This is What Active Listening Looks Like

sculpture-1445167_640When people talk about listening skills, they typically use the phrase “active listening.” But what is active listening anyway? It makes sense that listening is different from hearing. Hearing is a passive endeavor – sound hits you and you hear it. Listening does require some effort; but isn’t it as simple as paying attention to a particular sound? Isn’t listening just the act of focusing on the person talking to you at any given moment?

Where’s the action in active listening?

According to, the action comes in the form of feedback you’re providing to the speaker. It’s not enough that you listen, you have to be perceived to be listening. The way you respond to what’s being said lets the speaker know the extent to which you are paying attention. Your actions help reassure them that you are receptive to their message and understand what’s being said.

Much of this feedback comes in the form of nonverbal signals that you send while listening. In particular, they list the following non-verbal cues that indicate an active listening mindset:

  • Periodic smiling. Combined with small nods of the head, smiling can indicate agreement, happiness, or simply a level of understanding.
  • Eye contact. Avoiding eye contact is a signal of disinterest or even disdain for what’s being said.
  • Positive posture. Leaning forward and tilting the head communicate interest and focus.
  • Mirroring. Empathy is often displayed by unconscious mimicking of the speaker’s facial expressions.
  • Elimination of distractions. Active listeners avoid multitasking, fidgeting, or watching the clock.

As I reviewed this list I was reminded of a manager who regularly displayed poor listening skills. Whenever I visited his office (typically at his request to provide some project update), he would constantly pace the office. He shuffled papers or perused his email while I spoke. As a result, he made very little eye contact. There was no mirroring since his focus was primarily on something else, and most of the smiling was in response to his own comments.

Needless to say, I don’t feel I was really being listened to. On the contrary, I felt like I was being rushed and learned early on to keep my comments brief and positive so that I could escape the uncomfortable encounter as quickly as possible. Without saying a word, this manager let me know that I was the least valuable asset in the room.

But active listening doesn’t just involve non-verbal cues. You don’t necessarily have to remain silent. In fact, there are a few verbal cues that provide positive feedback to the speaker:

  • Remembering. Post-interaction, being able to recall the key points that were shared shows listening has been successful.
  • Questioning. Asking relevant questions to dig deeper or to uncover additional information shows a gratifying level of interest.
  • Reflection. Adding to the conversation by paraphrasing and pondering the implications of what’s being shared displays a level of personal understanding.
  • Clarification. Asking open questions make sure you receive the correct message is a sign of respect.
  • Summarization. Repeating what’s been said in your own words indicates that you’ve assimilated the message properly.

That same manager who failed to display effective non-verbal listening skills also fell short in this category. When he spoke it was to interrupt me with his opinions or to cut short my explanation in an attempt to move quickly to the next agenda item. Later on in the week, I’d typically receive an email or phone call asking for some of the same information I’d presented in person.

When you combine the right non-verbal cues with appropriate verbal signals, you put the action into active listening. Utilizing these techniques leaves little doubt that you are present, engaged, and interested in the conversation at hand. You not only put the other party at ease, you exponentially increase your own capacity to understand and recall the core message.

Effective listening doesn’t happen naturally. Listening is a skill. And as you can see, it requires muscles many of us may not be used to exercising. How would you rate your own active listening skills? Are you a champion listener, or is it time to hit the gym?

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