Have you ever had an argument where you keep explaining your
idea, but no matter how many times you repeat or rephrase it, it just feels
like you’re not getting your point across?
Have you ever talked to someone who’s constantly checking
their phone? Chances are the person you were talking to heard what you
said, but nothing more.
They weren’t paying attention, and there’s a big chance they
didn’t make an effort to understand what you were saying. In short, they
weren’t actively listening to you.
In this post, you’ll learn about active listening and discover how to improve your listening skills.
What Is Active Listening Anyway?
Understanding the definition of active listening is the first step to improving your active listening skills.
People listen in two ways. Listening to music while driving,
watching TV while eating, and listening to a lecture while taking notes, are
all examples of passive listening. You’re listening but you’ve got no intention
to respond, and your mind wanders from time to time.
Active listening, on the other hand, means dedicating your
full attention to the speaker and giving a thoughtful response to what they
Three Components to
Comprehend. The listener pays attention to the speaker’s verbal and
non-verbal language to fully understand what they’re trying to communicate.
Retain. The listener tries to remember key points of the speaker’s
message using their memory or via note-taking.
Respond. You respond to the
speaker to confirm your understanding of their message and to further your
discussion on the subject. This only happens after analyzing and remembering
what they said (components one and two).
Why Is Active Listening Important?
It may sound like a chore compared to passive listening but
like problem solving and creativity, active listening is a soft skill that can
improve multiple areas of your life.
Your ability to manage a team, get promoted, build
relationships, avoid conflict, raise kids, and persuade people are all improved
as your listening skills do. This is why active listening is important to
Active listening draws you out from what’s going on in your
own head to the ideas and emotions the speaker is sharing, so you can then use
this information to respond better.
How to Improve Your Listening Skills Step by Step
You now know the benefits of active listening. Now it’s time
to learn how to improve your listening skills step by step.
1. Face the Speaker
Face your conversation partner. Don’t look at your phone,
watch, or other people. Look at whoever is talking, even if they’re not looking
at you as in the case with lectures or seminars.
Looking at your conversation partner doesn’t have to be
creepy. You can look at other things from time to time, but not so frequently
that it becomes noticeable. If you feel weird staring into the person’s eyes,
look at their shoulders or other parts of their face instead.
2. Picture What’s Being Communicated
Visuals and mental models naturally form in your mind as you hear information.
This is normal, and is a sign that all your senses are engaged in analyzing
what the other person is saying.
Remember keywords, dates, phrases, and other details to
help you form a clearer picture of the other person’s story.
3. Withhold Judgement
Sometimes, people listen only to
help them formulate a response. That’s not active listening.
Listening with your full
attention means remaining neutral, and not forming any opinions on what the
speaker is telling you until they finish talking.
It’s inevitable to feel
negatively towards another person’s idea from time to time, but don’t dwell on
these feelings too long. Don’t groan inwardly and say, “Of course, that won’t work!” because your attention and
understanding of the speaker’s idea gets compromised as soon as you indulge
these negative sentiments. Remember, good listeners are open to new ideas even
ones that contradict their beliefs.
Interrupting the person talking
to you not only makes you rude, it also limits your absorption of the information
relayed to you.
Don’t finish the other person’s
sentences, even if you think you know what they’re about to say. Sentence grabbers
often get things wrong because they’re following their own train of thought—not
Save your questions and
counter-arguments for later, even if the speaker is discussing the exact
subject of your question. Interrupting someone at the middle of an explanation
can cause them to lose their train of thought, and besides, there’s a
possibility that your question or counter-argument will be addressed later on
in their explanation so you need not interrupt them in the first place.
5. Reflect and Clarify
Reflecting and clarifying are two ways to ensure that you
and the speaker are on the same page.
Reflecting means repeating what the other person said in
your own words to confirm that you understood their message, while clarifying
means asking probing questions to clear up potential misunderstandings. Both
techniques work hand in hand to make the speaker feel heard, and ensuring that
nothing got lost in translation.
clarifying and reflecting statements:
- “So I heard you say….”
- “I understand that you felt…”
- “Back up one sec, what did you mean by…?”
- “What would you consider as…?”
similar to reflecting, except that when you summarize you’re making it clear
that you’re about to move on from your current topic. When you summarize, you
only explain the main points of the speaker’s overall topic, the minute details
you may have had to clarify before are no longer important in this part of the
7. Share or Respond
You might think this is just another variation of steps five
and six. It’s not. Yes, you’re the one talking in the two previous steps, but
you only talked to confirm your understanding of the other person’s message
Now that you’ve gained a better understanding of their
message, it’s your turn to introduce your ideas and emotions into the
conversation. You’ve got to go through all the previous steps first before you
earn the privilege to share your thoughts. This way, the speaker won’t feel
like you’re just pushing your own agenda because you took time to validate their
feelings and ideas first.
Pro Tips for Effective Listening
- Be honest, but assert your opinions
- If you’re afraid that your
suggestions will be seen as an attempt to control the other person’s actions,
preface your suggestions with, “If that
happens to me, I would…”
9 Active Listening Techniques
Practice the following active
listening exercises with every conversation you have. Be careful though, as
some of these tips may not be appropriate in certain situations or cultures.
