What Is Active Listening? Active Listening In A Nutshell

Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone speaks and displaying understanding through verbal and non-verbal techniques. Active listening is a fundamental part of good communication, fostering a positive connection and building trust between individuals.

Understanding active listening

In defining active listening, it is useful to describe the difference between listening and hearing. 

Listening means receiving sounds with deliberate intention and is an active skill that improves through conscious effort and practice. Hearing, on the other hand, is a passive act involving the process and function of perceiving sound. 

The individual who hears without listening has little interest in what another person has to say. They may simply be bored of the conversation or be actively forming a counterargument for when it is their turn to speak.

Active listening goes hand in hand with good communication. Expressing thoughts, feelings, and opinions effectively can only be achieved by truly listening to the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of the speaker. 

Furthermore, a speaker who has the listener’s undivided attention is more likely to feel heard, understood, and accepted. For this reason, active listening builds trust and fosters a deep connection between individuals. 

Non-verbal active listening techniques

Following is a generic list of non-verbal techniques that may or may not be representative of active listening:

  • Smiling combined with nodding of the head – this shows the speaker the listener is paying attention to what is being said. It is also confirmation the listener understands and is happy about the messages conveyed. 
  • Eye contact – too much eye contact comes across as disingenuous, while too little shows a lack of interest. Listeners should always strive for somewhere in between, matching their level of eye contact to the confidence of the speaker. Eye contact can be combined with other non-verbal signals for encouragement.
  • Posture – active listeners lean forward slightly or sit sideways. Some may also rest the head on one hand.
  • Mirroring – or the process of imitating the facial expressions or posture of the speaker.  Studies have shown that mirroring is a human bonding mechanism and can be used to show empathy during emotional conversations.

Verbal active listening techniques

Now that we’ve covered non-verbal techniques, let’s take a look at some verbal strategies:

  • Paraphrasing (summarisation) – this means the listener restates the information given by the speaker in their own words. Paraphrasing demonstrates to the speaker that their message has been listened to and understood. It also allows the listener to clarify their understanding of the message if unsure. 
  • Open-ended questions – or any question that cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Open-ended questions encourage the speaker to expand on a topic and let them know their ideas matter to the listener. It also relaxes nervous speakers since most people are quite comfortable talking about themselves and what matters to them most. 
  • Positive reinforcement – if used sparingly, positive reinforcement encourages the speaker to continue. Frequent use of words such as ‘yes’ or ‘indeed’ should be avoided. Instead, the listener should elaborate on why they are supportive of a particular point.
  • Sharing similar experiences – when the listener shares a comparable experience, it lets the speaker know their message has been interpreted successfully. Shared experiences also encourage strong relationships to form.
  • Recalling previously shared information – while the listener should never take notes during a conversation, it is worth mentioning concepts, ideas, or other points from a previous conversation. This is a good way to show the speaker that their words were listened to and made a lasting impression.

Active listening examples

Here are a few examples of active listening to shed some light on how it may be embodied in practice. 

For this section, we’ll provide both verbal and non-verbal examples across various techniques.

Verbal active listening examples

  • Paraphrasing (summarisation)– “So if I understand you correctly, the content management system you are using at present does not meet your business needs because it fails to provide support for large images and videos.
  • Open-ended questions – “You are correct when you state that the customer checkout process could be updated. What are some of the changes you envisage making to the process over the next quarter?”
  • Sharing similar experiences – “In a previous role, I also found this accounting software problematic. But once I overcame the steep learning curve and acquainted myself with all the features, I found that it was much easier to use.
  • Recall previously shared information – “In one of our discussions a few weeks ago, you mentioned that you were to looking to add more experience to the project management team. I can see that this move has been beneficial for the organization!
  • Displaying empathy – “I’m truly sorry that the video projector failed in the middle of an important presentation. Let’s work together to determine how I can help you avoid this scenario in the future.
  • Building trust and rapport – “Let me know what I can do to help. I had a detailed look over your website and was impressed to discover that you donate 5% of sales revenue to environmental organizations.

Non-verbal active listening examples

  • Nod – in a sales presentation, the audience nods periodically at the speaker to show they understand what is being communicated to them. 
  • Nod and smile – When a nod is combined with a smile in the same scenario as above, audience members not only practice active listening but also show that they agree with the presentation’s content or broader message. 
  • Avoiding any actions which imply distraction – now imagine a scenario where a company is listening to a prospective client describe its pain points to them for the first time. The company representative remains still to communicate that they are focussed on what the prospect is saying. In other words, they do not fidget, look idly around the room, shift in their seat demonstrably, play with their hair, check their smartphone, or tap their pen against the desk. 
  • Posture – further to the example above, the company representative leans forward a touch when listening to the prospect’s pain points. They may also choose to sit slightly sideways and, in some cases, may rest their head against one hand.
  • Mirroring – sticking with the sales meeting between a prospect and client, the company rep notices that the prospect leans back as they talk and sometimes crosses their arms. To increase trust and build rapport, the rep does the same in a way that is subtle and unlikely to cause offence. Whilst not their natural style, the rep also strives to match the prospect’s friendly and excitable tone of voice.

Key takeaways:

  • Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone speaks. It is distinct from the process of hearing which is passive and typically occurs in a distracted state.
  • Active listening is a fundamental part of good communication, fostering a positive connection and building trust between individuals.
  • Active listening can be supported by various non-verbal and verbal techniques. These include smiling, eye contact, mirroring, positive reinforcement, paraphrasing, and the asking of open-ended questions.

Read Next: Lasswell Communication Model, Linear Model Of Communication.

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