After becoming the CEO of UPS in 2014, David Abney did something no other CEO in the company’s history had ever done before.
Using his active listening skills, Abney went on a worldwide listening leadership tour to hear what employees and customers wanted to see done differently. Not only did he hear what they had to say, but he also had the company change to meet these new, important ideas.
One anonymous employee described the experience like this: “When David issued a call for ideas, many of which were actually implemented, it was almost earth-shattering. We couldn’t believe leadership was finally listening and taking action on our recommendations.”
A leader who acts as an effective active listener can revolutionize organizations and entire industries, but few understand what active listening is, let alone do it.
Attentive listening isn’t just about hearing what someone says—it involves making sure the other person feels heard, understood, and valued. As Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
All leaders need to go beyond traditional listening and become active listeners who earn the speaker’s trust. Without active listening skills, leaders will see their employees grow more frustrated and less trusting over time, leading to less productivity and lower rates of employee retention.
In this article:
- Learn more about what separates active listening from regular listening.
- The benefits of active listening.
- Actionable active listening techniques you can start trying today.
- And the top ways to actively listen in an increasingly virtual world.
What Is Active Listening?
Active listening is when a person gives their full, undivided attention to someone speaking. As they talk, the person listens intently and solely concentrates on what they are saying. In doing so, they listen to understand. Attentive listening shows you value the speaker and their words, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. When this is done, a person’s self-esteem grows and they feel like they are more capable of speaking up.
Some of the benefits of active listening include:
- Stronger relationships and trust among coworkers
- Less conflict in the workplace
- Higher employee job satisfaction
- Improved communication throughout the organization
- Higher rates of employee retention
- Lower chance of work burnout
- Greater confidence among employees
11 Active Listening Techniques
Active listening skills don’t always come naturally. Many executives and managers believe it simply means sitting there and listening to a speaker, but it involves so much more than that. The following active listening techniques and skills will help you become a better active listener, as well as a better leader.
1. Create a Safe Environment
According to the same Zenger/Folkman study, one of the essential active listening skills is creating an environment that helps people feel comfortable talking about sensitive or complex topics.
That might mean establishing a policy of open communication where people are free to give their opinions. Leaders may also choose to have an open-door policy, where employees can come talk to them when they feel they need to.
2. Clear Distractions
As M. Scott Peck once said, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” Note what could cause a distraction and get rid of it. Turn off your phone. Step away from your desk. Show the speaker they have your full attention.
3. Ask Questions and Restate Their Words
One of the best active listening techniques is to ask the speaker questions. Asking open-ended questions demonstrates you’re listening and encourages further discussion. Sometimes you may restate what they’ve said as a way to ensure you understand them.
4. Check for Nonverbal Cues
Robert Baden-Powell once advised, “If you make listening and observation your occupation, you will gain much more than you can by talk.” With that said, don’t just pay attention to the words someone says. You can gain much more insight into someone’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions through nonverbal communication. For instance, a person’s body language may show a lack of confidence, even if what they say indicates the opposite. Some nonverbal cues include their gestures, facial expressions, where they look while they talk, posture, and more.
5. Acknowledge Emotions
Some topics, particularly sensitive ones or those involving private information, might make people emotional. Acknowledge this fact and let the person know that it’s all right to feel these emotions. Don’t hesitate to ask if the speaker needs a moment to compose themselves, but do so tactfully and with respect. Being sensitive and kind during a tough moment strengthens relationships at work and creates feelings of trust among the team.
6. Make Eye Contact
Giving just the right amount of eye contact is one of the most essential active listening skills leaders need to master. Doing it constantly may make the other person feel uncomfortable and awkward. Little eye contact may make the person feel like you aren’t listening at all. Find a happy medium that shows you’re paying attention to everything they say.
7. Never Interrupt
A study on hospital managers and their active listening skills found one worrying statistic. No matter what level of manager they were, their biggest problem was interrupting others. Don’t fall into the same trap of interrupting people when they talk to you. Constant interruptions show disrespect and give an air of dismissal. In many ways, it is the opposite of listening and will lead to people being unwilling to speak with you about anything.
