Growing up, many of us were taught the key to being a good listener meant acting like a sponge — hearing the speaker’s words, while silently nodding from time to time to show we’re engaged. However, this is the antiquated definition of a good listener, and the official name of the term is “passive listening.”
Passive listening is when we take in information without making an attempt to fully comprehend the meaning—we accept the information as-is, and don’t question or challenge the idea for improvement. Consequently, we have low engagement, and are disconnected from the speaker. We assume we have heard, and interpreted their message correctly, but don’t make an effort to verify.
True listening is an active process, because we consciously choose to participate, and understand the speaker’s message. When we actively engage our listening skills we act more like a trampoline than a sponge— energizing the speaker by clarifying their points, showing we’re giving them our full attention, and that we are open to their ideas. The other person senses we are invested in their thoughts and feelings, and feels comfortable expressing themselves. These interactions help us form natural connections, and become the type of person our coworkers, friends, and significant others look forward to bouncing ideas off of.
3 Active Listening Champs:
Oprah Winfrey, Seth Godin, and Richard Branson are three active listening advocates. Oprah carefully observes body language and enunciation of certain words — because in verbal communication, 55% of the meaning is expressed non-verbally. Seth Godin believes if it’s worth listening to, it’s worth questioning until you fully comprehend the meaning. Richard Branson thinks when you converse for 30 minutes with someone, and you let them speak for 25 of the 30 minutes, they will likely to walk away impressed by what an excellent conversationalist you are.
These three were not born with this skill. They had to work hard at it, and craft it. Active listening doesn’t come naturally to most of us, but once we learn how to practice it effectively, we can apply it every day to minimize misunderstanding and conflicts, strengthen collaboration, and ameliorate ANY relationship.
Sounds Good. So why is it so difficult?
We multitask. We are often involved in several conversations at once — we respond to emails during our weekly meetings, or we talk to a friend on the phone, but are simultaneously scrolling through social media.
We identify instead of empathize. We don’t truly understand what’s being said, because we don’t put ourselves in the speaker’s shoes. Many of us spend the majority of our time listening to our own feelings and thoughts, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but we’re not being fully present if we’re stuck in our own head.
We are biased. The moment we hear something we don’t agree with, or doesn’t align with our worldview, we jump to conclusions. Since we all subscribe to personal values, and it can be difficult to listen to the views of others that contradict our own.
We judge. Instead of seeking to understand, we make judgements. Thinking for example, that the person speaking is not very bright or is under-qualified so there is no point listening to what they have to say.
But what if we were better, what difference would it make?
We’d prevent a whole lot of conflict. When we actively listen we pay close attention to how the words are spoken, not just the words alone — which is when we recognize the true meaning. As a result, the speaker feels us being fully present and is able to comfortably communicate with us.
We’d build deep bonds. When we actively listen we practice empathy and connectedness, through attempting to understand the speaker’s “inner world.” As humans we yearn for a sense of belonging and connectivity — positive social interactions increase our subjective well-being, while providing us greater life satisfaction overall.
We’d create a chain reaction. When we actively listen to someone and ask curious questions, we help them formulate their own ideas. They then feel naturally inspired to listen to the next person they converse with.
How do we do it?
It sounds obvious, but listening starts with being fully present. As humans, our minds are messy with distraction. We miss important details, and it becomes obvious to the speaker that we are not fully engaged.
So take time for silence, just 3 minutes at the beginning of your day: remove distractions, reset your ears & re-calibrate. Then take a few moments before entering an important conversation to set yourself up for optimum focus.
2. Create an up-front contract
It seems sort of impersonal to consider a simple conversation “a communication exchange,” but that’s what it is. There are different degrees of formality depending on the type of conversation, but its always helpful to establish what we’re trying to accomplish from the get-go. A quick way to contract would be to say:
“We will use this meeting to discuss the health of the sales funnel, and identify our priorities for next week. Is there anything else we should discuss?”
3. Create a safe space
A lot of factors influence the easiness, or general flow of a conversation: age, experience, money, previous bad experiences with that person, etc. But if we set ourselves up right, active listening is an opportunity to move a low-trust relationship into a place of more trust. We do this by creating a safe place for sharing which means:
We’re clear on confidentiality:
“This conversation is between us, and that’s where it will stay.”
We use inviting language:
“I heard you say you weren’t sure where to start, would it be helpful if I ask a few questions to get us started talking?”
We make reassuring statements throughout the conversation:
“That is a valid point, and makes complete sense. Tell me more.”
Mirroring allows us to establish common ground for connection. We hold the speaker’s gaze, and make a mental note of the point at which they look away. Then, mirror that length of time they’re comfortable with, when we re-establish eye contact again — if they’re not comfortable with maintaining prolonged eye contact they may feel scrutinized or judged. As intimacy and trust builds, the duration of eye contact will gradually increase.
We check in with the speaker to make sure we are truly understanding what’s being said, so we can progress knowing we are both on the same page. We do this by summarizing and reflecting back what’ve heard, leaving open the possibility that we may have missed something.
“Here’s what I’ve heard you say: you would like to move forward with concept 4, but would like to see the idea of ‘premium ingredients’ worked in, because this is an important selling point for your brand. Have I missed anything?”
We adapt our conclusion and response based on what we agreed upon in the up-front contract phase. The speaker may expect us to voice our own opinion, or they may have just wanted to feel heard. Here may be an opportunity to exercise empathy and compassion without sharing our personal view:
“I’ve heard what you’ve said and it’s completely understandable why you’re feeling overwhelmed with this project.”
To wrap it Up
Active listening fosters quality connections, because it shows we’re invested, and in the moment with that person. Honing this skill takes intentional time and practice, but mastering it makes us more trustworthy, empathetic, and engaging humans. It allows us to grow into someone people want to connect with — making us better friends, partners, coworkers, and leaders. So actively listen to one another, and do it with love.❤