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Active listening

Active listening (sometimes referred to as “reflective listening” or “empathic listening”) is more than hearing (ie the ability to receive sound) or plain old listening (ie the ability to understand what someone has said).

Crucially, good active listening has happened when the person being listened to feels they have been “understood”. For example, extraverts are often labelled as poor listeners, not because they haven’t heard or listened (indeed extraverts have to listen, technically, to know how to link the next thing they want to say into the conversation) but because the other party doesn’t feel they have been 'heard'

How do you do it?

The ability to make the other party feel heard, listened to and understood hinges on the following three active listening skills:

  1. Show you are paying attention: your body language should indicate acceptance, receptivity and patience. No folded arms, interruptions of the other person, glances at what is happening somewhere else, or irritability in the voice. Yes to appropriate eye contact. Yes to letting the other person finish what they are saying. Yes to a pause to let what they have said sink in before you reply.
  2. Show you are not sitting in judgement: show empathy with what the other person is saying and feeling. Try to tune in to the other person’s viewpoint. Showing empathy does not mean you agree with what the other person is saying, but you are prepared to listen carefully. Indicate an attitude of respect for what the other person is saying, even if you do not agree with it.
  3. Show you are attending carefully to what is being said: summarize and reflect what you have heard, ask for clarification or to hear more about some parts of what they have said. Ask open-ended questions, not questions that just require a yes or no answer, to draw people out further. In general, the person you are listening to will not find it helpful to hear your views or your experience - your job is to help them to explore their issue and help them come to their own conclusions. Occasionally they will ask you directly for your view - in which case you can obviously give it - but generally your role is to ask helpful questions and let them work things out for themselves.

These steps sound simple. Practised carefully they will improve your leadership and enhance your reputation as a trustworthy and valued colleague.

Quick tips for individuals, or in teams

1.       Find two colleagues (eg fellow team members) who would like to assess, and improve, their active listening skills with you. You will need to find a place you can talk relatively privately for half an hour or so.

2.       You will do a simple listening exercise three times - approximately ten minutes each time. Each time one of you is the 'client', one is the 'coach', and one is the 'observer'. After ten minutes you swap roles so that each of you has a turn at being the 'client', the 'coach' and the 'observer'.

3.       For the first ten minute session the ‘client’ is seeking some help in thinking through a question – eg “Where shall I go on holiday next year?”.

4.       The ‘coach’ is there to help – by listening carefully, and asking questions that will help the client to come to think things through. (Not by giving their own ideas - see the points above)

5.        The ‘observer’ listens closely, observes body language so that they can give helpful feedback to the coach.

6.       The observer also keeps track of time. After 5 minutes or so the ‘observer’ calls a halt, and there are a few minutes for feedback to the ‘coach’ on their listening:

a.       First, the ‘client’ says whether or not they felt well listened to by the ‘coach’, giving an example from the session if possible. They can point out anything they found particularly helpful about the ‘coach’s’ questions. They can also mention any time they felt the ‘coach’ didn’t listen well.

b.      The ‘observer’ then feeds back anything they noticed about the interaction that will help the ‘coach’ improve their skills next time.

7.       Everyone then takes a different role for the next ten minute session, and the exercise is repeated. And then repeated for a third time so that everyone experiences each role.

For these practice sessions it is helpful to keep the topics fairly light hearted. It is an exercise in practising active listening skills, not in helping people with deep problems. The time for that is when you feel confident in your active listening skills.

Think of the topics that work best for you. Here are some you might try:

Where shall I go on holiday next year?

How can I improve my work-life balance?

How could I be more effective at work?

What would an ideal day at work look like for me?


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