8. Don’t Switch Topics Too Soon
Conversations can involve a variety of different subjects and information. One of the most overlooked active listening techniques is knowing when to switch topics.
First, make sure the conversation has run its course. Ask questions like, “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” After all the points that need to be touched upon are made, it is then appropriate to switch gears and talk about something else. If you change topics too early, too much will be left unsaid, and others may get frustrated.
9. Smile Appropriately
Smiling can be one of those active listening skills that’s helpful in just the right amount. Do it too much, and it can come off as creepy. If you don’t do it at all, people may read it as standoffish body language. This can cause others to feel hesitant to approach you or share an honest opinion. At the same time, only smile when the topic is appropriate. If someone talks about an emotional subject, smiling may give the wrong message.
10. Make It a Conversation
Stephen R. Covey once cautioned, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” In other words, seeking understanding means having a real conversation. If all you want to do is respond, you don’t really intend on conversing with the person. Listening attentively means having the give-and-take of a proper conversation where both sides learn something and find the interaction constructive.
11. Follow Good Examples
As with any skill you want to master, find someone who already excels at it and model their behavior. For instance, take note of some leaders who serve as great active listening examples. The next time you talk to them, pay attention to the active listening skills they demonstrate. What do you notice about how they communicate? Which active listening techniques do they use that you need to practice? When you answer these questions, you’ll know where to improve.
How to Practice Active Listening in a Remote World
Companies worldwide are increasingly transitioning to more remote work, which provides unique challenges for communication. Active listening is a skill that shouldn’t be overlooked for remote communications. If anything, it should become a priority for leaders who will have fewer chances to interact with their employees. Slack and Zoom aren’t the enemies in these circumstances. The main challenge is learning how to use them, which requires a unique set of active listening techniques.
Check out the following active listening skills you can use when working remotely:
- Look at the camera. The principles of eye contact and body language are the same for remote communication. Look into the camera while talking and don’t be afraid to nod your head in agreement, smile, or listen intently. In doing so, you appear engaged, excited, and caring to the other person.
- Visibly take notes. During remote meetings and other remote interactions, the importance of taking notes still applies. However, it’s not always obvious to others that you are doing this. Make sure they know by making it clear that you are taking notes. You may even tell them what you’re doing at the beginning so it won’t look like you’re busy working on other projects.
- Prepare beforehand. Before hopping on a video call, take anywhere from one to five minutes to prepare. Listening attentively often requires clearing your mind right before a meeting. It’s also helpful to give information about the purpose of the call before diving into it. Active listening exercises like this will ensure you’re ready and can conduct the conversation without wasting time.
- Use small talk. While many people may frown on small talk, don’t disregard it. Small talk is an effective way to ease people into a conversation and show that you’re approachable. However, make sure the small talk topics are thoughtful and show you care about listening to the other person. Empty small talk will only make both parties feel like they should be doing something else.
- Active listening through messages. Remote communication doesn’t just happen on video calls. Many companies now use messaging platforms like Slack for coworkers to keep in touch. When you receive messages from others, make sure you indicate that you’ve seen them. Either respond with a message of your own or share an emoji response to show that you read it. This makes sure that people don’t feel like they’re just speaking into the void.
Active Listening Pays Dividends
Leaders must develop their active listening skills. This isn’t an either/or situation—you need to have them. And if you’re not good at active listening, you need to get good at it immediately. So how can you tell how good you are at active listening? Start by answering the following questions.
- How closely do you pay attention to someone else’s nonverbal cues?
- Do you clarify points by repeating what someone has said?
- Do you get rid of distractions when talking to others?
- When you talk to someone with an opposing view, do you become irritated and angry?
- How often do you interrupt someone when they’re speaking?
- Do you empathize with others and make an effort to truly understand them?
Improving communication skills like active listening requires constant practice and effort. During your next meeting, try putting these active listening skills into action. As you do so, you’ll find yourself more engaged and eager to help your coworkers out. Consequently, you’ll also be developing your problem-solving and decision-making skills as you become a leader everyone can trust.
Want further help with communication? Read the following articles.
Communication is Key: 4 Communication Strategies for Leaders
The Value of Open Communication in the Workplace
Poor Communication in the Workplace: How to Identify and Fix It