Professional Development

Tips For Improving Your Active Listening Skills

By: Emily Totura
Apr 1, 2021 • 6 min read

Sharpen Your Active Listening Skills – Here’s How!

Do you sometimes find it hard to stay engaged in a conversation? We’ve all been there. Whether it’s been a long day at work or finding yourself in conversation that isn’t very exciting, it can be hard to pay attention. Active listening is a pattern in which you’re engaged in the person who is speaking to you. It’s a technique that anyone can practice so that you can let people know that they’re heard and that their time is valued and important. So, if you struggle with staying focused when talking to people, keep reading! In this article, we’ll share everything you need to know about how to improve your active listening skills. 

woman sitting on yellow armless chair near gray laptop computer

What are active listening skills, and why are they so important?

Active listening skills are one of the most important skills to have. Not only is it important in the workplace, but it’s also fundamental for your personal relationships. When thinking about active listening, there are three key components to keep in mind. The purpose is: to gather information, to understand the person speaking to you, and to learn. With technology becoming integrated into our daily lives, we aren’t as used to actual conversations. It’s a lot easier to send a quick email to someone rather than talking. This is completely fine; however, you can’t avoid talking—and listening—forever. So, think about it this way, if you had something important to share with someone and weren’t paying attention to what you said, you wouldn’t feel important to them. Here are some of the benefits:

  1.     It builds trust

As you practice your active listening, people will begin to feel more comfortable opening up to you. This is because they’ll see that you value what they have to say. They’ll also realize that you aren’t going to jump to conclusions or rush them. Relationships take time, so it might not happen after your first encounter, but this is the first step.

  1.     Your perspective will change

In every situation, people have different views, opinions, and perspectives—not everyone sees things the way you do. Understanding others helps you to form new ways of thinking. It makes you more well-rounded, and it will be easier to get along with others, especially if you don’t necessarily agree with everything that they say.

  1.     It improves your patience

Working on your active listening skills takes time and regular, consistent practice. However, as your listening improves, so will your patience. Why? Patience is crucial to this skill. You can’t cut someone off during their speaking, and you need to be respectful of what they are saying.

  1.     You’ll become more approachable

When people know that they can talk to you without being judged, they’ll be more likely to communicate with you in the future. In caring what they have to say, they will want to express their feelings and concerns with you.

  1.     It’s an opportunity to learn

Especially in a work setting, active listening builds competency—regardless of your role. You’ll get more out of meetings and conversations with coworkers. This kind of progressive learning allows you to learn so that you’re more efficient at work.

  1.     You won’t waste your time as much

Even if you consider yourself a decent listener, you might miss important details in the 20 percent or so part of the conversation you weren’t listening to. This can lead to more issues, such as missing an important deadline or task. Active listening has verbal components as well. So, when you ask questions at the end or summarize key points, there’s less of a chance for a misunderstanding. This can limit the chances of any issues at work that can cost money and time.

  1.     It helps problem-solving

When you care about your employees or coworkers, you can make continuous improvements to ensure that everyone you’re working with is happy, increasing productivity. It’s important to listen and understand the suggestions and concerns of other employees.

couple sitting on the dining table

The difference between hearing and listening

You might think that hearing and listening are interchangeable, but they are very different from one another. Hearing is automatic. You don’t have to think about your phone ringing. You just hear it. Thus, our brain becomes trained to ignore it, which isn’t helpful when trying to have a productive conversation. However, listening isn’t automatic. You have to think and pay attention to what someone is saying and how they are saying it. For example, their hand gestures or tone of voice. This can affect how you interpret the information given to you.

Verbal vs. non-verbal cues

As we said earlier, active listening isn’t just about what’s being said. Non-verbal cues are just as important. If someone were to tell you an exciting story, but they used a monotoned voice and avoided eye contact, you wouldn’t be as inclined to listen to what they were saying. This is why you should always be aware of non-verbal cues.

