How to Actively Listen in Six Simple Steps

Posted: March 28, 2023, 6 p.m.

1. Be Present and Manage Distractions 

The first thing you should do is to make sure you're able to be present and focused on listening. This means that you should be well-rested, make sure you're not too full or hungry, and that you're able to put aside any of your own thoughts that could be distractions. Whether you've had a fight with your significant other, you got bills to pay, etc...if you bring those to the listening encounter you're not going to be able to focus as well as you should and give the speaker your full attention.

So that means maybe taking a moment to meditate, taking a moment to acknowledge and eliminate biases, putting emotions to the side, and acknowledging that this moment is important and your team deserves your attention. 

If you aren't in a position to do that, you need to try to postpone the conversation.  If you don't feel like you can be mindful - there's something too heavily weighing on your mind, you're too tired, or whatever - it's important that you acknowledge that with the person. You're much better off saying, “Listen, can we talk about this tomorrow after I've had time to rest” or “I got a lot on my mind right now. I don't feel like I can focus as well as you deserve.” “Can we set a time tomorrow or next Wednesday to talk?” They're going to appreciate the fact that you are concerned about them to the point that you want to make sure you can pay attention. Just make sure that if you cancel a meeting, YOU are the one to put it back on the calendar. Strong communication skills need strong interpersonal skills, too.

The second part of this is to make sure the space is ready for you to listen. Eliminate distractions, let people know not to interrupt, find a neutral place like a conference room, make sure that your phone is silenced. Minimizing the external things that interrupt and taking care of them ahead of time is the best way to make sure you can give your undivided attention. 

Taking the time to prepare yourself and the space for listening shows your team that you care about their needs and their time. If you need to, make a checklist for preparing for listening. Do a body scan and a mental check in an hour before. Make sure the space is up to par–be flexible and change the space if it satisfies the checklist. Do your best to set the stage for connective listening.

2. Use Nonverbal Cues

One of the things I work most with students and clients is understanding the power of non-verbal communication. Research shows that upwards of 60 to 90% of the actual message of communication is delivered through nonverbal cues. It's the way you hold yourself, the use of eye contact, and all of these other physical attributes that are a key component to communicating that you are listening as well.  

Remember one of the key goals of effective communication is showing the other person that you're listening. Much of this is done through our non-verbal cues. Start with your facial expressions. As people say, the eyes are the window to the soul. This pertains to listening as well, you need to be making eye contact with the person, not like piercing laser eye contact but a natural friendly eye contact. 

An interesting trick here is if you are communicating via video chat -- whether that’s Zoom or Skype or whatever -- remember that the camera is their eyes. You should be looking at the camera, as tricky as that can be sometimes. I know you want to look at their face on the screen but when you do that people will feel less connected to you.

Another aspect of facial expressions is making sure your natural emotional responses are coming through. If they say something funny, give a small smile. if they say something sad, acknowledge that with your face. Smiling and all those other facial gestures are important to make others feel engaged. Smiling also makes people feel more comfortable! 

Another important thing circles back to possible distractions: make sure you're using the appropriate facial expressions. If one of your team members is saying something serious but you're thinking about a funny meme, you might laugh at the wrong time and make the person feel like you're laughing at their hardship.

Body posture and position is also important. In the United States, the comfort zone for conversation is generally between 2 and 4 feet away. For more intimate conversations a little closer can be okay, but if you're too far away they can feel disconnected. Avoid sitting at large conference tables if you can. 

You also want to signal that you are receptive to their thoughts and ideas, so actually position yourself openly to them -- face them, arms uncrossed, with good posture, and your head at eye level. This is a nice and natural open body position that lets the listener or speaker feel open and ready to communicate. We've all been influenced at least once by a speaker’s body language, either in a good way or a bad way.

Another interesting trick with non-verbals is to respectfully mimic their communication style. If you can accommodate their style -- match the pace, intensity, tone, etc, of their communication style -- it can lead to improved trust and deeper engagement. For more research on this you can look at Howie Giles’s research on Communication Accommodation Theory.

The key takeaway here is for you to physically show that you're listening. So remember to make eye contact, keep body posture open and respond appropriately with your face and your body. When you do this you’ll come across as an engaged listener -- which, hopefully, you are!

