Updated: Feb 7
Often we walk away from a conversation thinking that we’ve communicated successfully, only to find out later that our understanding, and the other person's understanding of what was discussed is completely at odds.
This is where active listening can be a useful tool. When used well, it takes our conversations to the next level by helping to truly understand what people are saying (and not just what we want to hear or think we hear).
When active listening is mastered, our communication goes from information gathering, to understanding the motivations behind the information received. By using these skills we are more able to understand someone’s message and why it is important to them, and communicate that understanding back.
Our Top 3 Tips for Active Listening
1. Minimise Distractions
Phones ringing, colleagues chattering, notifications dinging and pinging, all vying for your attention. When you need to really listen in, it helps to get rid of as many distractions as you can, creating a circle of concentration surrounding you and the speaker. When people want you to listen, they are on the lookout for anything that threatens that goal. If you appear distracted, start checking your emails or phone this may trigger a threat response in the other person and they might shut down the conversation prematurely. Try to be as fully present as you can and if you have a good reason to be distracted let them know: ‘I’m checking my watch, because I’m expecting an urgent message.’
2. Signal your Attentiveness with Eye Contact and Nodding
Eye contact lets the other person know you are fully present in the conversation. Now it’s not a good idea to stare, and it is perfectly natural to look away occasionally, but make sure that you are checking in with regular eye contact, and matching the eye contact the speaker is giving you. There are natural cues that let the speaker know you are listening. Small smiles, occasional nods, leaning in, and the occasional, ‘aha,’ and ‘okay’ let the other person know that you are paying attention, and they should continue speaking. Try to avoid ‘I agree’ and ‘yes’ and be careful with your nods, because they may give the impression that you agree with what is being said. This can be problematic, especially if you don’t agree. The aim here is to signal that you are giving the other person your undivided attention, and you are taking in everything being said.
Once the other person has said their piece, try to rephrase or summarise what has been said and relay this back to the speaker. This lets the speaker know you have heard them, because you can only do this if you have been truly paying attention. You can use this as a prelude to asking a question or seeking further information. Repeating what you understand to the speaker, ensures that you have received the entire message, and gives the other person a chance to repeat any information you may have missed.
Try to avoid ‘So let me repeat that back to you,’ or ‘So what you’re saying is…’. Cliche ‘listening phrases’ alert the speaker to the mechanics of listening, and may come across as inauthentic. Paraphrasing is more than parroting back what has been said, it is about getting to the speaker's emotional state, the subtext, or core of the message, without offering advice, judgement or attempting to solve the problem.