Last updated: 26.03.24

How to Be An Active Listener


Time and time again, when studies are conducted into what makes for a harmonious, productive and effective workplace, communication comes out as one of the most important factors. Part of good communication is the ability to listen.

Peers, employees, and those senior to you will all feel that you communicate better when you know how to properly listen and respond, making this a valuable skill. When it comes to looking after your employees or team members, one of the key skills you need as a manager is that of active listening.

Understanding and taking in what everyone else is saying will also help you to do your job better, so the benefits of active listening are widespread. In this article, we’re going to consider a few of the top tips that can help you become an effective active listener - even if you already think you are.

What Is an Active Listener?

An active listener is someone who practises methods of active listening when they are speaking to other people. They make a conscious effort to understand everything that someone is communicating, not just the words that they are saying, through paying full attention and prioritising making the other person feel heard over sharing their own thoughts.

Through actively listening, you can help establish a connection, build trust, understand differences, and help the speaker re-experience and understand their feelings. These are all consequences that can have a positive impact on both parties.

What Does an Active Listener Do?

Active listeners demonstrate a range of behaviours as part of their efforts to focus their full attention on the person who is speaking. If you’re working on how to be an active listener, the following actions will help you effectively develop your skills.

Focus your Attention

This one is probably the most obvious piece of advice, but it’s also likely the most important. If you’re going to be an effective active listener, you must make sure that when you’re involved in a conversation with them – even a minor one – you give the other person your whole attention. 

Half listening can mean you don’t take in everything that they say, which of course means that you aren’t actually being a good listener. Some of us can indeed multitask and can listen to someone speak while penning a quick email, but this really won’t show the other person that you’ve listened well. Even if you feel like you can half listen while doing something else, resist the urge and give the other person your full attention.

The other big benefit is that, if you’ve given your full attention to the other person, they’re far more likely to feel like you’ve listened. People like to feel that you value and are interested in what they are saying, and giving them your full attention shows this.

Let the Conversation Flow

Nobody likes to be interrupted, so don’t be tempted to do it unless absolutely necessary. One of the key methods of active listening is allowing the other person to have time to speak and then pause, without you then rushing to reply.

This is especially true when dealing with employees below you who might not have as much knowledge as you do. It might take them longer to explain something, or they might cover something you already know, but let them continue unless you really need to steer the conversation elsewhere. 

It can also be daunting for some people to engage in conversation with their supervisors and managers. While we’re on this point, it’s also worth noting that you shouldn’t rush people – don’t finish their sentences if there isn’t a natural pause.

Demonstrate Engagement

We’ve already mentioned the importance of giving your attention to the other person speaking, but it’s always a good idea to go one step further than that by properly engaging with what they are saying. Being a good listener doesn’t mean you have to stay quiet for the entire conversation, and you can demonstrate your engagement by offering encouragement and affirming your understanding.

Where there are pauses or questions, demonstrate that you’re engaged in the conversation by repeating things as you interpret them, or asking questions that prompt the other person to continue or clarify. Helping the other person to find a solution or feel as though they’ve come away from the conversation with something resolved is one of the best results of effective listening.

Show Genuine Interest

Consider this: would you want to share your concerns or struggles with someone who was inattentive or uninterested? Probably not. 

If you’re wondering how to show active listening in the best way, you must make sure that you are yourself and fully present in the conversation. This means that there is no personal or professional facade and instead, you’re authentic, warm and trustworthy. 

It is noticeable if people are automatic or not genuine in their responses and this might result in the speaker shutting down and being unwilling to continue. It might take several positive conversations for your colleagues to start trusting and feeling comfortable with you, but you can speed this process up by being a genuine version of yourself in every conversation.

Practice Empathy

Not every workplace conversation will require you to be empathetic; some chats will be positive or purely informational. But if a colleague or team member comes to you asking for advice or support, empathy is an important part of effective listening.

By being empathetic, you cast aside your own way of experiencing and responding to the world and, instead, try to understand the world as the speaker experiences it – ‘walk in their shoes’, as they say. By embodying this and acknowledging what the person is feeling, you help them feel like they are truly understood.

One of the most important active listening techniques is demonstrating to the other person that you understand what they’re saying, without projecting your own experiences or opinions on them too much. To do this, affirm their feelings or experiences by agreeing with them or validating what they’ve said with phrases like “That must have made you feel ___” or “That reaction is very understandable.”