3. Ask Questions

There is one point that I often get early pushback on from both my students and my clients: active listening skills. They often think that listening is a passive activity and that good listening requires being quiet to really get the message. In reality, listening is an active sport you should be engaging and actively participating in. Good communication means volleying back-and-forth.

One of the key skills here is to be able to ask good questions. Asking questions shows the other person that you're interested and that you're part of the conversation. It helps you dig deeper and get at underlying issues. There are several key types of questions to ask, and specific times to ask these questions. In this lesson, I want to identify how you can more effectively use questions to improve your listening skills

First, I want you to consider the types of questions you ask. 

Sometimes when people come to you they may have a hard time articulating what the issue is or what's going on. At these times,  asking open-ended questions can be a really powerful tool to help them explore their thoughts. For example “Can you talk a little bit about your thoughts on X” or “What would this look like for you?” These types of open-ended questions allow the person to explore their thoughts and get more detail by allowing them to talk through the process. It also shows them you are interested and engaged in their thoughts.

This gets us to the second type of questions, follow-up questions and probing questions. These are ways that we can dig deeper. Oftentimes the stated issue is not really the singular issue -- there may be something else going on, an underlying interest or concern that isn't articulated. Remember to keep an open mind as you listen, too.

You can get at these underlying topics by asking probing questions. For example you can ask things like “so why is that important to you”, “How would that affect you”, “What would this do”. You can also use these to explore your ideas with others as well saying things like “So if we did this how would that affect your decision, your process, Etc?” The probing questions are ways that we can further explore those open-ended questions.

Finally you can use questions to demonstrate areas of agreement. In sales, one of the things that leads to success is being able to identify when they're ready to close and not let the moment pass. This requires effective listening and noting when someone is starting to say things like “oh I can see how that might work” or talking about using whatever you're selling in the future. Use questions to build on that. “So it sounds like you can see yourself using this in the future so what can we do to get you to commit today?”

Questions are one of the most vital tools of effective listening. Practice developing this skill in every conversation you have -- with friends, family, and colleagues. It’s going to make you more adept at getting detailed information and getting people to open up more effectively. Asking good questions is a great way to get commitment and closure of your conversations. 

4. Summarize and Paraphrase

One of the things that I have the most fun doing as a consultant is facilitating group discussions. Whether that is looking to develop a strategic plan, working through problems, or just facilitating better Team Dynamics. One of the skills I most often have to bring to bear to do a really good job is the ability to paraphrase and summarize what's being said. As a facilitator, listening and summarizing is one of the key skills to bringing the team forward. I want to briefly talk you through how you can use summarizing and paraphrasing to be a better listener and a better leader. 

Paraphrasing is when we rephrase what another person has said in our own words. This is particularly useful in checking understanding and reflecting back emotions.

Paraphrasing understanding allows you to not just make sure that you're getting the content correct but also shows the other person you're paying attention and listening and gives them the option to correct and realign.

This can sound like “So if I hear you correctly you're saying that…” “Do you mean this is that” “If I understand you, you are saying…” the trick here is you want to keep your judgment out of it and just check whether you're getting the information correct.

When paraphrasing emotions, it's much the same thing. You can say things like “So what's got you upset is this and this?” or “If I hear you right, you found this to be the most exciting piece?”. Again, what you're doing is checking to see if your perceptions are correct. Make a conscious effort to acknowledge different perspectives and show that you paid close attention. The end of the conversations may not always lead to positive outcomes, but the right thing to do is make sure you understand the best you can.

You can even move the conversation forward with comments like “Okay so I've heard you say this and this, but I haven't heard anything about that -- is that right?” or “It sounds like you agree with me on point A and point B, but we still need to come together on Point C.” Comments like this can take a conversation forward. When you can focus on the things you agree on, it's easier to move forward to solve problems or address the things you don't agree on.

Summarizing is similar in nature in that we are putting what's going on in our own words, but summarizing is broader in nature. It's summarizing larger parts of the conversation. This can be especially useful for long conversations or complex ones. 

Saying things like “Okay so I think the main points from this are pom pom pom.” or “It sounds like the three main points are this this and this, and under this point we need to focus on.”  

This benefits you in a couple of ways, once again it's a way to check your perception and understanding and shows that you are listening. It also is useful as a help to your memory and theirs. Finally and often more importantly, summarizing is a way to highlight agreement and look for ways to move forward. 

