7 Tips to Improve Your Active Listening Skills [With Examples]

22 March
11 min read
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The art of listening is best embodied in active listening.

Think about it. Do you want to just talk, or do you also want to be understood? 

Probably it’s the latter. 

Everybody wants to be understood. However, that’s not feasible without active listening.

More than verbal communication, active listening is what makes or breaks a conversation - be it professional or personal. So you better give this soft skill its due attention. 

Want to learn how?

Read on and you’ll find out:
  • What Is Active Listening?
  • 7 Tips to Improve Your Active Listening Technique
  • Benefits of Active Listening
  • Active Listening in Practice - 5 Examples
  • 10 Active Listening Skills

What Is Active Listening?

So, what exactly is active listening? 

Active listening is the process of listening to the speaker mindfully, providing feedback, observing their body language and other non-verbal cues, and being empathetic towards their emotions to ensure effective communication. 

The three As of active listening summarize this concept. They stand for: 

  • Attitude, which is about how you approach the speaker. To be an active listener, you should keep an open mind and a positive attitude - even if you don’t agree with what is being said.
  • Attention, which is about focusing on the conversation and ignoring distractions. Removing external triggers (like your phone) is not enough - especially if you have a short attention span or tend to daydream. To pay attention, you have to be physically AND mentally there.   
  • Adjustment, which is about adapting to the speaker and to where the conversation is going. To do this, you shouldn’t assume what’s being said or steer the conversation towards a specific topic - instead, you should go with the (speaker’s) flow. 

A lot of people have a short attention span. If you find it hard to stay focused when someone is speaking, try to sharpen your attention skills by reading, playing memory games, or even meditating.

Why Is Listening Important? 7 Statistics About Listening You Should Know Today

If you’re still doubting whether listening is a beneficial skill, here are some recent statistics to make up your mind:

  1. Humans spend the majority of their day communicating and 40% of this communication consists of listening. 
  2. The longer we listen, the less information we remember. After 10 minutes of listening, our attention span drops down to 50% and after 48 minutes it goes down to 25%.
  3. Our mental capacity to listen is a lot larger than our capacity to speak. This means that for every 125 words spoken per minute, you can listen to or think around 400 words.
  4. While we are listening to someone we only use 25% of our mental capacity.
  5. We are inefficient listeners and it gets worse as we age. A school experiment described in Ralph G. Nichols`s book showed that in the first and second grade 90% of children were listening to their teachers, while in middle school that number dropped to 44% and in high school to 28%. 
  6. We only remember 17% to 25% of what we listen to. 
  7. Facial expressions and tone of voice are what deliver 93% of the message when we speak and only 7% is communicated through words. 

9 Worst Listening Habits (to Avoid) 

To become an effective listener, you should first learn to avoid all the habits that can a bad listener, starting with:

#1. Not Keeping an Open Mind 

Bill Nye once said “everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t” and we couldn’t agree more. 

However, if you get into a conversation thinking it won’t be exciting or that you already know everything the speaker has to say, you are likely to miss out on the chance to learn something new or gain a different perspective. 

So, instead of deciding something is old news before you even hear it, try to keep an open mind and look for something yourself or new in what the speaker is saying and you’ll be a more attentive listener in no time.  

#2. Focusing on the Messenger Instead of the Message

If you’re talking to someone who you don’t really like too much, you might be negatively predisposed towards the interaction and the person themselves.

So, chances are, you won’t come off as too friendly, and won’t be able to get your point across, whatever it might be.

Imagine, for example, a student focusing more on the lecturer’s wardrobe choices this morning instead of listening to what they’re talking about regarding the upcoming exam.

So, instead of criticizing the speaker internally, try to "keep your head in the game" and pay attention to what is being said.

#3. Getting Overly Invested in an Argument

Two people will never agree with each other about everything - that’s a fact. 

When that happens in a conversation, you may find yourself wanting to be right and prove the speaker wrong at all costs.

This habit, however, can escalate to the point you start creating counter-arguments or thinking of comebacks in your head non-stop. That’ll be about the time you completely stop listening. 

To combat this, try to avoid getting too emotionally invested in an argument. Remember: your goal is not to just prove yourself right, but to also (potentially) learn something new you never considered before.

In order not to let an argument escalate emotionally, make sure you: 

  1. Hear and understand the other person’s side or argument.
  2. Validate the fact that you heard and understood them.
  3. Find something you agree with their argument.
  4. And THEN add your own perspective on top.

#4. Rehearsing The Answer 

While talking with someone, we often tend to start thinking about the response we are going to give them even before they finish talking.  

As soon as we start thinking about our response, we stop listening to what the other person is saying. It may look like we are still engaged in a conversation, but in reality, we are far away from it. 

Learning how to be patient and listen closely to other people is the key to understanding the conversation fully and a great way to improve your listening skills.