Non-verbal cues of active listening

  •       Smiling when listening to the speaker is an indicator that you’re engaged with them. Depending on what you both are speaking about, it can mean that you’re happy or that you agree with them.
  •       Maintaining eye contact can be intimidating at times, so you don’t have to stare them down, but make sure to look them in the eyes. This shows that you aren’t distracted and that they have your full, undivided attention.
  •       Posture also shows that you are concerned with what the speaker is saying. While you should make sure not to slouch, it can also be acceptable to slightly lean in a while talking to show that you’re engaged. If they’re trying to show you something, lean in—without getting uncomfortably close—to show them that you’re interested.
  •       Avoiding distractions around you is crucial because, many times, there will be background noise. You might hear the echoes from another conversation down the hall or construction going on outside. So, if you do encounter any of these distractions, try your best to ignore them. Additionally, if you can, prepare in advance to limit these. For example, turning off your phone or closing the door.

Keep in mind, each person is different. You might meet someone with a different cultural background than you, and some nonverbal cues might be offensive to them. So, if you’re going on a work trip, for example, make sure to do your research beforehand to not come off as rude.

active listening skills

Verbal cues of active listening

  •       Positive reinforcement indicates that you are listening. This can be done verbally by saying something like “yes” occasionally, or you can even nod your head to show that you agree. However, don’t overdo it. After a while, it can become irritating, so be mindful.
  •       Remembering important details that the person said is a great way to show that you’re actively listening because it reinforces what was said and understands key points. If you think it’s appropriate, you can summarize these points to the person you’re talking with at the end of the conversation. It will not only demonstrate that you’re listening, but it will also help you to make sure that you didn’t miss anything.
  •       Asking relevant questions at the end shows that you were listening. It also shows that you care because you want to take the time afterward to clarify any confusion.

Understanding the different listening styles

Most commonly, there are four different types of listening styles. It would be a lot easier if we all shared the same tendencies, but if you can at least identify what kind of listener you are, active listening will become easier. It will also help you when trying to keep others engaged with what you are talking about.

  1.     People-oriented

These kinds of listeners are highly interested in whoever is talking. Their purpose in listening is to focus on how the speaker is talking to better understand them. For instance, how they think or feel about a certain topic.

  1.     Action-oriented

These listeners are mostly concerned with what the speaker wants. It can be hard for this kind of listener to practice active listening because they would rather jump straight to the point. Due to this, they might miss key details.

  1.     Content-oriented

Content-oriented listeners typically focus on the details and overall point of the speaker. They are concerned with the facts presented, so they prefer detailed explanations.

  1.     Time-oriented

Similar to action-oriented listeners, time-oriented listeners want a conversation that concise. When there are an excessive amount of details or long explanations of things, they become impatient.

active listening skills

Examples of using active listening skills

  •       Paraphrasing is when you summarize, in your own words, what someone else said.

For example, “Just to confirm, you want these reports finished by Friday?”

  •       Affirmation is when you let the person know that you appreciate them taking the time to speak with you.

For example, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me.”

  •       Asking open-ended questions lets the speaker know that you care about what they are saying and want to learn more.

For example, “I understand that you weren’t happy with your experience in our store today. Can you explain to me more about what happened?”

  •       Asking specific questions demonstrates that you were thoroughly listening to the speaker.

For example, “When did you contact the client last?”

  •       Talking about similar situations lets the speaker know that you empathize with them. It makes you seem more relatable more than just another employee.

For example, “At my previous job, we encountered the same issues with the software system.”

  •       Being aware of who’s speaking is important because active listening can be practiced in many different situations. If you’re in a meeting when someone new starts to speak, turn in their direction and look them in the eyes.

Obstacles of active listening

As you’ve probably noticed, it isn’t always easy to actively listen. There are various barriers that you might encounter. Some of these obstacles are uncontrollable, but others can be dealt with. Understanding them will help limit the chances of becoming distracted when trying to have a conversation with someone.

  •       Noise is a common struggle that you’ve probably faced and will have to deal with again in the future. However, there’s more than just the noise of heavy traffic. You might encounter psychological noise as well, like background thoughts running around in your head.
  •       Attention span issues can occur in longer conversations or a meeting. Even the most focused people hit a point where they stop paying attention. Think about it this way, even if you’re engaged in a show that you’re watching. Eventually, you’ll get up for a quick break.
  •       Receiver bias can happen when you aren’t mindful of others’ views and opinions. Avoiding this means not placing judgment on others and not jumping to any conclusions. These biases can be about the topic being discussed or the speaker themselves.
  •       Listening apprehension happens when you worry that you won’t process what the speaker is talking about. You might be starting a new job that is overwhelming or attending an important meeting. However, it’s normal—everyone has felt this way at some point in their life.

