5 steps to becoming an active listener

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Active listening is being fully present and being actively engaged in a conversation. The goal is to understand, not to respond. An active listener gives their full attention and does not interrupt, they also paraphrase what you’ve said to confirm what they’ve heard. 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 strong 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

    Commit to listen. This can sometimes be difficult because it means placing yourself – your comfort, interest, needs and opinions- on the side and letting another person be at the center stage. It’s important to recognize that we learn more when we open our ears and hearts (and minds) than when we open our mouths.

    Create an open atmosphere where anything can be discussed safely. Give your full attention by avoiding distractions. For example, don’t do another task or check your phone constantly. Most importantly, don’t interrupt by offering your own take or finishing the sentence for them. Interrupting is the best way to kill a conversation. You will be putting the speaker on the defense. You’re also sending the message that your ideas and thoughts are more important than anything they’d have to say.

  2. Show that you’re listening

    Reassure the speaker by showing them that you are listening. You can do this through your body language like eye contact, turning your body towards them, nodding, and smiling. Use small cues like saying “uhm”, “ah”, or “go on” to encourage them to continue. Asking open-ended questions will encourage them to open up. Ask questions like “how did that make you feel?” or “What do you think he meant when he said that”? These show that you’re engaged and interested.

    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 just stay attentive. Don’t fill the silence with random words or worse, dismiss them because you’re feeling awkward. Give the speaker space to rein in their feelings.

  3. Don’t judge

    Avoid jumping to conclusions or moralizing. Remember that this is not a competition or a debate. As a thinking individual, it can be hard not to judge and compare another person’s views to your own standards and beliefs. However, it will be hard to actively listen to someone while attending to your own internal dialogue. 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 always agreeing. It’s all about showing empathy. You may not feel the same way or agree but you respect the other person enough to hear them out and try to see things through their eyes.

  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 lead you to 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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