What is active listening?
Active listening is the art of being fully present to those who are speaking—without interruptions, preconceived notions, or judgment. Active listeners are never impatient or dismissive. They listen fully and completely, bringing their undivided attention to the table with genuine interest, an open-minded attitude, and the conscious intention of discovering and understanding what others have to say.
Why active listening is important
Active listening is a key communication skill for managers and other leaders, helping them understand and respond effectively to the needs and concerns of their team members. When managers listen actively, they demonstrate respect and empathy for everyone on the team, fostering a positive and supportive work environment.
Effective listening is also a big part of collaborative teamwork. By listening attentively, managers can identify potential issues or challenges early on. Attentive listeners encourage teams to share concerns and observations, discuss potential problems openly, brainstorm solutions in a space where it’s safe to think (and speak) outside the box, and find creative solutions to complex problems.
Key components and behaviors of active listening
At its heart, active listening is about your state of mind. It isn’t about presenting yourself in a certain way. In fact, active listeners aren’t thinking about the way they’re maintaining eye contact or coming up with relevant questions while the other person is talking. Active listeners are doing one thing and one thing only—listening.
That said, there are a few active listening techniques that effective listeners tend to follow. Some of these help create attentive listening while others are signals that can help show people they have your open, undivided attention without any judgment.
1. Set yourself up for success with the right time and place
If you’re tired, stressed, or in a hurry, people aren’t likely to get your complete attention. Instead of skimming through quick conversations when you’re not in the right frame of mind, set aside specific, undivided time for communication. Effective communication begins by putting in a meaningful level of effort.
2. Pay attention to body language—yours and theirs
Nonverbal cues make up a large part of human communication. Glancing at your phone during a conversation, for example, is a sure sign that part of your mind is elsewhere. So is tapping your fingers on the table impatiently. Try to maintain a calm, open posture with an appropriate amount of eye contact to reassure the other person that you’re listening.
At the same time, pay attention to their nonverbal cues as well. If they’re speaking quickly, they may be feeling stressed or excited. If they’re saying they’re fine while staring at the ground, they probably aren’t feeling fine. Empathic listening means making a conscious effort to listen to people at a deeper level.
3. Ask open-ended questions to gather information
An important part of active listening is not to assume you already know what someone is going to say. The more you assume someone else’s part of the conversation, the more likely you are to tune out—thinking about other things or even composing in your head what you’re going to say next while the other person is still talking.
Instead, listen carefully to what they’re saying, and ask open-ended questions to gather more information. This might be information about something that happened, about what they think or feel, or about what they might want to do next. At each point in the conversation, try to learn something new.
Open-ended questions leave room for unexpected answers:
- Why do you think that happened? Do you have any theories?
- How do you feel about that?
- How could we improve the system? What could we do better?
Closed-ended questions, on the other hand, expect a single answer or force a choice among just a few options. For active listening, try to avoid questions like these:
- Are you going to play ball or not?
- Bottom line, will you get the report in by Thursday?
- Do you want the extra hours or should I give them to someone else?
4. Don’t make judgments—and check your assumptions
Even when you ask open-ended questions, active listening means being just as open about the answers you might get. The problem is, we often make assumptions based on our own past experience—whether we mean to or not. If we think employees will be upset about a recent announcement, for example, we expect to hear that negative reaction, but that might not be what people are trying to express.
For better communication, one important active listening technique is to paraphrase what you hear the other person saying, reflecting it back to them to make sure you’ve truly understood. You might say something like, “It sounds to me like you actually agree with the new policy. You’re just concerned about how it’s going to affect the team’s output. Is that right?”
Even if they’re upset, though, it’s also important not to judge what people are saying or how they feel. That isn’t always easy, especially if what they’re saying is coming across as inconsiderate or even hurtful. Just remember to stay curious—instead of assuming they’re being hurtful, try to find out why they’re saying what they’re saying. What assumptions are they making that you might be able to work through together? The answers might surprise you.
5. Keep your mind present and let the conversation actively flow
One of the biggest problems with assumptions and judgments is that they tend to push us into a reactive or passive listening mode. Passive listening is the opposite of active listening—it’s tuning people out, letting our attention wander, and thinking about what we’re going to say next instead of hearing what the other person is saying right now.
If you find yourself thinking about other things or planning your responses while someone else is talking, bring your mind back to the present moment. Pay careful attention to their nonverbal communication as well as their words, and ask follow-up questions until they’ve said everything they have to say and the conversation comes to a natural conclusion.
6. Be patient with the process
In today’s fast-paced workplace, one of the toughest things about the communication process is finding the time to do it well. Just remember that active listening is not about efficiency. It’s about giving a person time (and room) to say what they have to say. When we make a conscious effort to put another human being at the center of our attention, it shifts our focus from time to people, building a stronger sense of mutual trust.
7. Be honest and build trust
Another important aspect of building trust is being honest. It’s as true of our listening style as it is of our speaking. How can we listen honestly? By genuinely giving people our best attention.
When you’re in a conversation at work, pay attention to your own intentions. Are you asking follow-up questions because that’s the active listening formula? Or are you genuinely curious about what you might learn? Remember, we don’t have to be perfect. If your attention slips, here are a few ways to remain genuine and return to a more active process:
- “I’m sorry, what you said a moment ago reminded me of something I need to do later, and I lost my train of thought. Can you say that last thing again? I don’t want to miss it.”
- “Yes, last week’s numbers concerned me too. In fact, they’re throwing me off a bit. But I really want to hear what you’re saying. Can you repeat your last point?”
