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January 12, 2024

What is Active Listening and Why Do You Need It?

Active Listening is a Powerful Skill

When was the last time you worked on your active listening skills? Becoming a good listener isn’t something we should stop learning after we grow up. We should continue to develop the same lessons we learned in grade school as we make connections with people in our careers.

Active listening may sound pretty self-explanatory. You might believe yourself to be a good listener already. According to one study, about 96% of people said they were good listeners. The confidence in our listening ability remains high. Yet it’s been shown that, on average, we only retain about half of what’s said to us. If active listening were presented to us as a test, none of us would be passing.

There is a lot to gain in improving the active listening skills of you and your team. Active listening can improve information retention and decrease miscommunications. Managers especially are falling behind in their active listening skills, but have the power to improve the active listening skills of their team. Even if you believe your active listening skills are impeccable, it’s likely that brushing up on your listening skills will yield positive results for you and everyone you work with.

“According to one study, about 96% of people said they were good listeners. The confidence in our listening ability remains high. Yet it’s been shown that, on average, we only retain about half of what’s said to us.”

The Benefits of Active Listening (Both in and Out of the Workplace)

Working on your active listening skills will benefit every part of your life, not just the time you spend at work. Using active listening with your friends and family is part of the healthy practice of being an active listener.

Here are some of the most profound benefits of active listening:

The 3 Avenues of Active Listening

Being able to discern the type of listening needed in any given situation is an important skill. In general, the type of active listening you participate in falls into one of these three categories:

Each type of active listening serves its own purpose, and it’s your job to determine what fits best for the scenario you’re in. For example, an employee of yours who’s trying to nail a presentation isn’t going to be very appreciative of empathetic listening when what they really need is critical listening to improve their work. Similarly, reflective listening won’t be welcomed when someone is trying to describe an emotionally charged experience they’ve had. They’re really looking for empathetic listening. Try reflecting on the type of active listening you’ve used in scenarios you’ve been in. This reflection can prepare you to engage properly with the right type of active listening in the future.

How To Improve Your Active Listening Skills

Going back to basics, follow these simple instructions for improving your active listening skills. Although none of these tips are too complex or hard, keeping them top of mind when you engage with your team is the hardest part for many employees.

1. Give the speaker your full attention

You’ve heard this before, but let this serve as a reminder to give someone your full attention when they’re speaking to you. Technology frequently divides our attention. For this reason, make sure electronic devices are put away or turned off during conversations. Giving someone your full attention may mean you have to schedule a talk for later- that’s perfectly fine. If you know you’ll be distracted by a task or deadline when someone’s trying to talk to you, politely let them know you’d like to finish your task, so you can give them the attention they deserve.

2. Learn to understand non-verbal cues

Many of us have at least some understanding of non-verbal cues, (if you’ve ever “felt the temperature in the room drop” you understand a lot can be said without words at all) but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t brush up on our non-verbal understanding. Having a good grasp of non-verbal communication can help you do your job better as well. It can help you seem less nervous when speaking, or more engaged when listening. Studying non-verbal cues of great speakers or leaders is one example of how you can work on being a stronger positive presence in your workspace.

3. Avoid interrupting

Letting someone finish their thought is a common courtesy. Even when you may be rushing to agree with them, take a moment to reflect on how an interruption might be perceived, then act accordingly.

4. Practice empathy

An all encompassing term for understanding the experience of others, empathy is a top priority of active listeners. It shows you value their perspective and prioritize their emotional well being. Being empathetic may require you to challenge your own biases at times. This isn’t always easy, but almost always results in a more cohesive work environment.

5. Avoid judgment

Similar to extending empathy to someone, avoiding judgment is another key aspect of being an active listener and cultivating a safe work environment. This is especially vital for managers to embody, because your employees will not speak out when they think they will be judged for doing so.

6. Reflect and clarify

A point borrowed from reflective listening, learning to reflect and clarify when you are speaking with others is one of the best things you can do to avoid miscommunications. Remember, workplaces are diverse and complex mixes of people. Not everyone will have the same communication styles as you. Learning to reflect and clarify when you need to will help you avoid miscommunication and show people that you are invested in what they have to say.

7. Withhold giving advice

Sometimes, people do not want advice. Especially when participating in empathetic listening, you need to act as a safe space for someone to express themselves, without immediately jumping to fix a problem or share your advice. When you’re not sure whether advice is warranted or not, ask. Say, “do you want me to listen right now or do you want me to help find a solution?”

8. Manage your reactions

Similar to withholding judgment, managing your reactions is another way to help people feel safe. You might have an expressive face or strong connections with what someone is saying, but managing your reactions means that you respect them enough to give them the space to speak.

9. Encourage the speaker

Everyone needs encouragement now and then. Managers especially are in the perfect position to give it. Whether you’re engaging in a feedback session, or at a presentation your team is giving, speaking encouragement to the speaker is a great way to show you value their participation.

10. Practice patience

It can seem like the modern workplace just keeps moving faster and faster, and many of us have pressure to perform well. That said, not everyone on your team will perform (or speak) well under pressure. Being patient is vital for being an active listener. They may need to process something before they can speak it properly. Give them the space to do so.

11. Seek to understand, not just hear

Active listening means you’re listening to understand, not just to check off some boxes or get information from people. People can tell when you’re more engaged with information than you are with understanding their perspective. Value the person’s experience while they are speaking just as much as the words they’re saying.

12. Acknowledge emotions

Invalidating emotions (dismissing or rejecting someone’s thoughts, feelings, or behavior) is an extremely harmful way to engage with people. Even when you don’t agree or understand someone’s emotional response, give them the space to express themselves in a healthy manner. No one should be penalized for their feelings, especially when they are brave enough to express them in the first place. All in all, improving your active listening skills will likely improve your performance at work, as well as all other relationships in your life.

Setting the example of being a good active listener will generate positive change in your relationships, but that doesn’t mean formal training can’t help you progress even further with active listening. If you’re ready to improve your team’s active listening skills, check out and share our course on active listening with them.

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