Skip to content
Professional success

How-to become an active listener

What is active listening?

Active listening is the ability to focus on a speaker, understand their message, comprehend the information and respond thoughtfully. Unlike passive listening, which is the act of hearing a speaker without retaining their message, this highly valued interpersonal communication skill ensures you’re able to engage and later recall specific details without needing information repeated.

Active listeners use verbal and non-verbal techniques to show and keep their attention on the speaker. This not only supports your ability to focus but also helps ensure the speaker can see that you are focused, engaged, and care.

Instead of thinking about and mentally rehearsing what you might say when the speaker is done, an active listener carefully considers the speaker’s words and commits the information to memory.

How to become an active listener.

How to become an active listener

Here are a variety of active listening exercises you can use to help improve your interpersonal communication skills:

Verbal active listening skills

Paraphrase: Summarize the main points of the message the speaker shared to show you fully understand their meaning. This will also give the speaker an opportunity to clarify vague information or expand their message.

Example: “So what you’re saying is, your current content management system no longer meets your teams’ technical needs because it doesn’t support large video files.”

Ask open-ended questions: Ask questions that show you’ve gathered the essence of what they’ve shared, and guide them into sharing additional information. Make sure these questions cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

Example: “You’re right—the onboarding procedure could use some updating. What changes would you want to make to the process over the next six months?”

Ask specific probing questions: Ask direct questions that guide the speaker to provide more details about the information they’ve shared or narrow down a broad subject or topic.

Example: “Tell me more about your current workload. Which of these projects is the most time-consuming?”

Use short verbal affirmations: Short, positive statements will help the speaker feel more comfortable and show you’re engaged and able to process the information they’re providing. Small verbal affirmations help you continue the conversation without interrupting the speaker or disrupting their flow.

Example: “I understand.” “I see.” “Yes, that makes sense.” “I agree.”

Display empathy: Make sure the speaker understands you’re able to recognize their emotions and share their feelings. By showing compassion, rather than just feeling it, you’re able to connect with the speaker and begin establishing a sense of mutual trust.

Example: “I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this problem. Let’s figure out some ways I can help.”

Share similar experiences: Discussing comparable situations will not only show the speaker you’ve successfully interpreted their message, but it can also assist in building relationships. If the speaker has shared a problem, providing input from how you solved similar challenges is valuable to others.

Example: “I had a tough time getting started with this program, too. But it gets much easier. After just a few weeks, I felt completely comfortable using all the features.”

Recall previously shared information: Try to remember key concepts, ideas, or other critical points the speaker has shared with you in the past. This demonstrates you’re not only listening to what they’re saying currently, but you’re able to retain information and recall specific details.

Example: “Last week you mentioned adding a more senior coordinator to help with this account, and I think that’s a great idea.”

Non-verbal active listening skills

Nod: Offering the speaker a few simple nods shows you understand what they’re saying. A nod is a helpful, supportive cue, and doesn’t necessarily communicate that you agree with the speaker—only that you’re able to process the meaning of their message.

Smile: Like a nod, a small smile encourages a speaker to continue. However, unlike a nod, it communicates you agree with their message or you’re happy about what they have to say. A smile can take the place of a short verbal affirmation in helping to diffuse any tension and ensure the speaker feels comfortable.

Avoid distracting movements: Being still can communicate focus. To do this, try and avoid movements like glancing at your watch or phone, audibly sighing, doodling, or tapping a pen. You should also avoid exchanging verbal or non-verbal communications with others listening to the speaker. This can make the speaker feel frustrated and uncomfortable.

By implementing the above verbal and non-verbal techniques into future conversations, you can work toward developing stronger relationships and retaining more information from your workplace interactions. Active listening takes practice to improve and maintain. The more you use these techniques, the more natural they’ll feel.

Return to the top of the page