- “I apologize. I have to get to my next meeting, but this conversation is important to me. Can you find some time this afternoon for us to pick this back up? I want to hear more.”
Active listening scenario
Putting it all together, what does active listening look like in practice? Here is an example scenario where multiple active listening skills are being implemented. Executive leadership has just announced new goals for the coming year, and they’re expecting 50% more growth this year than the company saw the year before. Soon afterward, a manager is having a meeting with an employee.
Employee: I can’t believe these projections. Don’t they realize how hard we’ve been working already? This is just— [Stops and shakes their head angrily.] I mean, come on, right?
Manager: I know how hard you’ve been working. I do. I see it every day, and I appreciate it. I’m not sure the announcement this morning hit me the same way you did. Can you talk to me about that?
Employee: It just feels exactly like what happened at my last company. Constantly raising the bar, you know? The second you have a breakthrough, nobody gets to enjoy it. They just raise the bar again.
Manager: Okay, tell me about raising the bar. What does that mean to you?
Employee: You know, getting in early. Staying late. I’ve got kids at home. I can’t go back to working 10, 12 hours a day. I just can’t.
Manager: It sounds like your biggest concern isn’t so much the new goals but what they might mean to our work schedule. Is that right?
Employee: Yeah. If I have to go back to a 60-hour week … [Shakes their head again, sadly this time.] I like this job, you know? I really like this team. But I just can’t go back to that.
Manager: Okay, I hear you. I do. No 60-hour weeks. Let’s just make that a hard rule, okay?
Employee: Yeah, okay. But I don’t see how that’s going to work.
Manager: Well, I don’t know yet either. But I believe in this team. Let’s take the rest of the week to think about how we could raise our numbers without working extra hours. Really think outside the box. If we could do anything we wanted to, what would we do? What resources would we bring in? Or new partnerships? Or new tools? Let’s meet again on Monday and share our ideas—see where we are and go from there.
Employee: Okay, that sounds good. I mean, we’ve figured things out before, right?
Overcoming active listening barriers
Believe it or not, the greatest barrier to active listening is our own internal set of beliefs, judgments, and assumptions—not to mention our own insecurities about our interpersonal skills. If we don’t think we can help someone see their way through obstacles, we probably can’t.
What we expect tends to affect what we hear. That’s why effective listening means asking questions and remaining open to answers that might surprise you. By staying open and curious, we also remain open to solutions we might not have considered, and we build the kind of trust and collaboration that can solve problems together, as a team.
Like with any skill, being good at active listening takes some practice.
How active listening affects team dynamics
Active listening makes us more effective agents of teamwork and positive change. It opens us up to hearing new insights and different viewpoints. It helps us get to know the people we work with on a deeper level—who they are, their personal strengths, and where they don’t feel as confident or where they could use some encouragement. When we listen to people, we gain new understandings about what they need and how we can support them to help them do their absolute best.
Most importantly, listening deeply to people builds trust. In a world that can feel increasingly stressful, taking the time to listen makes people feel heard, cared for, and appreciated. That, in turn, makes people feel more secure—which opens up new levels of creativity and collaboration.
Active listening examples
Here are just a few examples of the ways in which these skills have taken corporate leadership to the next level:
- In 2012, Starbucks asked their employees what would make them happier at work. When 30% of them said they wanted more freedom in what they wore, the company created a dress code “Look Book” to give them more options while staying on brand.
- When Adobe created its well-being program, they took the time to ask what employees needed and wanted. In the US, Adobe asked US employees. For India, the company asked employees in India. The result is a global well-being program that varies somewhat from region to region.
- Fortune magazine tracked the stock prices of the companies on its “100 Best Companies to Work For” list from 1998 to 2005. The stock price of companies on the list rose at 14% per year compared to only 6% for companies that weren’t on the list.
How to improve active listening skills
Soft skills can feel tough to learn, especially for people who are more comfortable focusing on tasks and numbers, but with effort and practice, anyone can improve their active listening skills.
- Check your time. Give your team members enough time to share their thoughts and concerns, and give yourself time to learn new interpersonal skills.
- Check your attention. Pay attention to what you’re thinking about. Are you actively taking in the other person’s words and nonverbal cues? Or are you thinking about your own ideas and what you want to say next? Think less; listen more.
- Check your nonverbal cues. Even if you’re asking the right questions and saying the right things, your posture or facial expressions could be saying something else. Tune in to your unconscious habits and work on consciously conveying your attention.
- Check your attitude. Are you open to being pleasantly surprised? Or are you already convinced of what the other person is going to say? Active listening means staying curious, not judging, and not making assumptions.
- Check your intentions. Are you going into the conversation to communicate something to the other person, or to learn something from the other person? Listening actively means not trying to push your own agenda.
- Check your speed. The faster you talk, the less you’ll be perceived as truly listening. Speaking quickly implies that you’re in a hurry or that you don’t really have time for the other person.
- Check your percentages. How much are you speaking compared to how much they’re speaking? Active listeners spend a lot less time talking and a lot more time listening.
How Simpplr can help with listening to your employees
Active listening starts at the interpersonal level, but extending that listening throughout a large enterprise is a far greater challenge. How do some CEOs manage to listen to hundreds or even thousands of employees?
For large companies that want to make employee experience a key part of their growth strategy, minimizing attrition while attracting and retaining top talent, a modern intranet platform is critical.
Simpplr is designed to help you build a better workplace by listening to all your employees, no matter how many there are and no matter where they’re located.
Unearth hidden insights that traditional surveys miss, track new trends as they evolve in real time, and turn employee listening into reliable growth that outperforms the market with an AI-powered intranet software that offers employee listening solutions.