Active Listening: A Primer

A man and a woman having a conversation

In the business world, long-term success hinges on excellent active listening skills. Many people mistake active listening for passively taking notes during a presentation, or worse - they think of ‘listening’ as ‘waiting quietly for their turn to speak.’. True active listening requires practice, patience, and engagement. It involves considering the speaker’s intentions, the context of the situation, and sometimes even what is not being said.

Active listening requires you to mentally and emotionally engage in the conversation. Listening without engaging with what is being said is the auditory equivalent of looking at a book without actually reading it - it wastes time and prevents you from getting anything useful from the experience. Worse, when you do it while an actual person is trying to communicate with you, you come across as rude and offensive.

Active listening comes in many forms. Some people nod their heads to acknowledge what the speaker is saying, others use ‘back-channeling’ (which means saying things like “uh-huh” or “hmm”). In most cases the speaker will notice whether you are really paying attention or are just faking it once it’s time for questions. If you’ve been paying attention and you’re genuinely confused, bring out a specific point the speaker made and ask her to clarify her meaning.

The top three skills that demonstrate active listening are showing that you are listening, paying attention, and providing feedback.

  • Showing that you are listening: To show others that you are listening to them, you need to give feedback. Allow your facial expressions to resemble the emotions of the conversation. Mirror the speaker’s enthusiasm or concern. Be careful, though - it can be easy to accomplish this even without actually paying attention to what the speaker is saying.
  • Paying Attention: To help you pay attention to the speaker, start by looking at them directly. Evaluate their body language - do they look anxious? Open? Use these cues to inform how you understand what the speaker is saying. It may also help you to try to visualize what the speaker is talking about. Of course, you’ll want to refrain from side conversations, or any other activity that would break your concentration on the speaker.
  • Provide Feedback: Paraphrasing what the speaker has said gives you the chance to test your understanding of their message by restating it in your own words, and it provides the speaker with an opportunity to clarify their statements. When approached correctly, providing feedback should give both conversation participants a chance to express themselves and deepen their understanding of the other’s position.

We should all strive to practice active listening. This valuable communication practice challenges us to offer our honest feedback, undivided attention, and empathy to the speaker. Active listening strengthens relationships, diffuses conflicts, and builds cooperation - things everyone could use a little more of in their personal and professional relationships.

To learn more about active listening, check out these courses from the OpenSesame marketplace:

(Image source: Clairity's Flickr)