#5. Interrupting

Interrupting the speaker often is not only disrespectful towards the speaker, but can also cause you to miss the whole point of what the speaker is trying to communicate.  

The polite and right thing to do is to first pay attention and let them finish their speech, and THEN give your own thoughts and opinions.

#6. Pretending to Pay Attention

We know that it's hard to listen to someone for a long time and stay sharp. 

Just like when it’s easy to tell when someone else is not paying attention to YOU and is zoned out, it’s just as obvious for the other party when you’re not paying attention.

If you are feeling like you are about to zone out, try to focus on one specific thing or, if possible, ask questions to keep yourself engaged.

If you do find yourself already zoned out, though, just be up-front, apologize for zoning out, and ask them to repeat their point. They’ll appreciate the fact that you care enough to make sure you got everything they said.

#7. Getting Distracted

Distractions come in many ways, from outside noise all the way to phone notifications.

Tolerating these distractions is a bigger problem for poor listeners who tend to lose focus easily. 

If you are one of those people, getting rid of distractions is the easiest way to stay focused on conversation or a speaker. 

Give your undivided attention and do not try to do two things together, get rid of the source of distraction or, if it's not possible, try your best to zone the noises out and solely focus on the person who is speaking. 

Some tips on how to do this are:

  • Make eye contact with the speaker.
  • Put your phone on Airplane Mode (or just turn it off).
  • Turn off notifications from Facebook and other social media.
  • Ask questions.

#8. Avoiding Information That is Hard to Process 

From time to time, we might find ourselves avoiding things that are difficult to understand for us. For example, if you’re listening to a particularly tough lecture on a complex topic, your mind is very likely to zone in and out.

This is especially prevalent in classrooms, lectures, or training - we’ve all caught ourselves dozing off during Calculus class.

While there are no easy hacks for avoiding this, simply being aware of this bias can help you snap yourself back into reality and listen more intently.

In addition, if you do find yourself simply getting confused, don’t be afraid to ask the lecturer or teacher to elaborate on what they’re trying to explain.

#9. Putting Too Much Meaning Into Words 

Emotions can be applied to anything and words are no exception. 

If something someone is saying triggers you in any way and causes you to react impulsively, you may completely miss the point that person was making. 

Stay neutral and listen to what you are being told. Don't allow your sensitivity to some word to keep you from hearing something you might need to hear or see the bigger picture. 

If, however, you find yourself very emotionally invested, what you can do, as a good active listener, is to:

  1. Recognize this
  2. Take a step back from the conversation
  3. Tell the other party that you’re too emotionally invested and need some time to cool off and come back to the topic later

7 Tips to Improve Your Active Listening Technique

Studies confirm that most people are inefficient listeners, although 45% of the time we spend communicating, we are listening (as opposed to the 30% we spend talking). 

However, according to a famous study on listening done by Richard Hunsaker, about 75% of the time we are listening, we are actually distracted, preoccupied, or forgetful. 

But there are ways to fix that. Although active listening is a skill that takes time and patience, its upside is that you have tons of chances to practice it in your daily life. 

So, try following these tips whenever someone is talking and we guarantee you’ll be an active listener in no time.  

Tips to Become an Active Listener:
  1. Pay attention: As we mentioned, being attentive is a key component of active listening. Besides avoiding distracting thoughts and external triggers (such as side conversations, phone notifications, etc), you should also show that you’re paying attention through your body language and verbal confirmations.
  2. Ask open-ended questions: Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. By getting the speaker to elaborate, you can acquire more information (including their feelings and attitudes).
  3. Request clarification: Clarification involves periodically asking questions to make sure you are understanding the speaker correctly. By doing so, they also get a chance to expand on certain points.
  4. Paraphrase: Instead of offering your opinion, or steering the conversation in another direction, interact with the speaker by paraphrasing their points. Frequently paraphrasing helps the communication process by keeping the conversation on track. A way to do this is by using expressions like “so what you’re saying is that…” or “what you mean by this is…?”
  5. Ask probing questions: Just like open-ended questions, probing questions aim to get into the deep end of a topic. Additionally, they don’t just help you understand better, but also aid the speaker to think more deeply about what they’re saying.
  6. Summarize: Providing the speaker with a summary of their main points is a way to repeat what has been said using your words. This is another great way to keep your assumptions, judgments, and beliefs from distorting the message.
  7. Be attuned to the speaker’s feelings: Learning how to be empathetic can be tough. However, it’s not impossible. Try, for example, to notice non-verbal cues, ask people how they feel in addition to what they think, and try to understand the reasons behind someone’s behavior. Empathy will soon become a habit!

Benefits of Active Listening

It should be clear by now that effective communication cannot take place without active listening. 

And since communication is the foundation of human relationships, active listening is a beneficial skill for any situation - be it social, professional, and personal. 

