When most people are listening, they aren’t actually active listening. Their minds are elsewhere – either preparing what they are going to say next or waiting for the other person to finish speaking. On average, you might have around half of their attention. I’m making this estimation based on a study done at Harvard that found that people spend an average of 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. This mindlessness includes listening.
This type of inattentive listening is familiar to me, and probably to you as well. I would bet that every single person reading this article has noticed – maybe even this week – someone zone out when you were talking to them, so you could tell they weren’t really listening to you. Or, maybe it was you who listened to your own thoughts when someone else was talking to you instead of actually paying attention. Sometimes this mindlessness is laughably obvious, and sometimes we get lucky and it goes unnoticed.
By contrast, active listening requires all of your attention and is much more difficult than it looks. When you are actively listening, you place all of your focus on the speaker – paying attention to the content, non-verbal cues, and context. You then take steps to ensure you understand the speaker’s intended message and respond with thought and care. This is dramatically different from passive listening – akin to hearing, which is simply “the act of receiving sound or information by ear.”
It isn’t just that you are paying attention. It is how you are paying attention – The quality in which you pay attention, observe, notice, and listen. You can apply this kind of active listening to music, movies, studying, social hours, meetings, and in pretty much any situation. One of the most important contexts for you to pay attention in is when you are with others, and the best way to be present with others is to actively listen.
Active listening can include 12 different components, including:
This doesn’t mean that you need to bring each and every component of active listening to every conversation – each situation and person will ask something different of you. But you need to be paying attention to the nuances of each moment to truly understand which elements of active listening would be most helpful to bring into each conversation.
Let’s break down the 12 components and dig deeper into what is involved with each.
This is the most basic component … it means that you are able to hear, receive, and understand the basics of the message being delivered. Is the content being delivered in the right language? Is the person speaking loudly enough, or is the volume high enough so you can hear it? Is the pace comprehensible? Are closed captions on, if needed? Is handwriting legible, if you are reading the content?
This level of listening involves simply holding space for the other person to process their challenge, rather than give them a solution. To listen from a neutral place means you do not have an agenda and do not offer feedback – verbal or non-verbal. When a listener is nodding enthusiastically, shaking their head, interrupting, chiming in, or validating what is being said along the way before the content is finished being delivered, these are forms of feedback. It can come off as advice or validation, which may not be helpful in a given moment. It may also be distracting or stifling to the speaker. Showing up with a neutral presence is often much more helpful. I love this quote by Gabrielle Thompson, senior vice president at Cisco that speaks to the power of neutral technique. She said, “Many situations simply need an ear, not action. Oftentimes, problems don’t need solutions — they need presence and time.”
If you are practicing neutral technique, you will have to get comfortable with silence, and avoid filling the space when no one is speaking. Neutral technique can also coexist with an empathetic, warm presence. You can show up in an inviting, open, present way without saying much with your voice, body, or facial expressions.
Listening for Feelings
The emotional field between speaker and listener is often a subtle place. Some emotions are more obvious to spot – the furrowed brow and gruff voice that signals anger or the cracked, quiet voice that deepens in tone and drips with grief. But there are much more subtle places to pay attention to: a shift in volume, cadence, intensity, pitch, or enunciation … these are just a few ways that you may be able to recognize an emotion. An emotion might even show up as a pause between thoughts or a change in breathing that hints at a particular feeling about something. When you are tuning into the field of emotions during a conversation, you notice the deeper qualities present that are too-often left unsaid.
Observing Body Language
Did you see the animated hand gestures, the darting gaze downward, the crossed arms closing off the whole body, the squinting, the deep breath, the aggressive lean in, or the eyebrows lift at a very telling moment in the conversation? These are the types of things you’ll pick up on, get curious about, and possibly make meaning of – if you are paying attention to body language.
Awareness of Context
Are you reading the energy of the room, and how could that be contributing to the conversation? How might the organizational or team culture of the person or people you are in conversation with be involved? What interpersonal dynamics and relationships might be at play in the conversation you are listening to? Be mindful of dynamics in the room, group, organization, community, country, or any other details related to context that may be influencing the speaker.
