Tips to improve your active listening skills

January 8, 2022

Active listening is a soft skill that takes time to develop. Try these five active listening techniques to practice this skill. Below, we’ll also dive into a few examples to help you continue building this muscle.

1. Avoid interrupting
Sometimes, when a conversation is flowing, you want to jump in and add your own ideas, or elaborate on a thought someone else just shared. This type of interruption moves some conversations along, but it’s not something you want to do when you’re actively listening to understand.

To practice active listening, dedicate all of your attention and energy towards what the other person is saying. Inevitably, you will have a thought or comment about something they have to say, but try to put those thoughts to the side while you’re listening to understand.

2. Listen without judgment
As you learn about active listening, you may encounter people talking about non-judgmental listening. Non-judgmental doesn’t refer to positive or negative judgement. Rather, it refers to your internal monologue. In this case, judgment is any thought—positive or negative—you have about what someone else says. When you have these internal thoughts in reaction to another person’s speech, you’re inherently focusing on what you think instead of what they have to say.

Where possible, try to listen without judgment, and put aside any thoughts that come into your head. It’s OK if your point of view is different from the speaker’s. To be an active listener, simply focus on what they have to say so you can develop a better understanding of the other person.

3. Paraphrase and summarize
Once the other person is done speaking, paraphrase what you heard back to them in your own words. Paraphrasing helps you ensure you understood what the other person was trying to express. If you paraphrase incorrectly, or miss something they were trying to communicate, they can clarify. Then, you can dig deeper into the conversation.

By paraphrasing and summarizing—rather than adding any additional information—you’re also demonstrating that your focus was on them. During the paraphrasing, avoid adding any comments or opinions of your own, since the purpose of active listening is to focus on the other person and withhold your own judgement.

4. Model positive nonverbal behavior
Because you’re not doing a lot of talking during the active listening process, the best way to be supportive is to model positive nonverbal behavior. Nonverbal communication is anything you communicate without words—things like your facial expression, gestures, posture, and body language.

To model positive nonverbal behavior, make eye contact with the person who’s speaking, to show them that you’re listening. Avoid crossing your arms or fidgeting, since those behaviors typically indicate distraction. You can also smile and nod along, if appropriate. These nonverbal cues not only make it clear to the other person that you’re paying attention to what they have to say, they also make the other person more comfortable during the conversation.

Tip: If you’re meeting virtually, like during a video conference meeting, smile and nod along while the other person is speaking. Avoid multitasking or looking off screen—instead, keep your video on and your attention on the speaker to show you’re engaged.

5. Ask specific, open-ended questions
Once the person finishes their thought, demonstrate you’re engaged by asking specific, open-ended questions. Avoid adding your own judgment to those questions—remember, you’re focusing on what the other person has to say.

For example, ask:

“Tell me more about that.”

“How did you feel?”

“What made you pursue that option?”

“What can I do to help?”

Avoid asking questions or making statements that indicate judgment. For example, instead of:

“Why would you do that?” try asking “What motivated you to do that?”

“You didn’t really mean that, did you?” try asking “What did you mean by that?”

“That doesn’t make sense” try asking “I’m not following, could you explain…”

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