Are You an ACTIVE Listener?

A key part of my role as a career and change strategist is listening. Yes, I speak too and some may argue I do so too much! But hey, I have so much wisdom to impart, right?  Seriously, a key requirement to success in my role is to listen - carefully, actively, and encouragingly.

The key word here is actively. This means I am not thinking about my next client, my meal tonight, or how the basketball finals are playing out. I’m not even thinking about my own response to what is being said. Instead, I am actively engaged with my client in the moment, listening to what is being said.

This realization got me thinking...maybe active listening is a key requirement to success for ALL roles? Is it important for everyone in all contexts including work, family, and personal life? If we actively listen to others and in return feel heard, would that make a huge difference in our careers, relationships, wellbeing, and overall personal engagement? I think the answer is a resounding YES!

So...what is active listening?

In the most basic sense, active listening is:

  1. making sure that you hear and fully understand what the person is trying to communicate
  2. ensuring the person knows that you understand

Additionally, active listening serves other important purposes, such as:

  • Expanding the amount of information exchanged
  • Enhancing the sense of connection and involvement
  • Increasing the communicator’s sense of being heard and appreciated
  • Prompting communicators to rethink and clarify their own thoughts
  • Stimulating interactivity and creativity

Listening actively requires effort and overt behaviour. We are not listening actively if we simply listen attentively without saying anything, even if we believe we comprehend fully and precisely what is being said. To listen actively, we must clearly demonstrate that we are listening, interested, and comprehend the message.

The question do I become an active listener? There are a number of useful techniques that can be utilized to become a more active and engaged listener.

Verbal Techniques

The most obvious, yet most important and powerful verbal technique is play back. You simply say what you believe you heard the person communicate. That said, this is not “parroting” or repeating exactly what the person has said; it is attempting to paraphrase and summarize the message you heard. While it is more difficult than parroting, it is way more effective. “Playing back” demonstrates your desire to truly understand and shows that you’re making an attempt to engage with the content. 

Let’s assume that you are comfortable with using play back as a technique. You may still find it difficult to play back messages because you aren’t sure what the person is actually trying to communicate. That’s the opportune time to ask questions!

Without asking questions, especially clarifying questions, you’re unlikely to truly understand the message. Ask questions to clarify or build understanding. Don’t ask questions that expose weak points or inconsistencies, unless that is exactly your intent. Finally, resist the temptation to ask leading questions or questions that are actually supporting your own view!

Some people are reluctant to ask questions, thinking that it may appear rude or impolite. Others may fear they will be perceived as not being particularly intelligent.  However, I would suggest that it is far worse to not ask questions and later learn that you did not fully understand the message. 

While it is quite possible to ask questions in a manner that appears to be impolite, rude, or challenging, sincerity in trying to understand the communicator’s message will go a long way.  With practice, you’ll learn quickly how to ask questions in a manner that demonstrates your interest.

Non-Verbal Techniques

Eye contact is another essential technique of active listening with face-to-face communication. I am aware that culturally this may not be accepted. In all communication, it is important to be culturally sensitive (which is also a key component in the success of active listening). 

Most Western business environments expect some level of eye contact, and people often feel very uncomfortable if someone won’t look them in the eye.  Eye contact also says that you’re engaged, the communicator has your attention, the lights are on, and you’re in receiving mode.

Similarly, body language and listening posture send very clear messages about your state of mind, your interest, and your engagement. While there can be too much subjectivity in reading body language, there are some guidelines that generally apply. Crossed arms, leaning away from the communicator or sitting hunched over could indicate that you are closed to the communicator, defensive, or generally tired of the topic. Sitting straight and leaning slightly forward with arms open can signal that you’re open and ready to receive messages.

Mental Techniques

It is important to engage one’s mental faculties and intellect when listening. Learn to suspend critical evaluation. We tend to listen for errors, omissions, or faulty thinking, which can get in the way of the message. We may come to a conclusion before we fully understand what the person intended to communicate.

Listening to understand and listening to evaluate involve fundamentally different mental processes. We should first practice active listening to ensure our understanding of the message. Only then should we evaluate. It’s impossible to suspend critical evaluation entirely, but with self-awareness and practice, you can ensure that it doesn’t become the focus of your listening process.

Active listening is a technique that yields benefits in almost every context and can impact success in all roles. Most people do not practice active listening and therefore are not accomplished listeners. Those who master active listening will differentiate themselves, build positive relationships with others, be better informed, have a stronger basis for making decisions, and overall be more engaged in communications.

Especially important in our career management, active listening is just like any other skill – it can be mastered with practice, positive intent and effort.

So, have YOU heard me? 

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