While these obstacles can make it frustrating and hard to actively listen, the first step to overcoming these issues is to be aware of them. Before you can start to improve your skills, you need to be aware of your weaknesses. For some, they might get easily distracted by physical noises. For others, they might have a short attention span or get anxious talking to someone that they don’t know. Don’t beat yourself up. You’re not alone!

active listening skills

How to practice active listening

Now that you know everything about active listening, what are some ways to start to practice?

  1.     Write down a list of your barriers while listening

The first step is to understand where you can work on improving your listening skills. Reflect on previous conversations that you had. Were you able to understand key points? Did you maintain eye contact? Once you figure out what your barriers are, it will be easier to work on them. This should be a positive experience, so you should also reflect on the skills you already have. Maybe you notice that you ask adequate questions that you don’t find difficult to shut out your subconscious thoughts. Regardless, keep in mind that you won’t become a perfect listener overnight—it takes time.

  1.     Be more aware in all of your conversations

Active listening goes far beyond the workplace because it affects all of your encounters with people—even strangers. So, try to be more aware and present in all of your daily conversations. Whether it’s talking to a friend on the phone or while you grab your morning coffee, set small goals for yourself. Maybe one day, your goal is to maintain eye contact with each person that you talk to. Start small, and eventually, it will become a lot easier to actively listen, and it won’t take as much effort.

  1.     Practice summarizing

An easy exercise to do is to practice summarizing key points after you’ve finished a conversation. It doesn’t need to be anything extensive. For instance, if a friend calls to make dinner plans, instead of saying “See you later,” you can say, “Just to confirm, you’re going to pick me up at 7 pm to go to the restaurant tonight?” You can even practice this in text messages if you want.

  1.     Practice mindfulness and take care of yourself

When you haven’t gotten enough sleep or feel overwhelmed, it can be challenging to focus and engage in any conversation. Make sure you take care of yourself so that you can maximize your attention span. Stay on top of everything you need to do so those thoughts aren’t flooding your mind when talking with someone.

How to use active listening in a conversation

  1. Face the person

Active listening has to do with a lot about your body language and non-verbal cues, so facing a person shows them that you are focused and ready to listen. This might seem like an obvious one, but if you’re on the move and running around, you might forget. If someone speaks to you, try and stop what you’re doing for a few moments to have the conversation.

  1. Maintain eye contact

It’s easy to get distracted, so make sure that you look at the person directly in the eyes. You don’t want to make them uncomfortable, so it’s okay to break eye contact once in a while. For example, if you’re in a meeting, you might want to look away to write down some notes.

  1. Be attentive and relaxed

As we said, you don’t need to stare intensely at the person. Relax your body, so it isn’t tense, and if you feel stressed, take a deep breath. After this, remember to use verbal and nonverbal cues to demonstrate that you listen, rather than hearing, to what they’re saying. Nod your head occasionally, use facial expressions like a smile, or once in a while, say something like “I agree.”

  1. Be open-minded

Whether you’re speaking to a coworker that you aren’t very fond of, or your certain in your ways of how you want to accomplish something, try to remain open-minded when someone is speaking to you.

  1. Don’t interrupt

Questions are a great way to show that you’re actively listening. However, it can backfire on you if you cut someone off mid-sentence. Save your comments and questions for the end. You should also be mindful of what you say. Sometimes people just want to run something by you rather than asking for advice, so be aware of this. If you are unsure, at the end, you can politely say something like, “Would you like my input on this?”

  1. Try to understand how the speaker is feeling

As your listening to them, pay attention to minor details like their tone of voice or body language. They might be angry or sad, and this should affect how you respond. Empathy is essential in active listening—you aren’t talking to a robot.

In Summary

Active listening is a complex skill that will take time to master. We sometimes aren’t even aware that we are just hearing rather than listening. Taking the time to reflect on your listening habits and understanding where you can make some improvements will help you out a lot in the long run. You’ll feel more productive at work, less stressed, and your relationships in each aspect of your life will greatly benefit. Do you struggle with active listening, and are there any exercises that you practice to work on this? Let us know in the comments below!  

More to Explore:

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How to be Engaged in Conversation

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