Work Smarter, Not Harder, Through Active Listening

“In our last team meeting, my manager suggested practicing active listening. What does this mean? How does it differ from just listening, and why is it important?”—Jamie from Tulsa, OK

As you know, it can be very easy to appear to be listening without actually receiving the information. You might be present but distracted by another person across the room, a hangnail that needs attention or the presentation you have to give next week. This is known as passive listening.

By practicing active listening, you get rid of distractions and truly concentrate on the person who is speaking to you and his or her message. As with anything, over time active listening will become more natural and will help you build trust and rapport with colleagues, clients, friends and family members. You will also take away more from conversations, improving your productivity and ability to influence, persuade and negotiate, as well as reducing conflicts and misunderstandings.

So, how does one practice active listening? Following are just a few ways that you can not only demonstrate to the communicator that you’re engaged in the conversation, but also remember more of the information provided.

Show You Are Listening: For starters, make sure that your posture indicates you are listening. Face the speaker and lean slightly forward, into the conversation; tilt your head or rest it on one hand. Maintain eye contact and nod occasionally, as appropriate. Show an expression and use gestures that mimic those of the speaker and relate to the conversation, smiling or sympathizing as needed.

Give the Speaker the Floor: Even if you have a related anecdote to share or an explanation for what happened, let the speaker finish what he or she is saying before responding. Hold off on sharing advice or an opinion until it’s requested.

Keep an Open Mind: It is very easy to formulate a response or rebuttal as a speaker is talking, but for active listening to be really beneficial, it’s best to simply process everything being said, without judgment, so you can make an informed statement.

Remain Calm: Active listening is especially important in conflict resolution. If you find yourself getting emotional, take a deep breath, perhaps count to five in your head. Develop self-soothing techniques that help you stay level headed and respectful. Remember, while it’s certainly difficult to hear criticism, it can be just as difficult to give it. To maintain good relationships, you need to be open to feedback, both good and bad.

Pause: When you feel ready to respond, pause for a moment and think about what you’re going to say before jumping right in. This shows the speaker that you are truly contemplating what he or she just said and really care about how you respond.

Clarify: Before introducing a new idea or topic, it sometimes helps to clarify what has just been said. You might say, “Do you mean…” or “I think you are saying that…” This will not only show that you are listening, but it will reinforce the idea in your mind so that you can remember it for the future. It also gives you more time to find exactly the right words for your response.

Summarize: Another tool that will help you remember what is being discussed is to summarize what has just been said. Paraphrase the conversation, or part of the conversation, to recap the challenge and action steps. This way you are both on the same page about how to move forward.

Active listening is an important skill for both the workplace and in your personal relationships. It shows that you respect the person talking and care about what he or she is saying. It will help you retain more information and work smarter, not harder.