Active Listening

Hear What People are Really Saying

Improve your active listening skills,
with James Manktelow & Amy Carlson.

Listening is one of the most important skills you can have. How well you listen has a major impact on your job effectiveness, and on the quality of your relationships with others. 

For instance:

  • We listen to obtain information.
  • We listen to understand.
  • We listen for enjoyment.
  • We listen to learn.

Given all this listening we do, you would think we'd be good at it! In fact most of us are not, and research suggests that we remember between 25 percent and 50 percent of what we hear. That means that when you talk to your boss, colleagues, customers or spouse for 10 minutes, they pay attention to less than half of the conversation. This is dismal!

Turn it around and it reveals that when you are receiving directions or being presented with information, you aren't hearing the whole message either. You hope the important parts are captured in your 25-50 percent, but what if they're not?

Clearly, listening is a skill that we can all benefit from improving. By becoming a better listener, you will improve your productivity, as well as your ability to influence, persuade and negotiate. What's more, you'll avoid conflict and misunderstandings. All of these are necessary for workplace success!

Tip:

Good communication skills require a high level of self-awareness. By understanding your personal style of communicating, you will go a long way towards creating good and lasting impressions with others.

About Active Listening

The way to improve your listening skills is to practice "active listening." This is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, try to understand the complete message being sent.

In order to do this you must pay attention to the other person very carefully.

You cannot allow yourself to become distracted by whatever else may be going on around you, or by forming counter arguments that you'll make when the other person stops speaking. Nor can you allow yourself to get bored, and lose focus on what the other person is saying. All of these contribute to a lack of listening and understanding.

Tip:

If you're finding it particularly difficult to concentrate on what someone is saying, try repeating their words mentally as they say them – this will reinforce their message and help you stay focused.

To enhance your listening skills, you need to let the other person know that you are listening to what he or she is saying. To understand the importance of this, ask yourself if you've ever been engaged in a conversation when you wondered if the other person was listening to what you were saying. You wonder if your message is getting across, or if it's even worthwhile continuing to speak. It feels like talking to a brick wall and it's something you want to avoid.

Acknowledgement can be something as simple as a nod of the head or a simple "uh huh." You aren't necessarily agreeing with the person, you are simply indicating that you are listening. Using body language and other signs to acknowledge you are listening also reminds you to pay attention and not let your mind wander.

You should also try to respond to the speaker in a way that will both encourage him or her to continue speaking, so that you can get the information if you need. While nodding and "uh huhing" says you're interested, an occasional question or comment to recap what has been said communicates that you understand the message as well.

Becoming an Active Listener

There are five key elements of active listening. They all help you ensure that you hear the other person, and that the other person knows you are hearing what they say.

1. Pay Attention

Give the speaker your undivided attention, and acknowledge the message. Recognize that non-verbal communication also "speaks" loudly.

  • Look at the speaker directly.
  • Put aside distracting thoughts.
  • Don't mentally prepare a rebuttal!
  • Avoid being distracted by environmental factors. For example, side conversations.
  • "Listen" to the speaker's body language.

2. Show That You're Listening

Use your own body language and gestures to convey your attention.

  • Nod occasionally.
  • Smile and use other facial expressions.
  • Note your posture and make sure it is open and inviting.
  • Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like yes, and uh huh.

3. Provide Feedback

Our personal filters, assumptions, judgments, and beliefs can distort what we hear. As a listener, your role is to understand what is being said. This may require you to reflect what is being said and ask questions.

  • Reflect what has been said by paraphrasing. "What I'm hearing is," and "Sounds like you are saying," are great ways to reflect back.
  • Ask questions to clarify certain points. "What do you mean when you say." "Is this what you mean?"
  • Summarize the speaker's comments periodically.

Tip:

If you find yourself responding emotionally to what someone said, say so, and ask for more information: "I may not be understanding you correctly, and I find myself taking what you said personally. What I thought you just said is XXX; is that what you meant?"

4. Defer Judgment

Interrupting is a waste of time. It frustrates the speaker and limits full understanding of the message.

