Active Listening: 8 Techniques to Know

More time. Fewer misunderstandings. More productive teams. Begin to actively listen, and watch the benefits roll in.

Written by Lisa Bertagnoli
Active Listening: 8 Techniques to Know
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Dec 01, 2023

Active listening is the practice of not just hearing a speaker’s words but absorbing their message and communicating this understanding back to them. An active listener is fully present in a conversation and demonstrates it by asking follow-up questions, conveying positive body language and making time for reflection. Another way to think of active listening is viewing it as “intentional” listening.

What is Active Listening?

Active listening is when someone shows they are fully engaged and present in a conversation by reflecting the speaker’s own messages back to them, asking follow-up questions, giving verbal affirmations and using positive body language to demonstrate they understand what the speaker says and means.

Active listening doesn’t come easy in this era of distracted multitasking; it requires practice and commitment from all levels of an organization. Below we cover the benefits of active listening and provide eight tips on active listening techniques.

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Benefits of Active Listening 

Active listening can have lasting ripple effects, enhancing both individual interactions and a company’s overall workplace culture.
 

Improved Problem-Solving

Active listeners are able to process what someone is saying and comprehend the information being shared. They can then more quickly diagnose any issues someone is bringing up and even anticipate future problems based on the information presented by the speaker. This reduces the chance of miscommunication and confusion, leading to more efficient communication and making it easier to problem-solve while keeping everyone on the same page.     

 

Faster Conflict Resolution

Workplace conflicts can quickly escalate if the parties involved aren’t listening to one another. Active listening can build bridges between conflicting feelings or opinions and enable employees to find common ground. Even in a difficult situation, practicing active listening can make employees at least feel like the other party understands where they’re coming from and is willing to work with them. 

 

Higher-Quality Relationships

Employees who know how to actively listen can build trust with coworkers by showing they’ve processed what someone’s said and can respond objectively. By regulating one’s emotions and energy through active listening, employees can then earn the respect of their coworkers and avoid conflicts that result from misunderstandings.

 

Stronger Leadership

Managers who practice active listening can cultivate an empathetic leadership style that makes employees feel comfortable when bringing up any questions or complaints. Feeling heard and respected can encourage employees to open up more, and managers in turn can keep a constant pulse on employee sentiments and respond more proactively to potential conflicts.    

 

Increased Collaboration

If active listening is employed by teams across an organization, it can become baked into the company culture and contribute to a more transparent atmosphere. “Active listening allows us to be better coworkers, employees and leaders within our own organization,” said Alexis Sheehy, director of growth marketing at MediaCrossing. “Often, active listening promotes greater collaboration and new ideas emerge from this increased connectivity.”

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8 Active Listening Techniques

Following the techniques below can help you cultivate your active listening skills and enjoy more success in the workplace as a result.
 

1. Eliminate Distractions

“We’ve taught our managers that it is extra critical to proactively remove distractions so online video meetings, especially one-on-one meetings with their direct reports, can be focused,” said Matt Mead, chief technology officer at SPR.

 

2. Ask Questions

Asking questions encourages a speaker to elaborate on their thoughts and demonstrates a listener is making an intentional effort to understand where a speaker is coming from. For instance, open-ended questions like ‘How do you see this situation unfolding?’ or ‘What is your view of the problem?’ allow the speaker to expand on the topic and also give the chance to gain that person’s perspective.

“You want to get the person talking as much as you possibly can to uncover either the root of what’s being asked of you or that person’s perspective,” said Rob Henrikson, head of operations at MediaCrossing.

 

3. Pay Attention to Non-Verbal Cues

Over 55 percent of communication is non-verbal, so observing body language and non-verbal cues is key to navigating an in-person conversation. Active listeners take into account a speaker’s hand gestures, movements, facial expressions and other physical signs that convey their emotions at different points in a discussion.

It’s also important to make sure you’re displaying the appropriate non-verbal cues. Be sure to avoid crossing your arms and keep your body open to the speaker, nod to show understanding and offer a smile when suitable. 

 

4. Resist the Urge to Immediately Offer Solutions

Devin Johnson, CEO of marketing automation firm Kennected, suggests taking time to reflect before offering a solution. “It shows emotional maturity and care for the problem at hand,” he said.

 

5. Summarize the Speaker’s Thoughts

Summarizing a speaker’s thoughts and repeating them in a paraphrased format back to the speaker shows you’re trying to truly comprehend the meaning behind their words. This also enables the listener to clear up any points they were confused about and gives the speaker an opportunity to go more in-depth into what they mean. This way, the speaker feels heard and the listener can process and internalize what the speaker is saying.  

 

6. Keep Your Stress in Check

Stress can compel employees to speak first before listening and hamper active listening for even highly functional teams, said Caitlin Collins, an organizational psychologist and talent development consultant at Betterworks. When this happens, Collins finds a moment to acknowledge pressure or stressors and ask how everyone is feeling. 

“Once everyone has shared, the team starts to come back together, everyone is able to take a deep breath, and we’re able to listen more attentively.”

 

7. Remain Non-Judgmental

Approaching a conversation with judgment or assumptions can make it nearly impossible to understand a different perspective or engage with new ideas. This prevents one from being an active listener and coming to a mutual understanding with the speaker. And if the speaker senses judgment during the conversation, they may become combative and unwilling to open up to the listener. This can worsen a conflict and undermine both parties’ ability to view their situation through an objective and fair lens. 

 

8. Stay Patient and Focused 

Active listening doesn’t come naturally and is something that must be developed with care and attention. Staying focused long-term on honing this skill means continuing to practice it, even when struggling to break bad habits. 

“It’s a muscle that has to be exercised,” Collins said, adding that, like any skill, active listening is tougher for some people. She offers a few hints for practicing: Ask for feedback to make sure the other person felt heard; apologize when you’ve talked over someone, then allow them to continue; write down your thoughts so you can keep them organized; and ask follow-up questions and paraphrase what was said so the other parties know they’ve been understood. 

“Be patient with yourself and genuine with others,” Collins said. “Being great at this takes time.”

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Active listening is the practice of understanding a speaker’s words and demonstrating this understanding through body language, taking time to reflect, paraphrasing the speaker’s words and other techniques. This shows the listener isn’t just hearing someone speak but is intentionally trying to process the meaning behind the speaker’s words.

Active listeners ask follow-up questions, refrain from jumping to solutions, express engaged body language and summarize the speaker’s words back to them.

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