5 steps to becoming an active listener

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Active listening means being fully present and actively engaged in a conversation. The goal is to understand, not to respond. The result is better communication where the speaker feels heard, validated and respected.

Benefits of active listening:

When you practice active listening, you:

  • retain information better
  • establish clear, and respectful communication
  • build stronger relationships
  • become a better leader
  • gain trust

Are you a good listener?

Try this quick self-rating quiz: Rate yourself 3 points if your answer is Always, 2 points if it’s Sometimes, and 1 point for Rarely.

  1. I allow people to finish their sentences before I speak.
  2. I try to listen even when I’m not interested in the topic.
  3. I make eye contact with the speaker when I’m listening
  4. I don’t interrupt to provide my own examples, experience or opinions unless asked.
  5. I notice the speaker’s mannerisms and tone of voice when I’m in a conversation.
  6. I take notes when necessary to remember what I’ve heard.
  7. I’m open to viewpoints different from mine.
  8. I don’t allow distractions when I’m listening to someone.
  9. I reflect back what the speaker said during the conversation.
  10. I respond by taking into account the points the speaker mentioned.

Scoring:

If you scored 28 to 30: Congratulations! You’re an active listener.
If you scored 24 to 27: You’re a good listener but you can improve.
23 and below: You need to develop good listening skills. Read the tips below to learn how you can be an active listener.


How to become an active listener:

  1. Focus

    Doing this can be difficult because it means placing yourself – your comfort, interests, needs and opinions- on the side, and letting someone else take centerstage. However, focusing is important if you really want to learn more.

    To focus, start by clearing distractions. For example, don’t do other tasks or keep checking your phone constantly. Not only is this distracting, it’s also disrespectful. Next, stop yourself from interrupting the speaker by offering your own take or finishing the sentence for them. This is the best way to kill a conversation. You will also be putting the speaker on the defense. When you do this, you are saying that your ideas and thoughts are more important than anything they’d have to say.

  2. Show that you’re listening

    You can do this through your body language. This includes eye contact, nodding, and smiling. Use small cues like saying “uhm”, “ah”, or “go on” to encourage them to continue. Asking open-ended questions will also help them to open up. These are questions like “how did that make you feel?” or “What do you think he meant when he said that”? These types of questions show that you’re engaged and interested. They also allow the speaker to go beyond a simple yes or no.

    But don’t be afraid of silence. We all need time to collect our thoughts especially when we are sharing something deep or emotional. Be patient and stay attentive. Don’t ask a question right away when they pause, fill the silence with random words or worse, dismiss them because you’re feeling awkward. Give them time.

  3. Don’t judge

    Avoid jumping to conclusions or moralizing. Sometimes, it can be hard not to compare another person’s experience with your own. When you do this, you are actually attending more to your own internal dialogue than actively listening. Learn to suspend your judgement and be open. You’ll learn more this way.

    It’s important to note at this point that active listening does not mean agreeing all the time. It’s more about showing empathy. You may not feel the same way but you respect the other person enough to hear them out and try to see things through their perspective.

  4. Observe non-verbal cues

    Sometimes what is unsaid is clearer than what is actually verbalized. Observing the speaker’s body language, facial expressions, posture, gestures, even their tone of voice will help you see the emotion behind what they’re saying. Observing these will help you understand the message more clearly.

  5. Provide an informed response

    A good listener is not like a sponge that absorbs what the other person is saying. A good listener is more like a trampoline – they are someone you can bounce ideas off of. They amplify, energize and clarify your thinking (What great listeners actually do).

    When it’s time for you to speak, identify and acknowledge the speaker’s emotions and feelings about the topic. It would be a good idea to repeat back or paraphrase important points they made to show that you understand. Make suggestions instead of telling them what to do (remember that it’s not about you). This allows the other person to have control over the situation. They may even be able to come up with their own solutions themselves.

Becoming an active listener takes constant practice. But once you get the hang of it, it is a skill that will not only make you an excellent communicator but a more empathetic human being.

 
Sources: What great listeners actually do, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, Harvard Business Review; Active listening, MindTools; and How to practice active listening, Amy Morin, Very Well Mind. Accessed March 17, 2021.

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