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What Is Active Listening? Important Skills & Techniques You Need to Know

Communication is more important than ever, but good communication involves more than just the words you say. One of the essential skills of being a good communicator is learning how to be an active listener. 

Active listening can help build relationships, solve problems, improve accuracy, resolve conflicts, and ensure understanding. 

Here is your chance to learn more about active listening and how to improve your active listening techniques. 

What Is Active Listening?

Active listening is genuinely listening for understanding. The goal of active listening isn’t to give advice, argue, or create. Instead, active listeners intentionally spend time trying to fully appreciate another person’s idea, point of view, argument, or message.

Benefits of Active Listening

Active listening is the foundation of any successful conversation. Here are just a few of the benefits active listening can bring to a conversation. 

Circumvent Misunderstandings

Not understanding what is said can lead to mix-ups, arguments, and misunderstandings. Rather than waste time on misunderstood meanings and messages, active listening helps everyone share ownership of a conversation. 

Build Trust

Active listening empowers the speaker and makes them feel heard. They will quickly discover they are free to speak as little or as much as they like without suffering any interruptions, judgments, or interjections. This freedom to speak and be heard makes others more likely to trust you and confide in you. 

Increase Your Knowledge

Active listening helps you retain new information as you are actively involved in the conversation. Because you are actively feeding back what you learned to the speaker and asking clarifying questions, the speaker is assured you are learning new ideas.

Build Connections

When you are actively listening, speakers are comfortable sharing information and  are more interested in speaking with you regularly. Regular, consistent communication will help open up opportunities to collaborate, quickly resolve conflicts, and get work done more efficiently. 

Avoid Missing Important Information

Active listeners are engaged members of a conversation. An essential part of active listening is the feedback loop between speaker and listener that ensures what is being said is accurately understood and remembered.

Identify and Solve Problems

Because active listening focuses on transparency and honesty, it becomes natural to identify issues others are facing. Remember, when you are actively listening, it can be easy to see a problem, but the primary goal is empathy and understanding. Don’t slip into problem-solving mode for every issue that pops up in a conversation. First, try to understand the whole picture and all of the problems, then work together with the speaker to find a solution. 

Active Listening Skills

Active listening involves both verbal and non-verbal skills. Below are a few examples of each skill.

Verbal Active Listening Skills

Verbal active listening skills show you’re listening by what you say. These skills demonstrate you’re paying attention to the conversation. 

Here are a few verbal skills as well as examples of active listening and active listening exercises to help improve them. 

Paraphrase

Summarize back to the speaker the main points of what you heard to show you understand what was said. This skill gives the speaker a chance to correct any information that was misheard or vague. 

Examples 

  • “What I hear you saying is . . .” 
  • “If I’m hearing you right, you believe . . . ?”
  • “So you mean that . . . ?”
  • “Did I understand you when you said . . . ?”

Exercise 

Paraphrasing comes through repetition. With your friends or family,  practice by paraphrasing whatever was just said. 

Use Short, Verbal Affirmations

Short, positive statements injected throughout the conversation help the speaker feel more comfortable and show you are paying attention to what they are saying. The key to these affirmations is to motivate the speaker to continue to share information without interrupting or disrupting their message. 

Examples

  • “I agree.”
  • “Yes, that does make sense.”
  • “I see.”
  • “I understand.”

Exercise 

An easy way to practice this skill is by listening to the radio. Whenever the DJ or host starts to talk, give short verbal affirmations. Start with a music station that has only short breaks for the DJ, then work your way up to listening to talk radio programs or your favorite podcast. 

Ask Specific Questions

For active listening to work best, you want the speaker to provide more details about the topic, not just ramble about whatever they want. One of the best ways to get more information is to ask probing questions. These questions will guide the speaker to provide more details and help convey trust and understanding. 

The best way to ask probing questions is by avoiding those that require only a simple yes or no answer. Instead, try using open-ended questions that start with words like who, what, when, where, why, and how. These questions can spark discussion and lead to sharing more information. 

Examples

  • How did you come to that conclusion? 
  • When did you last experience that problem? 
  • Why do you think that happened? 

Exercise 

Focus on creating open-ended questions by getting to know people better. When you’re first getting to know someone, it’s normal to ask lots of questions about them, making it a great time to practice your active listening skills.

Display Empathy

Empathy is the ability to recognize and share the feelings of someone else. This helps you connect with the speaker and establish a sense of trust. 

Empathy doesn’t mean you agree with their feelings, it only means you understand the feelings they have. Therefore, focus only on empathy, not on problem-solving or resolving the feelings. 

Examples 

  • “I can see how that would make you feel . . .” 
  • “If I was faced with that same problem, I would feel . . .”

Exercise

Empathy can be practiced on any person, even fictional characters. The next time you watch a movie or read a book, occasionally pause what you are doing and try to feel empathy for each character in the scene. Consider their past, what they might be feeling, why they are feeling it, and how you would react in a similar situation.

Recall Previously Shared Information

Being able to recall key concepts, ideas, or other critical points shared with you in the past demonstrates you not only value what they have said but also what is currently being said. 

Examples

  • “Last week you mentioned . . .”
  • “I want to follow up on what you said last time. Is it still true that . . . ?”

Exercise

You can strengthen this skill by playing a game with your close family and friends. Choose a random object to remember for the next conversation (i.e., a banana, lawnmower, hairclip, snowboard, hamburger). The person who can remember the item the next time you talk to each other wins and gets to pick the new item. 

Non-Verbal Active Listening Skills

Non-verbal active listening skills go into perfecting your body language and showing you are involved in the conversation through your mannerisms. Here are a few non-verbal skills you can use to improve your active listening: 

Maintain Eye Contact

Always keep your eyes on whoever is speaking. Continual eye contact can be a bit awkward in some situations, so keep your gaze natural to show you are paying attention to what they have to say. 

Nod

A few simple nods show you understand what the speaker is saying. Some people don’t like to nod because they assume it means you agree with what is being said. This is not true. It only means you are processing and understanding their message. 

Avoid Being Distracted

You can’t actively listen if you’re doing something else at the same time. Avoid checking your phone or looking to see how much time has passed. Put your phone on silent. If you are working on a project when a conversation starts, stop working and give your full attention to the speaker. Your full attentionl shows the other person that what they are saying is meaningful. 

Take Notes

Writing down what you find important or actionable when listening can show the other person you value what they are saying. It can also serve to keep track of important tasks or details that come up throughout the conversation. 

Some people choose to write down brief notes while listening to gather their ideas and to avoid interrupting. But remember, most of your effort should focus on understanding what the person is actively saying, not ignoring them so you can prepare your counterargument.

Quiet Your Internal Dialogue

Even if it is relevant to the conversation, whatever you are thinking about is not as important as the conversation itself. So avoid daydreaming or mentally distracting yourself. 

Learn More with Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations can help you become an even better listener, giving you the tools to turn a disagreement into a dialogue. Learn how you can be a more effective communicator with Crucial Conversations.

Justin Hale

"You change your life one action at a time. My next tip is your next action.” Justin Hale is a speaker, trainer, and training designer. He plays a key role on VitalSmarts’ product development team and is often the face of VitalSmarts’ award-winning classroom, virtual, and on-demand courses.

The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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