When in doubt, follow your instincts or observe how the people around you are
conducting their conversations.
1. Smiles and Nods
Smiling from time to time suggests that you agree with the
speaker’s message. If you combine this with nods and the occasional “uh-huh,” the person talking to you will
feel that you’re paying attention to their message.
Smiling and nodding isn’t always appropriate, of course.
You’re not supposed to smile if you’re hearing bad news or are being
reprimanded. You shouldn’t nod when you don’t agree with what you’re hearing,
as well. In both cases, a simple “I
understand” or “I get it” would suffice.
Maintaining eye contact is tricky because not everyone is
comfortable doing it, or being the one stared at for that matter. There’s no
perfect duration of how long you’re supposed to gaze at the speaker, it just depends
on you and the other person. You’ll have to play it by the ear. Steven Aitchison, social entrepreneurship expert, suggests breaking eye contact every five seconds by looking to
the side, as if you’re trying to remember something.
If you’re worried that your gaze is too strong or a bit
creepy, practice relaxing your face and your eyes will follow suit. Close your
eyes for a few seconds and breathe deeply. Your facial expression will be more
relaxed when you open them.
You can tell a lot about a
person’s interest in what you’re saying with their body language. Arms folded
suggest the listener is defensive or not in agreement with the speaker’s
message, for example.
Attentive listeners tend to
lean in towards the speaker. Sometimes, their head is leaned sideways or
resting on one hand. You can learn more about body language here:
Mirroring is the act of
mimicking the speaker’s facial expressions, and is often used to show sympathy
and agreement to their message.
For example, a friend who
just got accepted to a new job will break the news to you with an excited look
on their face. As a friend showing your support, the natural reaction would be
to smile and look excited as well.
5. Practice Empathy
yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try to feel what the other person is
feeling while they’re talking to you. Imagine yourself in their situation. What
would you feel? How would you react? This is the practice of empathy.
confuse this with sympathy, which is merely the act of feeling sorry for the
misery of others, according to Psychology Today. When you’re sympathetic, you feel concerned for the other person’s
welfare and wish them to feel better. Empathy goes beyond commiserating because
when you empathize; you’re not only feeling sorry for the person, you’re also
trying to see the situation from their perspective.
is helpful in communicating stressful and hard to explain experiences, because
some stories are just hard to explain—you kind of have to be there to
Check out this guide to learn more about practicing empathy at work:
6. Avoid Distractions
Turn off your phone’s notifications and don’t fidget too
much, as this will distract the person talking to you. It makes them feel like
you’d rather be somewhere else.
7. Positive Feedback or Reinforcement
Long conversations will feel terribly one-sided without the
positive feedback of the listener. If you’re listening to a long story, use verbal
signals such as “uh-huh,” “okay”
or “I understand” at strategic pauses
in the conversation to confirm that you’re still following the story.
You can find more tips about starting and maintaining a great conversation here:
8. Redirect the Conversation If the Topic Gets Off Hand
A few weeks ago I was telling my friend about how I finally
finished my CMAS Open Water Diving certification, and all the wonderful sea
creatures I saw during our dives. Over the course of this talk, she mentioned our
mutual friend, who was supposed to join that trip and get certified as well. The
mere mention of his name caused me to go off tangent, explaining why he couldn’t
come because of his work schedule and his brother coming from home from the
Before we both realized it, we’re trading stories of this
friend’s previous car accident. I never got to finish my story about my weekend
Conversation tangents like this happen all the time. One
question can lead you into a whole other conversation, and before you know it
you’ll have covered three topics without ever finishing one of them.
In this case, either you or the speaker will have to purposely
redirect the conversation back to the original topic.
Say something like, “It’s great to hear about XYZ, but continue
telling me about (original topic) first.” This way you can finish the
conversation before moving on to another discussion.
You might wonder, what’s so important about finishing one story
before moving onto another? You’ll hardly feel the effects of conversational tangents
if you’re catching up with a friend. But you’ll notice it once you’re going
around in circles in an argument or important team meeting.
9. Remember Small Details
Remembering key points of a conversation will help when it’s
your turn to talk. Dates, names, locations, and other pertinent information can
help you ask probing questions to clarify the speaker’s message.
Even if you understood what they said, repeating details of
their story when you summarize their point shows that you understood and paid attention
If you take note of these details, you can mention them
next time you reconnect with the person, as in often the case with people you
meet at networking events.
Practice Your Listening Skills
We’ve just answered the question: why is active listening important? Now it’s time to improve your active listening skills.
Try to observe how well you listen to conversations this
week. Do you comprehend and retain information before you respond in
Once you get a baseline of your listening skills and
identify your specific areas for improvement, such as eye contact or verbal
cues, you can then follow the steps listed here and practice your listening
skills with every conversation you have.
It might feel awkward at first, don’t worry about that. If
it helps, you can tell the other person that you’re doing active listening
exercises to improve your communication skills.