What is active listening?

This is a really good topic that someone asked in one of my reddit groups that I’m a member of. The poster asked how he could stop interrupting people. He recognized that this was a problem he had and couldn’t let people finish their stories without interrupting them to ask questions. He said it wasn’t arrogance, that he interrupted them out of curiosity or excitement. He then asked how he could improve on this as he recognized this was a negative trait that annoyed others.

My go-to answer was to practice active listening. And then I thought to myself, I know what active listening is, but can I explain it well enough for him to understand? I thought I would do some more research and share my findings with you.


What is active listening?

Active listening is a pattern of listening that keeps you engaged with your conversation partners. There are a number of ways to do this. It involves careful listening, observation of verbal and non-verbal cues and getting to know when a person is taking a pause or is finished speaking.

The key thing to learn is – when is it appropriate to inject yourself into the conversation? Do you wait until the story teller is finished? Or do you wait for pauses to ask relevant questions?

Key points to remember in order to become an active listener include:

  • Listening to obtain and retain information
  • Listening to understand
  • Listening for enjoyment (a story or rant)
  • Listening to learn (class lecture, TED Talk, etc)

When you become a better listener, you can improve your productivity, as well as your ability to influence others, and even negotiate with them when making a deal. For instance, if you’re buying your first home, a new car, or negotiating salary for a new job. These are all great skills to take with you to the workplace.


How to improve active listening skills

These are crucial skills when it comes to building relationships with others. Whether it’s in the workplace, or you’re socializing with friends, or you are trying to get closer to your spouse – it’s important to listen fully to the message that is being communicating – so you can formulate a proper response.

In order to hear what the other person is saying, the important thing to remember is to actually listen to them. Put your phone away. Or better yet, shut it off. Pick a time of day when you are both alert and have some privacy to have a real discussion. You may find the conversation boring, or uninteresting – but it’s important to let your partner know that you care and are interested in what they have to say. Even if you don’t always agree with it.


Non verbal cues

To show a person that you are actively listening to them, practice on your non-verbal cues. This can include a nod to show you’re in agreement with them, or the occasional, shaking your head in disbelief along with the story teller.

For example, “You’re not going to believe what just happened to me while I was driving here,” someone might say. To show that you’re listening, you could respond with ,”What happened? Are you okay?” to show that you are concerned. As the person is telling their story, you can share verbal expressions, following their lead. Then you become the active listener as the communicator starts their story.

Are they angry? Are they upset or hurt by what happened to them? Are they in shock or disbelief? You can mirror their emotions as they tell the story by sharing appropriate non-verbal cues.


Active story telling and listening

What I like to do is wait for pauses in the story to ask questions. But sometimes, a person just needs to rant – and in those cases, it’s best to let them finish the story before interrupting. This is where I might say a few exclaimers like, “Oh my god,” or “wow” or “I can’t believe it.” I let the story teller lead and follow their reactions.

Now if a person is telling a story to entertain, this is where you want to take a step back and let them have the floor. Especially in social settings where they are surrounded by friends or family.

I recently attended a birthday party where my brother in law was retelling a story of when my siblings all went camping. He got about five minutes into the story, before my sister interrupted and said, “was that when we went to Kamloops”? and that was the right question that got him excited as he moved onto the punch line of the story.

The story brought back a lot of positive memories from that time, and it led the group into an hour long discussion about camping trips and embarrassing moments from our youth. Not only was the story telling engaging in this instance, but it allowed for all of us to contribute our own memories into the conversation. It made for a really fun and enjoyable evening for everyone.

Why? Because we listened to each other, allowed everyone to have their say, and it brought us all a little closer as we remember the good times we had.


Active listening in the workplace

Attending long meetings was one of the things I hated most in the workplace. But as an office coordinator, one of my main tasks was to take notes at meetings. This really helped with my listening skills. In some meetings, I was required to take verbatim meetings. This meant recording minutes word for word. I learned to pause and stop recording when committee members went onto personal discussions.

Even the big boss would comment, “Oh, you know we’ve gone way off topic when Wendy stops typing.” This would only happen if they went off on tangents about their expensive vacation homes or trips. It happened often enough, that when I stopped typing, the committee realized they needed to get back on track – or take a break. This was a non-verbal cue that I learned to do on my own.

When it came to other non-official meetings, I learned to listen to each conversation and record highlights of the conversation. This really helped me to understand the conversation better. Sometimes I would have to include more information, especially if it was a new topic for me – or if we needed to capture planning notes. But this skill, specifically, helped me to become a better listener.

What I recommend is that if you attend lots of meetings at your workplace, take notes. Not only will this keep your hands busy, but it will help you focus on what’s being discussed. Take notes especially if you are asked to follow up on something. You can write down important dates, timelines or write down any questions you might have for later on.

When it comes to listening during meetings, your team might have protocols in place for when it’s appropriate to interrupt and ask questions. You may raise your hand to show that you have a question without interrupting, and let the speaker acknowledge your question. They may ask you to hold questions to the end of the meeting. If that’s the case, I suggest writing your question down so you don’t forget it.

I could start a whole series on things I learned in the workplace – and I just might do that. I’ll label these posts using the career category and you can search my blog for career advice in future articles.

How do you practice active listening? Have you used active listening skills in the workplace and has it helped you with your job? If so, let me know in the comments.


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