Active Listening Skills – 4 Tips to Practice

active-listening-skillsDeveloping active listening skills is essential to improving your communication skills. How often do you find yourself zoning out or thinking about what to say next during a conversation, instead of listening? If you are anything like me, then the answer is probably everyday, even if it’s just for a few seconds.

This is a normal human behavior, as we have active minds. It’s also the challenge that keeps us from practicing great listening skills.  Active listening skills are the foundations for effective communication.  The challenge is practicing active listening skills in every important conversation.

Well, let’s start with the two key goals of active listening:

  • Make sure you understand the content, nuance, and intentions of what the other person is saying.
  • Make sure the other person perceives that you are listening to him or her.

Do you agree with these goals? If so, then active listening is more than just using our ears — we have to be present, we have to process what we heard to make sure we understood it, and we have to let the other person know that we heard them. Here are 4 tips on practicing and improving your active listening skills — today!

Tip #1 Be Confident and Present in the Conversation — Often times, we don’t listen well, not because we don’t want to, but because we are too busy trying to figure out what to say next, and we’re worrying about having something valuable to say. This is due to lack of confidence in ourselves, and a failure to be present with the speaker. When we worry about what to say next, we naturally won’t hear everything the other person is saying, and we’ll fill in the blanks with our own assumptions. This often happens in job interviews — we are so nervous about how to say why we are qualified that we don’t listen, and therefore don’t answer the question that was asked into interview. Obviously, this is counter-productive.

Practice: Do not think about what to say next while you are listening. Think about what you want to say next after the other person has finished speaking. Brief silence is okay in a conversation. You can also say “that’s a great question” to buy time. Also, don’t interrupt the person while they are speaking — that is a sure sign that you are not listening well.

Tip #2: Paraphrase What You Heard — Just because we are listening, doesn’t mean we can assume that we heard the other person correctly. This is where paraphrasing is important. Paraphrasing is repeating back in our own words (not verbatim) what the person said. Repeating what they said in our own words will demonstrate that we heard them, processed what they said, and are taking some time to make sure we are on the same page before moving forward.

Practice:  After the person has finished talking, you can say something like “If i understood you correctly, you are asking me x y z. Is that right?…Let me see if I understood this correctly — are you saying x y z?” Wait for the person to nod or correct you before answering the question, or making comments about the statement. 

Tip #3: Ask Specific Questions to ClarifyAnother way to make sure we heard correctly and show we are listening is to ask specific questions when something we heard is unclear.  This is not about saying ” I didn’t hear you.  Can you repeat that?”  No one wants to repeat everything they just said.  Instead, we want to paraphrase what we did understand, and then ask a question about what we didn’t understand.  It’s always better to ask questions than to assume that we know what they’re talking about.

Practice:  Do not pretend to understand something when you don’t.  You may think you are saving face or looking smart, but you won’t seem so smart in the long run.  Instead, ask the person to clarify the part you didn’t get, after they are done speaking.

Tip #4: Show Non-Verbal Active Listening — Lastly, listening is also about sending the right non-verbal cues.  People react to non-verbal cues as much as words.   If we are leaning back, looking at the ceiling, but listening intently, the person still may not feel heard.  We have to align our non-verbal cues to show that we are actively listening.

Practice:  Lean slightly forward or sit in a neutral position when listening. Look interested. Don’t have your hands folded in front of your chest (even if the person you are speaking with is) – Keep your hands by your side or on the table.  Make eye contact appropriately as you listen.  Nod your head at times as you listen.

The above concepts are easy to understand.  The challenge is remembering to practice them in every important conversation.  Make a little note for yourself with these 4 tips, and look at them as a reminder before going into a conversation.  It’s worth the effort, though — it is only when you are really listening to the other person can you hope to be heard.

Your comments:  What is the biggest challenge you face in improving your active listening skills? Any there any other active listening tips you want to add?  Add your comments below and let’s have a discussion.

Like this article? Then help me out and share it on Linkedin, Email, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc.

I am always in your corner.

– Lei

9 thoughts on “Active Listening Skills – 4 Tips to Practice”

  1. I understand your points with active listening and I am practicing slowing down to practice them. I am finding making eye contact forces me to slow down and listen.

  2. The biggest challenge i faced improving my active listening, was actually just when a boss or a authoritarian person start to talk, because they are the boss right, but has you write on the page, i understand that one of the more important stuff is to listen what are we talking about and don’t just assume that the other person understood what you said.
    i Could add as fifth tip: Never miss the point of the conversation: its very important dont lose the main of the meeting because people is really good just changing the topic.

  3. I understand and comprehended all your advice. I clearly agree the process of actively listening, and would appreciate any thing the manager has to say whether it be positive or negative. Just like you said you never know it could be a “promotion,” it could be advice which can elevate you while you are trying to move forward in your profession or career, even if he just wants to chat this can build a personal as well as professional relationship with your superior. I also, feel that it definitely showing good sign of respect by listening. After all everyone needs someone to talk from time to time and your boss is just as human as anyone else. Everyone wants to be heard.

    1. Valarie, thanks for commenting. That’s right. Active listening is always a sign of respect. It will only build your reputation and relationship whenever you make the effort to hear someone out.

  4. Hi!

    I came to this website because it is included on the study resources of an English course that I’m taking on Coursera. I like this article and, to answer your questions, I think one of my biggest challenge on active listening was to really understand what some people want to say. I mean, sometimes I tried to understand what I heard and later paraphrase it but after this the person said something like “no, it was not what I said” even I’m sure it was. We continue talking and then I discover that I was right but the person say something like “Yes, I told you that before so you did not understood”. That is a great challenge for me and it could be very difficult.

    I don’t know if this happen because the other person skills or is just because of me (maybe I don’t have good skills to communicate with this kind of people).

    Well, i’ll try to use what you wrote here and I’m sure it will help me with my teaching work specially at University.

    Have a good day

    1. Jonathan thanks for sharing your story. I think something key to realize is perhaps both of you are right and you just used different words to describe it. It’s important to not to prove you are right and they are wrong and more consider that by using these techniques you can uncover misunderstandings like you did in this situation. That’s the win in this interaction whether someone used the words you expected them to use or not.

      1. Lei thank you for your reply. I’ve read your words twice and I realized how important is what you wrote about to use different words to describe something. As you wrote, perhaps we are right and this is only about the words we use to say it nd for that is neccesary to use active listening skills. Maybe we are thinking about complex things all the time and because of many things, we can’t realize what is behind our communication and this could lead a misunderstanding. Thank you very much for your words.

  5. What do you do when you are trying these tips but dealing with a poor communicator? For example, someone who is providing a great amount of detail on their decision process, or over explaining why they are asking you to accomplish a certain task. I have run into this so many times in the work-place. A supervisor comes to me with a request and instead of stopping there, they continue on into this maelstrom of causation.

    1. Kyle, great question. The best way to deal with it is by
      – Listening with respect – If your supervisor wants to talk to you longer after his request, you stay patiently and listen. Maybe he just want to talk to someone. He is paying you to be there. If he chooses to use that time by telling you details, then it’s their decision. Your manager is your gatekeeper in a career. this is one way to manage your relationship positively with your manager
      – paraphrasing – say something like “I want to make sure I understand. [then paraphrase what you think he/she means].” This helps breaks up a long speech from the other person and show you were listening.
      At the end of the day, be careful how you quick to judge others. No one is perfect. Not you or your supervisor. Your goal in any communication with your supervisor is make sure he leaves the conversation feeling like they were heard and respected and that you know what to do from his direction. Here are articles I have written about how to manage upwards effectively for your career advancement. Best wishes

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