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To be successful in the workplace, you develop and hone multiple skills. If you’re a writer, you’ve mastered the rules of grammar and syntax. If you’re in HR, you’ve become an expert in processes and people management.  

If you’re an executive, you’ve learned how to think strategically and make decisions. But these technical skills will only get you so far in your career.

Soft skills are absolutely vital for every job, and one of the most critical soft skills is active listening. Active listening is one of the cornerstones of effective communication. Developing active listening skills is especially important if you’re looking to move into a leadership role.

That’s why we created this guide to active listening - what is it, why you need it, and how to do it effectively.

Let’s dive in!

What is active listening?

Active listening is a way of paying attention to a person’s verbal communication and non-verbal cues. Active listening involves truly hearing what people say and understanding their thoughts and feelings during a conversation.

This description can be confusing - when you hear what people say, aren’t you listening to them? After all, listening is an activity already.

But here’s an example of active listening to show you the difference.

We have all had conversations with someone who hears and responds to what you’re saying, but they don’t seem to be fully engaged. They might be looking around at things or people in the room, glancing at their phones, or appear to be only taking in some of what you’re saying.

When the conversation is over, you don’t feel like they’ve fully understood your perspective and your feelings even though they have responded adequately.

When you talk to someone who is engaged in active listening, on the other hand, you have their full attention. Your conversation partner will make lots of eye contact, avoid interrupting you, and often reword what you’ve told them so you know they understand you completely.

Active listening doesn’t mean agreeing with everything someone else is saying. But it does mean taking the time and paying attention to comprehend someone else’s perspective and emotions, not just the words they’re speaking.

Why is active listening important in the workplace?

Active listening matters in every area of your life, and becoming a skilled active listener will undoubtedly benefit your personal and professional life. Everyone benefits from mutual understanding at work. 

Here is how active listening is important in the workplace and how it can help you at every stage of your career.

1. As an individual contributor

Listening actively to your peers and your manager will serve you well in your role as an individual contributor. You will learn more about what matters to your manager in 1:1 conversations if you practice active listening.

You’ll also collaborate effectively with your peers on projects if you are a good listener.

2. As a manager

Active listening becomes even more important when you move into a role where you manage people effectively. Being a good and engaged manager means knowing what is going on with your team - where their tasks and projects are, and how they are handling their workload and stress in their personal life as well.

Active listening can help you develop a deeper understanding of what motivates and engages your team.

3. As a leader

It can be easy to make decisions using only your own experience and knowledge in leadership. But you will be a more successful and empathetic leader if you can take in feedback and information from your executive peers, managers, and individual contributors as well.

You’ll make more informed decisions when you understand what is going on with everyone in your organization and take their perspectives into account on important decisions.

Active listening techniques

Active listening is a skill you can work on every day to become good at it. Some people may find it easier to practice active listening than others, but everyone can practice active listening and get better at it.

Here are a few techniques to practice to improve your active listening skills.

1. Stay present

There are many distractions in meetings and 1:1 conversations these days - your cell phone pings, an email arrives on your laptop, or you simply notice people moving around the office. But staying present and focused in the conversation is a vital part of active listening.

You can’t understand what someone is saying unless you pay full attention - and they probably won’t feel comfortable opening up fully to someone who is only halfway there.

Instead, practice focusing intently on the other person’s words and body language. Mindfulness practice may help train your attention to focus on just one thing at a time as well.

2. Don’t interrupt

It sounds simple, but it’s hard for many people to do - good listening means not talking over someone or interrupting them. Giving the other person the chance to speak their thoughts fully without jumping in to offer your own is a sign of respect.

And it can make your conversation partner feel more comfortable expressing themselves since they know they have the space to do so.

Interrupting is also a sign that you have been thinking about what you’re going to say next instead of simply taking in what the other person is saying. That is the opposite of active listening since you’re not giving them your undivided attention.

Of course, you don’t need to let someone go on for hours - you can find a natural point to interject politely or ask a question. But that should be rare when you’re actively listening.

3. Notice non-verbal clues

Active listening is not just about taking in what someone is saying. It’s also about noticing what they’re not saying - at least not out loud. That means paying attention to your conversation partner's facial expressions and body language.

Paying attention to verbal and non-verbal cues, like someone setting their jaw in anger or shrinking away from a subject physically, will help you develop a deeper understanding of what they’re feeling and anything they may want to communicate but are unsure how to tackle it.

This is especially important when subtle cues indicate that their words don’t quite match their actions - you can ask some gentle clarifying questions to get to the bottom of what’s happening.

4. Empathize

Active listening does not always mean you need to agree wholeheartedly with everything your conversation partner says. That’s just not realistic. Plus, the goal of active listening is not always to agree on statements of fact. It’s about understanding each other’s point of view, even if you still disagree at the end.

This is where empathy is critical. Make an active effort to see things from the other person’s perspective based on what they’re telling you - where is their position coming from?

It can also help you to be kind to someone who has less experience than you in the subject you’re discussing, and that empathy will make them feel more comfortable being open with you.

5. Clarify

Suppose you’re actively listening to someone you’re struggling to understand, someone who is visibly frustrated, or someone who is having difficulty articulating their points. In that case, it can be helpful to clarify what they mean.

That can be done by repeating the key points of their conversation back to them, so they know you understand, and then they can correct you if your impression of what they said was inaccurate. It’s important not to get defensive here if you misunderstood them - that’s just what this clarification is for, so you both get on the same page.

The purpose of active listening

Learning to listen actively to everyone in your workplace - from your peers, individual contributors, and up to the executive ranks - is one of the most valuable soft skills you can develop.

It takes time and careful practice to get better at active listening, but the benefits in your career and your personal life will be well worth it. It’s just one of the ways of improving your communications skills, no matter what role or industry you’re in, that will make you advance further in your career and benefit everyone around you.

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Kathleen O'Donnell

Kathleen O'Donnell LinkedIn

Kathleen is a freelance writer and employee communications and culture expert, with 6+ years of experience in corporate internal communications.