own opinion.

Active listening is a skill that is used in a huge variety of different industries and situations, from counselling to healthcare and project management. Not only is it the best way to gather information from others and avoid simple mistakes or misunderstandings, but it’s also a brilliant tool to establish trust amongst a team and ensure that those you work with feel understood.

What is Active Listening?

Active listening is more than just paying attention to someone who is speaking. It’s about listening with all of your senses, focusing on the verbal and non-verbal communication of the person who is speaking, and demonstrating that you are engaged with the conversation.

Active listening is commonly used in counselling or therapy sessions by professionals who want to make their patient feel understood, build a positive relationship and ensure that they don’t miss any non-verbal cues that indicate other feelings or thoughts. However, active listening is also an incredibly valuable skill to have in the workplace no matter what your position is, as it builds trust between employees, minimises misunderstandings and indicates that you are present and committed to a conversation.

Active listening skills are the techniques required to actively listen when someone is speaking and demonstrate that you are paying attention. They often don’t come naturally to people and take a fair amount of work to master, but are incredibly useful once you know what you are doing.

Why is Active Listening Important?

In a modern world where we are increasingly being plagued with distractions and expected to be doing multiple things at once, active listening is a vital skill that helps you to fully tune into a conversation and make people feel respected and appreciated. It’s important because it demonstrates genuine interest and respect for another person’s opinion instead of making them feel like they’re not being heard.

Being an active listener is also important if you want to get the most out of the conversations you have and ensure that you don’t miss information. When you’re thinking about how you’re going to reply instead of what someone else is saying, you’re likely to miss key points or mishear what they’re telling you.

If you’re looking to establish yourself as a successful leader or a valuable team member, active listening is very important as it will make you a brilliant person to work with and show that you value other people’s opinions instead of just steamrolling ahead by yourself. Others will also trust you more, and you’ll have much better relationships with your co-workers and more senior members of staff as well.

Active Listening Techniques

Active listening is an approach that has a lot of different elements to it. Here are some of the best techniques to use to demonstrate that you are listening and ensure that you don’t miss part of the conversation.

Have an Open Attitude

A key feature of active listening is approaching all conversations without any preconceptions of what might happen or what someone else might say. This allows you to listen without being critical and will stop you from getting distracted if any of your assumptions are proved wrong or right.

If you appear open and friendly, you’re also much more likely to have better conversations simply because your tone and the energy you give off will be positive.

Give 100% of Your Attention

This is one of the most important principles of active listening. Although it will feel difficult, you have to give it your full attention to properly engage with a conversation.

Instead of thinking about what you would like to say or planning responses to certain points, put all of those reactions to one side and appreciate every word that the other person is saying. If you feel your focus drifting, bring it back to the conversation and try and focus on the speaker and their words.

It can help to shift your focus by approaching conversations with the mindset that you are there to listen and not to spend your time talking. If you prioritise attentive listening over getting your own point across before even starting a conversation, you’ll be in a better headspace to pay attention.

Adjust Your Perspective

Similarly to having an open attitude, to properly engage with a conversation you need to be mindful of adjusting your perspective. 

If someone is talking to you about something you’re not familiar with, it can be easy just to switch off instead of trying to make sense of their words. Equally, we can stop valuing what someone else is saying if they share an opinion that we don’t agree with.

Instead of letting your reactions get in the way of actively listening, focus on trying to understand the sense or emotion behind what someone is saying, even if you are unsure about some of the specifics. Also, remember not to let gut reactions derail your focus.

Listen with Empathy

Emotional intelligence is incredibly important when it comes to active listening, so you should remember to exercise empathy when engaging in conversation. Being empathetic is all about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagining how they feel, which will help you to better understand their point of view.

Listening with empathy will also make you a better listener as the speaker will feel like you are fully understanding their feelings and feel more supported. Using your emotional intelligence whilst listening is also a good way to make yourself more present in the conversation, as you’ll be engaging your other senses instead of just your hearing.

