The art of active listening: The what, why, and steps you can take

The art of active listening: The what, why, and steps you can take

Picture this all too familiar scene: Your spouse/partner is sharing their day with you, and you are “listening” while also thinking about the dinner you are in the midst of preparing. “Did I buy all the ingredients I need?” “Did I turn the dial to pre-heat the oven?” “Hmm, is something burning?”

Or this one: Your boss/supervisor is talking to you about a project you and your team are working on. They note that there are a few areas of concern, and they begin to walk through them. You start thinking of how to defend yourself and your team. You start making facial expressions to convey, “no, it’s not like that.” You even begin to interrupt to start refuting a few of the things you heard first.

One would say that in both scenarios, “yes, I am listening.” But are you? Really?

How often do we hear without truly listening? When we’re moving lightning fast and 24/7, active listening is hard. It requires us to slow down, to push away chatter and distraction so we can genuinely understand another person. Not just their words, but also the motives and context behind the words.

According to the National Center for Voice and Speech, and backed by several other university studies, the average rate of speech for English speakers in the U.S. is about 150 words per minutes (wpms). That may sound like a lot, yet we think much faster than we talk. There are many studies touting how many words per minute the human brain can take in and think — 400, 500, 800, 1,000+. We may never know the exact number, yet we do know that we certainly have the capacity for much more than 150 wpms. Why? Because when we listen, we are also using capacity to think, and not necessarily about what is being said.

Click to TweetClick to tweet: Active listening helps to create engagement, establish trust, show concern, gain understanding, reduce conflict, and improve performance. These 9 steps will help you improve your #activelistening skills: http://ow.ly/MrFW50Fs4VK @taftcomms #leadershipcommunications

How many times have you had to say to someone, “oh, I didn’t know that’s what you meant,” or, “that’s not what I thought you said.”

This could have been avoided by really listening, by actively listening, by effectively listening.

Why isn’t active listening easy? It’s partially our fault and partially distractions in our environment.

Here are examples of what gets in the way of actively listening:

  • We drift off on our own thoughts — daydream or think of something else, like our child that we must pick up after work, the groceries we need to pick up for dinner, the report that’s due later today, or the argument with our spouse/partner that we had earlier in the morning.
  • We’re thinking of what to say next. This happens for a lot of reasons, especially when we feel we (or our work) are being “attacked,” or challenged. We want to defend ourselves so we begin planning what we’ll say as soon as the other person pauses for a breath.
  • We think we know it all. When someone is talking about something they’ve spoken about before or that is familiar to us, we “half listen” because we “know” what they are going to say — or so we think.
  • We actively judge what we are hearing. We may be triggered by a word or situation someone is talking about, and our judgement and/or biases jump into play. We no longer are really listening. We are now seeking words or body actions that will confirm what we’ve judged, often to refute or defend as soon as we can get a word in.
  • We are distracted by a “shiny-thing” — someone who we need to talk to later just walked by, is that a stain on their shirt or part of the design, a beautiful Blue Jay just landed on the tree outside of the window, a new family photo is on her desk – how cute…
  • Noise. Traffic sounds, people talking, something falls and breaks, people laughing, phone ringing or buzzing, incoming email pops up with a ding, etc., all effect our ability to listen effectively.
  • The speaker’s speech — whether it’s too slow, too fast, too many filler words, heavy accent, monotone, etc. can cause us to lose focus on listening.

Active Listening Stock

This list could go on and on. So, what do we do?

As a leadership communications coach and the practice lead for Taft ClearPoint, there are many tips that my coach colleagues and I share to help our clients become better active listeners. Also, as someone who is passionate about empathetic leadership, I am very aware that active listening is at the core of being able to successfully sense what someone is saying (verbally and nonverbally), process that and respond appropriately, effectively, empathetically.

So how can we shut up, shut down, and actively listen?

These nine steps will help improve your listening skills:

  1. Stop talking. It’s the first and most important step. Don’t interrupt, correct inconsistencies or contradictions, finish their sentences, or otherwise interject. Stay quiet and attentive. Clarify as necessary — once they’ve finished speaking — and in a spirit of understanding (see next tip).
  2. Listen to understand, not to respond. Let’s admit it: We’re all tempted to finish off a person’s thoughts to contribute our own. Ignore that temptation and give whoever is talking your full focus — with your ears, your mind, and your physical presence (more on this in step No. 5). Give the other person time to finish their thoughts.
  3. Mute the monkey. According to Buddhist principles, an unsettled, restless mind is called “monkey mind.” It’s when our mind jumps from thought to thought. It distracts us. Being present/mindful, helps us to stop and/or actively ignore the many thoughts that are racing through your mind.
  4. Put devices away. When you’re in an important meeting or working with someone one-on-one, put away your smartphone and computer. Give them your undivided, uninterrupted attention. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to stay focused when there are no beeps or buzzes to interrupt you.
  5. Show ‘em. Stay quiet but engage with your expressions and body language to show them you are listening. Keep eye contact, nod your head to show understanding and/or agreement. Keep an open body posture — legs uncrossed, arms open — resting at your side or palms exposed or resting on a table or chair, and lean forward.
  6. Clarify. Be sure you get what they mean. Say it back to them. A handy phrase: “So are you saying that…?” It tests your comprehension, and it’s a sign of respect.
  7. Engage. After the other person has had a chance to express their thoughts, and you’re reasonably sure you understand what’s on the table, engage. Ask questions. Offer alternative positions. Aim to clarify the issues and uncover new perspectives on them. Work on the problem together. At this point, you’re still in fact-finding mode, so resist any temptation to close the conversation with a firm judgment.
  8. Respond. When you finally offer your opinion, restate (again) the other person’s position (“So I hear you saying…”) and then state your own. Making sure they know you understand their position is key. People are much more accepting of our points of view when they know we’ve listened to theirs.
  9. Close the loop. At some point, the conversation must conclude. You may need to render a decision. You may need to create a plan to address some feedback. You may even have to say you need more time to make up your mind. Bring the issue to a close by explicitly stating the outcome (“So we’re agreed that…”). If the issue is still open, be clear about the next steps for resolving it (“So I’ll do X, and you’ll do Y.”).

Active listening helps to create engagement, establish trust, show concern, gain understanding, reduce conflict, and improve performance. Effective leaders are effective listeners. They take the time to really hear you and then respond, whether it is to agree, disagree and/or share an alternate view or plan of action.

Knowing what gets in the way of your being able to actively listen is a big step to becoming a better listener; having the tools to combat those challenges is how you close the loop.

To learn how Taft ClearPoint coaching, clinics or courses can help you, contact us via email or the below form.

The Taft ClearPoint Team contributed to this article.

Our Work

Finding the right voice and telling the right story is a powerful combination. See how we've helped businesses and nonprofits reach their goals.