I want you to start honing these skills right away. Practice this in everyday conversations -- paraphrasing to reflect comprehension and emotional understanding is a powerful way to make anyone feel listened to.

5. Pay Attention to Time and Space

A standing joke with the mother of my children is that if I have something important I need to talk to her about, I have to always check and make sure that she's not hungry. We used to always keep granola bars in the glove box! She is one of those people that just gets hangry. When she hasn't had enough to eat or hasn't eaten in a while, it affects her mood and it affects her ability to listen. Everyone has different ways they need to be able to focus, but almost all of us need full bellies!

This is just one example of how aspects of time and space can affect the way that we listen and the way people listen to us. Here are a few things to be aware of when it comes to setting the scene for successful listening. 

First, consider how space fits into listening. Recognizing that aspects of space communicate things like power. If you are sitting behind a large desk and you make them sit in a smaller chair on the other side, you're communicating that you are more powerful than them. 

If you want to and need to communicate that aspect of power, then do that but more often you're going to want to find something that puts you on the same Level Playing Field. This can be a conference room, a small couch or table in your or their office, or another neutral space. Try to find a place where you sit beside or near each other without large barriers between you.

The second aspect of space is to think about those non-verbal aspects of personal space. In the United States, the common conversational zone is within 2-4 feet. Getting closer or further away can make listening more challenging. For more personal conversations or more intimate relationships, a distance of closer to 1 foot may be appropriate.

Time also can affect listening in some key ways. The first is to be aware of the internal distractions that you or others might be impacted by. If I asked you to come into my office because I want to talk to you about an issue and it's 4:45, but you have to get your kids from school at 5:15, you're going to have a hard time focusing on the message. 

Any time our minds are focused on other things we cannot be focused on listening. 

Other times this might impact listing include: if you just got to work and haven't had a chance to get settled, if you've got a big meeting coming up, or any number of inopportune times. 

Another aspect of time is to make sure you give yourself a buffer on the other end - don't set a meeting directly after the one that you're having -- especially if it is an important conversation. You don’t want to have to stress if the conversation goes long and you want to give yourself time to reflect after they have left. 

So be aware of what else is going on around you and other people’s schedules. Look at your calendar for the next few weeks -- do you need to adjust any of your meeting times? Do you have a neutral space to meet in? Make the adjustments you need in order to ensure that all parties are able to be present, focused, and listen with 100% attention.

6. Close the conversation 

I had a coaching client once whose team had a really odd thing to say about him. They said that when they were with him they felt he was listening, but after the fact it was clear he was not. This highlights the fact that just participating actively in the conversation isn't enough to truly BE a great listener. There are a few other things you must do to make sure your team feels that you're listening to them -- and ensure that you are. 

When you reach the end of the conversation, make sure both you and the other person remember what you agreed on or where you netted out. If you’re conversing with a group of people, make sure everyone is on the same page and no one misses any important details.

Then, doing a quick summary that sets tasks and responsibilities. This is vital to successful follow-up! This can be as simple as “All right so I'm going to do this and this, and you're going to do this in this. Does that sound right to you?” or “Here is what I see as next steps, did I miss anything?” These things make sure that you're both on the same page and aligned to the next steps, and who is doing what when.

This does two things: it closes out the conversation and adds accountability so that you and the other person or people follow through on the plan. 

This takes you to the most vital part of any conversation and the entire purpose of listening: you have got to do what you said you will do. That’s what it means to be trustworthy. 

If you said that you were going to have something done by a certain date, then make sure you do it. If you agreed to something and then do the exact opposite, you're going to create mistrust.

Make sure that what you say in the conversation is what you actually do. That’s not to say you can’t change your mind or take a different path, but you better make sure you are communicating with them about why. Have another conversation and start the process again. 

The last piece of this puzzle is to be sure to set up follow-up check-ins. It’s another layer of accountability and this is particularly important when you are not able to find closure in the current conversation.

To be a better active listener, put these steps in place to make sure that even after the conversation, people feel listened to. I want you to avoid the problem that my client experienced -- if you are a good listener, let people know by following through with your agreements and commitments. That is the sign of a good listener and a great leader. Take these six steps and see what positive impacts your active listening skills have in your personal and professional relationships. For more information, watch the Listen To Lead workshop series or Contact Us to learn more about how you can become a more effective listener!