Be Accepting

It is often hard for people to share or admit to things if they are worried that someone won’t understand them, or will judge or turn against them. But by showing acceptance, which is one of the characteristics of an active listener, you will show the speaker that they have worth regardless of what is said, done or felt, and that there is no judgement towards them. This can help increase their self-esteem and sense of worth.

Non-Verbal Communication

When you’re learning how to show active listening, one of the most important things you can do is demonstrate your engagement with non-verbal cues. This active effort to physically show that you’re listening is one of the most important active listener skills, as it silently encourages the other person to keep talking and shows them that you are focused.

Body language can play a huge part in a conversation. Research has shown that if there is conflict between what is being said and the facial expressions that support it, it’s someone’s facial expression that will be believed. 

Positive body language is important: an attentive and relaxed posture, interested facial expressions, steady but soft eye gaze and nodding. Affirmative noises, like humming in agreement or even just repeating ‘yes’ can add to this. Make eye contact where possible, and be relaxed and open.

Leaving Pauses

As humans, we often want to jump in and fill a pause in conversation. But one of the best methods of active listening is that you give the person time to think and to express themselves as they want.

This last point is important, as it is also common to try and guess what the other person is trying to say and jump in before they have finished speaking. It can be fantastic when you guess this correctly, but can be incredibly disheartening and frustrating when wrong, so it is best just to allow them to speak in their own time and way.

Don’t Offer Solutions

This last point about how to be a better listener is a really tough one that many people struggle with, as it is common for people to only feel useful if they are offering solutions. But what is often most effective is just showing understanding and sympathy towards what the speaker is going through. They often just want to be heard.

If they do want solutions or advice, active listening techniques advise that you should form the solutions with the speaker themselves, rather than prescribe it to them. This way, you’re more likely to arrive at a solution that they are happy with.

It is also helpful to ask open-ended questions, and then reflect back and summarise what they think they are saying. The questions help aid clarity, and reflecting and summarising help to check your own understanding. Both add to a positive and meaningful conversation.

How Does Active Listening Improve Communication?

Active listening can be used effectively in many instances. You may be mentoring or coaching someone, or a team member may be struggling with their mental health and describing the issue to you, or explaining a difficulty they are having with a task, or putting their argument forward for a pay rise. The situations are endless. 

However, active listening is not something we are taught. And when you haven’t had much practice, learning how to improve active listening can be very challenging.

Listening is difficult. Having an open discussion with someone is almost a step into the unknown. We don’t know what they are going to say or share, or what direction the conversation might go in. We might worry that we won’t be able to help or give a solution, or that we might not understand – the list goes on.

Despite the challenges, active listening massively improves communication so is definitely a skill worth pursuing. As we’ve already discussed, when you do things like showing engagement, leaving pauses and affirming or validating what has been said, the other person feels more listened to, is more likely to be honest, and the outcomes of the conversation will be more productive.

In the workplace, using active listening skills helps to build much stronger relationships between employees and develop better relationships between employees and managers. This leads to a more productive workforce, as employees who feel comfortable working together are more efficient, as well as happier.


What is the process of active listening?

The process of active listening begins with making sure that you’re not going to be distracted. This may involve changing your location or removing distractions like phones or laptops.

You then need to focus on listening to the other person instead of thinking about how you’re going to reply instead. Show engagement with physical cues, affirm what they’re saying and ask questions to make sure you fully understand their point of view. Only start talking yourself when you have fully understood the other person and checked that they have nothing left to say.

What are the main elements of active listening?

There are plenty of skills which are involved in active listening, but the four main elements of it are attention, comprehension, interpretation and retention. By paying attention, making sure you understand what has been said, confirming your interpretation of what has been said and retaining the information, you will have successfully listened to someone in the most effective way.

What is the opposite of active listening?

The opposite of active listening is passive listening. Passive listening happens when you’re not putting any effort into listening to the other person and don’t take in what they’re saying to you, effectively making the conversation pointless.


All of the points we have shared above, or a combination of these active listening techniques, will indicate to the speaker that you are truly listening and understanding what is said to them. And, really, what is more comforting than that?

Active listening is just one of the many skills leaders and managers need. We cover active listening in more detail in our ‘Introduction to Listening’ and ‘Coaching’ courses, or you can check out our ILM Assured Leadership and Management Training Package which includes our full suite of courses.