  • Allow the speaker to finish each point before asking questions.
  • Don't interrupt with counter arguments.

5. Respond Appropriately

Active listening is a model for respect and understanding. You are gaining information and perspective. You add nothing by attacking the speaker or otherwise putting him or her down.

  • Be candid, open, and honest in your response.
  • Assert your opinions respectfully.
  • Treat the other person in a way that you think he or she would want to be treated.

Key Points

It takes a lot of concentration and determination to be an active listener. Old habits are hard to break, and if your listening skills are as bad as many people's are, then there's a lot of habit-breaking to do!

Be deliberate with your listening and remind yourself frequently that your goal is to truly hear what the other person is saying. Set aside all other thoughts and behaviors and concentrate on the message. Ask questions, reflect, and paraphrase to ensure you understand the message. If you don't, then you'll find that what someone says to you and what you hear can be amazingly different!

Start using active listening today to become a better communicator, improve your workplace productivity, and develop better relationships.

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Comments (36)
  • Midgie wrote This week
    Hi Timothys,
    I agree that communication is an under appreciated aspect in the business world, and in many other areas of our lives. Making sure that you clearly convey the message and then make sure that the listener understanding your meaning is so critical. Yet often times, people are in a rush and end up not taking that bit extra time to ensure clarity of the message.
  • timothys wrote This week
    I believe that communication is one of the most under-appreciated aspects in the business world. It is crucial for the communicator to ensure what they are conveying is understood by the listener. Too many people are concerned about putting out their message and not listening.
  • Midgie wrote This month
    Hi AutumnP,
    One approach I have used is to ask participants to reiterate in their own words their understanding of what I have said.

    We have no control over other people's attention or lack of attention, or level of engagement. So, if I found that a participant was not actively engaging, I would see what I could do (or even ask them) what needs to happen for them to feel engaged.
  • autumnP wrote This month
    Does anyone have a good example of how they've used active listening successfully in the adult academic setting? How can you control for other people's inattention or lack of contribution when you are supposed to be working as a group, meaning all should be contributing equally and there isn't a "group leader" or "project manager"? Isn't that just asking for failure?
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    At least you go back and ask them Bonnie - good idea if you suspect you may have missed some vital information.

    Yolande
  • Bonnie wrote Over a month ago
    How many of us don't hear most of the stuff people are saying I know a lot of people and I know me most of the time I don't hear half of the stuff but then I go back and ask.
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi everyone,
    How many of us have had experiences whereby we only 'half' hear what is being said and then either react to things or take action, only to find that it was a 'waste' of time or that we were mis-guided?

    Just the other day a group of us reacted, and quite strongly too, to a situation where we only heard one person's side of the story. Yet, when the other side was actually revealed, we realized that we perhaps were a bit to quick in our judgement.

    This feature favorite and the recent experience is a good reminder to me to 'actively listen' to what people say.

    What experiences have you had and how do you 'actively listen'?

    Midgie
  • Rachel wrote Over a month ago
    Hi All,

    Research suggests that we only remember between 25 percent and 50 percent of what we hear. This is pretty dismal!

    Find out how to improve your listening skills in this week's Featured Favorite article.

    Best wishes
    Rachel
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi LX123,
    Welcome to the Club and glad you have taken something from this article to help you improve your listening skills.

    I agree that it is important to be respectful when replying to others. Additionally, humor can have a way of falling flat if people do not understand the humor or simply they are not in the mood. I know for myself sometimes I can take the humor and yet there are other times I'm 'simply not in the mood' and do not appreciate the attempt to lighten the situation when it is something quite serious.

    In regards to waiting until someone finishes speaking before you start thinking about what to say, how will you start developing this habit? What can you do to remind yourself to pause and listen first?

    Looking forward to seeing you more around the forums and if there is anything I can help you with, just let me know.
    Midgie
  • LX123 wrote Over a month ago
    I needed to learn that your answers should be respectful, I made the mistake of trying to bring humour to our meeting and no one got it.
    Context is everything. I also share Dianna's problem of thinking about what Im going to say next...whilst someone is talking.
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