  • Socially, active listening helps you build genuine connections with people. By respecting the speaker, keeping an open mind, and empathizing, you can gain the trust of those you know and make friends with those you don’t. 
  • Professionally, active listening is a skill that enhances communication in the workplace. It allows you to bond with your team, allowing for better collaboration, which leads to higher productivity. Moreover, active listening means that you’ll be able to better understand problems that arise in the workplace, allowing you to come up with better solutions.
  • Personally, active listening is a tool for self-empowerment. Speaking less and listening more can make you more knowledgeable, tolerant, and patient. Additionally, it improves your empathy and ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes. 

Active Listening in Practice - 5 Examples

We know that, sometimes, things are much easier said than done. 

So, it’s totally normal if you’re wondering exactly how you’re supposed to request clarification, ask probing questions, or summarize the speaker’s points to be an active listener. 

Worry not - we’ve got your back. 

Check out some examples of how active listening works in practice.

#1. Requesting Clarification

Let’s assume you’re at a job interview. 

Besides having to showcase your strengths as a candidate, you also want to make sure you understand exactly what they ask and tell you - that way, you manage your expectations and avoid any misunderstandings.

For example, recruiters might ask if you’d be willing to first work for the company part-time. At the sound of “work for the company,” your initial instinct might be to straight-out accept - no questions asked. 

This, however, is the kind of situation where you’d want to request clarification. You could go at it as follows: 

Example:

“Working part-time for your company sounds like an amazing opportunity. However, could you tell me exactly what it involves in terms of responsibilities, schedule, and salary?” 

Want to be prepared for any question recruiters might throw at you? Check out this list of 35+ interview questions and answers and you’ll never be caught off guard. 

#2. Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is a form of providing feedback that helps the speaker stay on track and ensures you understand what is being said. 

Has your boss ever just popped up and gave you a quick “hey, can you fill out all the data by tonight?” Their intention might be to assign you a task, but you might miss out exactly what that task is. 

Paraphrasing comes in handy in such situations. When you reaffirm what someone is saying in your own words, you don’t miss out on any essential information and double-check whether you understood them right.

Example:

So, what you’re saying is that you’d like me to enter all last year’s data into the administrative software?

#3. Asking Open-Ended/Probing Questions 

Open-ended questions are those you cannot answer with a simple “yes” or “no.” The reason they matter in the process of active listening is that they encourage the speaker to elaborate on their answer and thus offer more chances for communication to flow between you. 

Assume a friend tells you they just got fired. Asking them whether they’re upset over it is so obvious you might as well say nothing. Instead, you want your friend to open up and feel understood and heard.  

This is how an open-ended question would be more helpful to the situation: 

Example:

Did something happen that may have led to this?

#4. Showing Empathy 

Empathy is not about telling someone not to be upset or sharing similar experiences to make them feel better. Sometimes, it’s not even about offering a solution to a problem. 

Being empathetic frequently involves just being there for someone and understanding they may need to rant, complain, or just talk to somebody. By letting them know that you empathize with them, the speaker will feel comforted and will come to trust you more. 

This is how you can show empathy: 

Example:

I can only imagine how you must be feeling right now. I hope you know that I am here for you.

#5. Summarizing 

Just like paraphrasing, summarizing can be a great way to ensure that you’re understanding exactly what the speaker is saying. 

Instead of using your own words, though, you can keep mental notes of the most important points (according to you) and check whether that’s what the speaker meant. 

Let’s assume your friend is passionately telling you a story from work. You could say the following during a brief pause: 

Example:

Let me see if I got this straight. You first tried to talk it out with your boss, then sent him an email, but ultimately ended up confronting him during the meeting? 

10 Soft Skills Associated With Active Listening

Active listening falls under the umbrella of communication skills and interpersonal skills. That’s because they all involve your ability to get along with people, connect with them, and understand where they’re coming from. 

Take, for example, open-mindedness. You need an open mind if you are to engage in active listening. Otherwise, your biases and personal judgments may keep you from succeeding at it. 

That’s because your mindset and personal beliefs would reject any opinion the speaker might have that opposes yours.

These are some additional soft skills associated with active listening: 

  • Empathy
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Positivity
  • Openness
  • Nonverbal communication
  • Tolerance
  • Kindness
  • Compassion
  • Feedback (taking and giving it)
  • Encouragement

Key Takeaways 

By now, you should have a much clearer understanding of what it takes to be an active listener. 

Before you start practicing, let’s go over some of the main points we covered: 

  • Active listening is the process of listening to the speaker mindfully, providing feedback, observing their body language, and being empathetic towards their emotions.
  • The three As of active listening are attitude, attention, and adjustment
  • There are things you can do to improve your active listening skills. They include removing distractions, asking open-ended and probing questions, paraphrasing or summarizing, requesting clarifications, and empathizing. 
  • Active listening belongs to a wider category of communication skills and interpersonal skills. For this reason, it is associated with other soft skills such as empathy, tolerance, open-mindedness, positivity, and more.