Active Listening Techniques

When people are talking to you, are you really listening? Or are you starting to think about what you are going to say next? Are you sure you understand their meaning when you hear their words? Language lends itself to misunderstanding as easily as understanding. This makes for great comedy, unless the joke is at the expense of you and your team.

Active listening is a set of techniques that empower you to optimize communication with members of your team. You accomplish this by creating a comfort zone, establishing trust, focusing your attention, and providing feedback that lets the person you’re talking to know they have been heard. It may sound simple, but the results can be profound.

101 – The Basics

Focus your attention
Focus your attention on the speaker. Don’t look at the pink elephant dancing behind them!
Make encouraging statements or sounds
“Hmmm.” “Umm Hmm.” “That’s interesting.” “I didn’t know that.” “That’s a surprise!” “I see.”

Take notes
This allows you to capture ideas that you may want to ask about or have clarified, without the need to interrupt. It also indicates to the listener that you are paying attention and value what they are saying.

Use paraphrasing to confirm that you really do understand what they just told you. Repeat back, in your own words, what you have just heard. Doing so will give you a chance to confirm to both the speaker and yourself that you do understand.
“So I think you are saying…”
“It sounds to me like…”
“I think I understand, but I want to make sure.”

After a long discussion, it can be useful to try to summarize what you think the speaker’s main points were. The summary is similar to paraphrasing, with the exception that you are trying to cover just the main points, not everything the speaker said.

201 – Questions

Prefer open-ended questions
Ask open-ended questions to get the speaker to elaborate. An open-ended question is one that invites an elaborate response, as compared with a closed-ended question, which can usually be answered with a word or two.
“What did you think of the workshop?”
“How are things going with the new team?”
“Did you like the workshop?”
“Is the team getting along?”

Clarifying questions
“What do you mean by….”
“When you say… do you mean like…?”
“Like a ….?”
Be careful with these! Make sure that your question is really aimed at clarifying your understanding, and not challenging the speaker’s points or point of view. Avoid indicating your own preferences, judgments, or expectations in the form of questions. There is a big difference between:
“Interesting, how did you go about creating that?”
“Did you use the approved process to create that?”

Ask for more information
“That’s interesting; tell me more about that.”
“What else?”

Ask for their opinions and analysis
“Why do you think that is?”
“What do you think was going on?”

When you aren’t getting it, let the speaker know
“I’m not understanding.”
“Can you explain that part again?”
Temper this with some patience and good note taking. Often, something that isn’t clear now will clear up in a few sentences. Prefer not to interrupt, but don’t let the speaker go on too long if you really don’t understand what they are saying.

Listen all the way to the end
Attempt to listen all the way to the end. When you think they are done, it is often useful to ask:
“Is there anything else?”

301 – Nuance

Use silence
After the other person has finished their thought, wait a while and don’t say anything. This gives them an opening to tell you more. Silence can make people uncomfortable, so they tend to fill the void – the only way they can, by talking more. You want to give people, including yourself, time to think.

Body language
Use body language to indicate that you are listening. The occasional head nod or smile can let your speaker know that you are engaged. People tend to trust body language over the actual words we say.

Acknowledge, and ask about emotions
“It seems like this has you pretty upset.”
“Are you frustrated by that?”

Validate concerns
If the speaker doesn’t feel that you understand their concerns, and treat them as valid concerns, they are not going to be receptive to your attempts to put them at ease.
“I can see why you would be worried about that.”
“That’s a real concern.”

Verify assumptions
We make a lot of assumptions in order to facilitate talking about complex things without getting bogged down in the details. Sometimes this leads to misunderstanding. Be on the lookout for these situations. A question or comment to verify this type of assumption will clear up any particular misunderstanding as well as reassure the speaker that you are familiar with the domain.

We often make other types of assumptions as well, like knowing which ‘Sue’ the speaker is referring to. Verify these assumptions as well.

401 – Advanced Topics

Be Zen!
Be Zen! Be fully present in the moment. Notice everything about the speaker, their words, their tone, and their body language. Do not let your own emotions, or emotional attachment to the conversation, the topic, or the person, take your focus away from the present moment. If you notice yourself reacting emotionally, acknowledge it internally “I’m getting upset” but don’t dwell on it.

Create a safe space
Create a safe ‘space’ for the speaker to express themselves. They need to trust you and the situation, if they are going to really open up and share. When it is your turn to talk, be honest, and respectful. You need not agree with what the speaker is saying, but it is important to honor and respect their thoughts, ideas, and feelings.



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One thought on “Active Listening Techniques

  1. Hillary

    I’m pretty familiar with the techniques here, but the addition of mentioning silence is particularly noteworthy, especially in conjunction with asking “is there anything else?” I’ve heard people ask that question abruptly, sometimes even as an interruption–in order to shut down the conversation. Nothing conveys that one has a person’s full attention so well as the willingness to sit in silence!


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