Communication is fundamental in the workplace, so active listening skills are highly valuable to employers. Active listening is a soft skill that requires you to fully focus on what a speaker is communicating. By developing this ability, you can become a more effective team member and leader. In this article, we discuss what active listening means and how you can develop your active listening skills and use them in the workplace.
What is active listening?
Active listening is a skill that involves you paying full attention to a speaker to thoroughly understand the message before responding appropriately. Whilst practising active listening, you focus on the thoughts, needs, feelings and ideas of the speaker without distraction and without the intention of responding immediately.
This skill also allows you to effectively interpret both verbal and nonverbal signs, including tone of voice, body language and eye movements to better understand the intent of the speaker before replying. You may also ask clarifying questions or paraphrase what the speaker has said to confirm that you fully understand them.
Why are active listening skills important?
Here are the most important benefits of improving your active listening skills in the workplace:
- Information retention and accuracy: Active listening skills enable you to retain information for longer and with much more detail than if you are passively listening, or listening with distractions or the intent to respond immediately. With techniques like paraphrasing or repeating what has been said, you are also more likely to remember more specific details of the conversation, which can lead to you passing on accurate information more consistently.
- Stronger working relationships: When you practise active listening, you are showing your team members, supervisors and clients or customers respect. By showing your engagement while they're speaking and accurately remembering the ideas they've expressed, you can demonstrate that you respect their ideas and concerns. This can lead to more effective conversations and collaboration overall in addition to gaining trust from your colleagues.
- More effective conflict resolution and decision-making: Active listeners are better able to defuse situations or conflicts while being able to introduce positive change into the workplace. This skill enables you to be empathetic, consider others' perspectives and be more objective, meaning you put aside your feelings or bias to make decisions that positively impact others as much as possible.
- Increased employability: Employers highly regard active listening because of how it can improve work performance. If you can add the skill to your CV and present examples of when you've successfully implemented active listening to a prospective employer in an interview, then you may have an advantage over candidates lacking in this area.
What makes a good active listener?
Active listening is a process that combines several different verbal and nonverbal skills to retain information, including:
Patience is taking time to diligently absorb the information a speaker is providing without rushing them through their thoughts or interrupting them. When you have patience, you allow a speaker to communicate at their own pace, in their own time, while maintaining concentration and focus on the information they're conveying.
Patience is an important skill for active listeners to master because it encourages the speaker to impart more details and information in the clearest manner possible. It also enables you to show respect for others when they're speaking by allowing them to speak at their own pace and know that you're listening to and understanding them.
Trustworthiness is the ability to believe others are doing what they say they're going to do or are asked to do. When you are trustworthy, a speaker has faith in you as a listener, which enables them to share information openly with you, knowing you will respond and take action appropriately.
Building trust and being seen as a trustworthy person is especially important when you are building new relationships. This could be with colleagues in the workplace or with a potential new client in a business meeting.
Encouragement is a quality that gives a speaker positive reasons to continue talking. Showcasing this quality demonstrates to a speaker that you are interested in what they have to say and understand the importance of what the speaker is communicating. Show them you care about what is being said by repeating back important information, asking pertinent questions and giving positive affirmations.
Verbal or nonverbal affirmations are the two most important methods of encouragement:
- Verbal affirmations: During a conversation, active listeners should be verbally affirming that they are listening to and/or agree with a speaker. This can be a simple 'Yes' or other positive phrases, such as 'I understand'.
- Nonverbal affirmations: An effective active listener can also use positive body language to demonstrate that they understand and are following a conversation. Examples of nonverbal affirmations include gently nodding your head or making friendly eye contact during the conversation.
Empathy is the ability to understand and relate to someone else's thoughts, feelings or actions. In a conversation, you can demonstrate empathy by saying things like, 'I understand your position on...' or 'Thank you for sharing your thoughts'. Demonstrating that you empathize with a speaker will show that you as a listener have a deeper level of understanding and ultimately, a deeper connection that can foster a stronger working relationship.
Paraphrasing is a key active listening skill where you repeat back the content of a conversation in your own words. Doing so shows that you have understood what has been said and that you have been paying attention throughout the entirety of the conversation.
Paraphrasing also allows you to add extra clarity to the topic. By repeating back to the speaker the message they are conveying, you give them a chance to correct your paraphrasing and to provide any extra information they may have forgotten to tell you.
How to become a better active listener
Becoming an active listener takes practice, but it's a skill that most people can learn and develop with these steps:
1. Remove distractions
Removing distractions can allow you to pay more attention during conversations and the subject matter at hand, be it listening to a colleague speak or reading an email. Arrange to hold meetings or to have workplace conversations in quiet, calm environments. Turn your phone off or close your computer screen when you are talking with colleagues. These tips can all provide a more engaging listening environment and help to improve your active listening skills, as you'll have more focus to take in more detail and information.
2. Ask the right kind of questions
There are two major types of questions you can focus on asking in a conversation:
- Open-ended questions: These questions allow a speaker to have more than a yes-or-no answer and provide a more personalised answer. This is a good type of question to ask a colleague with whom you are having a discussion about ideas and opinions. For example: 'What changes would you consider implementing to keep this project progressing'?
- Direct questions: These questions help you to uncover more specific information when you need it. For example, 'How long did it take you to complete this project'? These questions may also have yes-or-no answers that allow for small amounts of explanation.
Asking questions can demonstrate to the speaker that you are listening to what they are saying. It also allows you to progress a conversation, to discover more details that might otherwise have been left unsaid and to uncover the meaning and intent behind a conversation. As you speak more with colleagues in the workplace, you'll likely learn which questions to ask to move the conversation on and to garner more information.
3. Learn to share experiences
Learning to share your own personal experiences with a speaker can help them to open up with you during a conversation and build a trustworthy rapport. If the speaker shares a concern or issue they're having, you can discuss a similar situation that you handled in the past, which can show empathy for what they're going through. Even sharing other similar experiences, like the love of a particular type of coffee, can help you connect on a more personal level with speakers, too.
How to highlight active listening skills
You can showcase your active listening skills at various parts of the application and hiring process, including in your CV, on your cover letter and during your interview.
In your CV and on your cover letter
There are a few effective ways to highlight active listening skills in your CV and cover letter. You can list active listening in the skills section or mention the ability in the job descriptions in the professional experience section of your CV. For your cover letter, you can discuss specific times when you employed active listening to collaborate with colleagues, accurately complete a project or help resolve a conflict.
Related: 10 Best Skills to Include on a CV
During your interview
You can demonstrate your active listening skills as you answer questions and learn more about the role and the organisation. By paraphrasing the question at the start of your answer, you show how you've understood the question they asked. Asking open-ended followup questions showcases your engagement and interest in the conversation. Lastly, nodding and holding eye contact while they're speaking shows you're intently listening, too.