Ask Specific Questions

Once someone has finished speaking, a useful way to cement the understanding your active listening has provided is to ask specific questions. You should be able to recall certain points that the other person has mentioned, and you can demonstrate that you were paying attention by asking for further detail.

Avoid asking vague questions that don’t need answering, or asking a question that isn’t connected to the topic they have just been discussing.

Demonstrate Understanding

At the end of a conversation, you’ll make the speaker feel much more understood if you demonstrate that you have taken in everything they have told you. This can be by asking detailed questions, as explained above, or it can just involve repeating back the key points they made.

Not only does this show that you have been paying attention, but it also gives you a chance to recap what you have heard and realise if any points need clarifying or repeating.

How to Demonstrate Active Listening Skills

A key benefit of active listening is making the person you are conversing with feel fully engaged with and understood. Along with the above techniques, here are some ways to demonstrate that you are using your active listening skills.

Face the Speaker

This may seem like an obvious tip, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t bother facing someone who is talking to them. Turning your whole body towards the person you are talking to demonstrates that they have your full attention and makes it easier for you to focus solely on what they are saying and doing. You’ll also catch any non-verbal cues as well, which can help you to get a better understanding of what they are trying to convey.

Make Eye Contact

This is another piece of advice that might seem obvious, but making sustained eye contact with someone you are speaking to is not a skill that comes very naturally to most people. You don’t have to stare unblinkingly at them for the whole conversation, but you should look them in the eye around 60-70% of the time so they know you’re listening and focusing on them.

Making eye contact also conveys trust and appreciation, which will make you seem open and friendly and improve your relationship with the people you listen to.

Nod Along

One of the key features of active listening is showing positive engagement with what someone is telling you and affirming their points as they speak. An easy way that you can do this is by providing non-verbal assurance that you are listening such as nodding your head in response to points being made.

Avoid Interruptions

The basis of being an active listener is that you listen intending to hear the other person instead of listening in order to talk to them instead. It can sometimes be tempting to jump in and interrupt if you have an idea or a good point to make, but this suggests that you don’t care about what the speaker is saying and may mean you miss something important.

If you do decide you have something to say, make a mental note to mention it when the other person stops speaking. Then, turn your attention back to actively listening and wait until the speaker is finished.

Give Verbal Affirmations

Finally, a common way to demonstrate that you are actively listening is to give verbal affirmations to show that you understand what the speaker is telling you. Saying things like ‘yes’ and ‘I see’ or ‘you’re right’ lets the person talking know that you are following what they’re saying and makes them feel more confident and at ease.

You can also repeat back the key words or phrases as a way of showing you are listening, which is also a good technique for helping to commit what you are being told to memory.

FAQs

What is the difference between hearing and active listening?

The term ‘hearing’ is quite a broad description of an action, but in comparison to more attentive listening, it just means that you are paying attention to what someone is saying and hearing them, but not putting much more energy into the act. Active listening, in comparison, means that you are paying full attention to what someone is saying, responding to show that you are engaged and trying not to focus on what you are going to say next. 

In most cases, it is much better to actively listen to someone instead of just hearing them.

What are the benefits of active listening?

One of the main benefits of active listening is that it means you are far less likely to miss important information from the person who is talking to you and fully understand what they are saying. You’ll also make the person who is speaking feel more understood and respected by giving them your full attention, which builds stronger relationships and leads to more productive conversation. 

What are the barriers to active listening?

Some common barriers that get in the way of effective active listening include external distractions, prioritising getting your point across over listening, emotional language and preconceptions about the speaker. All of these can limit how closely you listen to someone and how much you respect what they are saying, both of which can cause problems in a conversation.

Summary

Using active listening skills in the workplace and your personal life will have a significant effect. Your relationships will grow stronger, you’ll establish yourself as a great listener and communicator, and you’ll find that you retain more information from conversations and feel more present when someone is talking to you.

For more advice on listening and communication skills, we offer an ‘Introduction to Listening’ online training course as part of our Leadership and Management resources, which discusses active listening techniques and more valuable advice on how to have effective conversations and manage communication.

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