There is an important distinction between self-focus and self-awareness as it relates to listening. Self-focus means you are wrapped up in and with yourself, when you should be listening to someone else. Self-awareness involves being cognizant of your biases, assumptions, beliefs, expectations, and filters while you are listening – and ensuring you don’t impose your own views on someone else who is looking for an attentive, open ear.
Self-awareness in conversation means being able to set aside yourself and your beliefs and open up to what is being shared without judgment. It does not mean that you don’t have opinions; it just means that you are able to set them aside – even if they are strong held beliefs – and step into an attitude of openness and non-judgment for the speaker. It also involves being able to notice how much space you are taking up in the conversation. Finally, self-awareness as a listener includes being able to recognize when your attention has shifted away from the speaker, and then being able to redirect it back as swiftly as possible.
Misunderstandings are oh so common, and it is easy to make assumptions or jump to conclusions when you are in listening mode. Sometimes it is the speaker who can share in vague terms, and so that the listener is forced to interpret what has been said. Other times, the listening is the one misunderstanding the context or language being shared. This happens more often than we realize – especially but not only among cross-cultural relationships and teams.
Clarifying technique is extremely helpful to ensure the listener has understood the message. This can be done with a request to repeat what was shared or with a series of questions to fill in details that are unclear, i.e. asking for examples or elaboration. The technique also signals to the speaker that the listener is genuinely interested in understanding the details of what is being shared. Often this leads to deeper connection between speaker and listener, and also deeper understanding of the problem at hand not only for the listener, but for the speaker as well.
Questioning with Curiosity
Questioning with curiosity can look a lot like clarifying technique, and it takes this a step further. This level often explores the meaning behind what is being shared, and can also involve investigating the context, body language, tone, and emotions in and around the message. Questions can be centered on either the content itself or be about relevant periphery details. A curious disposition is essential here, to demonstrate genuine interest and encourage deeper conversation and understanding for both parties.
Paraphrasing is another way to ensure that you and the speaker are on the same page, and a clear way to signal that you are listening intently to what the other person is saying. Throughout the conversation, check in to reflect back what you heard to make sure you got it right and show them that you are with them. Often times when they hear back what they just said – restated in different words – they also learn something new about their challenge or situation.
Summarizing is a helpful way to wrap up a conversation. It involves restating key points, themes, feelings, and takeaways, as well as any next steps that were identified in the conversation. It is helpful for the speaker to hear the essence of their challenge from an outside point of view.
This seems like the basic rule when listening – to be listening without doing anything else. However, it is also the most commonly violated rule. We can all point to times when we were talking and had to compete for the listener’s attention while they were checking their phone, responding to an email, or lost in thought simultaneously. This kind of multitasking sends a clear signal to the speaker that something else is more important than them, or that they don’t matter. Contrast this with an undivided listener, and it is a profoundly different experience for both parties.
Connection can never really happen if one person is not present. So before you sit down for a conversation – silence your notifications, devices, and commit your attention in one direction.
Your attitude, verbal language, tone, demeanor, and body language all play into how you are perceived as a listener. If you are committed to being empathetic throughout the conversation, it means you are aware of showing up in a warm, open, non-judgmental, compassionate way so that you can effectively support and listen to the other person.
If you practice all of the other levels outlined here, you will be practicing empathetic being by gifting the person your undivided attention, listening for feelings, giving them space instead of filling it with your thoughts, paraphrasing, questioning with curiosity, and demonstrating your genuine desire to understand and know them. All of these levels express your care, which translates into them feeling supported and heard.
Practice Practice Practice
If you try to practice all of these 12 levels at once, it will likely be overwhelming to you, and may seem forced to both sides. Start by practicing one or two of these levels of active listening at a time. Perhaps choose one to start with, and when that one feels comfortable, add another. Or you can focus on one level a week for 12 weeks. With practice, you will become more aware of the overlap among some of the levels, and more adept at discerning which levels to lean on in which situations.
Over time, you will notice that practicing active listening is an effective way to establish trust in your relationships, build psychological safety on your teams, and deepen your connections both personally and professionally.
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