What is active listening, and why should you use it at work?

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What is active listening

Active listening is the process of fully engaging with someone during a conversation by paying careful attention, asking thoughtful questions, and taking the time to understand what’s being said. This is easier said than done, as active listening requires an immense amount of focus. But investing in this skill is well worth the effort, as you’ll see in our post. 

Why active listening is an essential workplace skill

You may be wondering: Don’t we practice active listening every day? Not necessarily. It’s important to recognise that there’s a huge difference between hearing and listening. The former is a passive process, while the latter is active. We’ll illustrate the difference with an example. 

Let’s say you’re having a conversation with a colleague about an urgent project. When you’re speaking, it’s clear they’re not paying attention – they’re constantly glancing at their phone and not making eye contact. Your teammate also frequently interjects with their own thoughts without acknowledging yours. While this colleague may hear what you say, it’s clear they’re not actively listening. 

Now let’s say you’re having the same conversation with a different team member. This person gives you verbal cues to make it clear they’re engaged with you. They also give you the space to speak and follow up with thoughtful questions to make sure they understand what you’re saying. This is active listening in action.

Seeing these two examples side-by-side, it’s clear why active listening is an essential skill for the workplace. By practicing active listening, you can: 

  • Form better relationships. When you take the time to listen to your colleagues, you strengthen your relationship with them. Having a solid foundation like this makes it easier to collaborate, communicate, and work through problems.
  • Position yourself as a leader. Being a good leader and being a good listener go hand-in-hand. When you can demonstrate that you possess active listening skills, people are more likely to respect you and turn to you for guidance. 
  • Improve your problem-solving abilities. In every role, you’re going to encounter obstacles. How well you overcome these hurdles has a lot to do with your ability to understand the problem – and this can only be accomplished by actively listening to the inputs of your team members. 

5 recommendations to practice active listening

Now that you understand the importance of active listening in the workplace, let’s discuss tactics to incorporate them into your day-to-day role. Here are a few of our favorite recommendations. 

1. Approach the conversation with an open mind

When you enter a conversation with a rigid mindset, it’s unlikely to be productive. You’ll be so focused on getting your own point across that it’ll be difficult to pay attention to what the other person says. Instead, try to approach every discussion with an open mind and be prepared to change your mind. This will make the process of active listening much more manageable. 

2. Use verbal cues

Paying attention to verbal cues is critical to active listening. For instance, you may notice that your colleague frowns when talking about a decision made by the leadership team. This is an excellent opportunity to ask a follow-up question to see what’s bothering them and better understand their situation. 

Similarly, you want to provide verbal cues as well. Nodding, smiling, and making eye contact are all great ways to show your conversation partner that you’re engaged with what they’re saying. This type of body language also makes whoever you’re speaking with feel more comfortable, increasing the chances that they’ll be transparent with you.

3. Ask clarifying questions

A great way to strengthen your active listening skills is to ask thoughtful follow-up questions. By doing so, you’re signalling to the other person that you’re interested in the conversation and are eager to hear the speaker’s message. These clarifying questions also present a great opportunity to deepen your understanding of the discussion. 

4. Be present

We’ve all had the experience of being part of a conversation where we excitedly wait for the perfect moment to interject with an opinion or fun fact. While this is totally normal, it can take away from the experience of active listening. When you’re busy planning what you’re going to say, you’re likely not paying attention to the other person and won’t absorb the information they’re sharing. 

5. Paraphrase

Another great technique for active listening is to paraphrase what the other person is saying. This gives you an opportunity to confirm that you’ve fully understood the message your colleague is trying to convey. If you’re not sure how to do this, try using a phrase like “what I’m hearing from our conversation is that…” And follow up with “am I understanding you correctly?” to give the other person an opportunity to make clarifications. 

Active listening is a valuable skill that can be used both in and out of the workplace. With enough practice, you’ll start to experience the benefits, from forming stronger relationships to improving your problem-solving skills. Use our recommendations to practice, strengthen, and fine-tune your active listening skills.

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