Active Listening – How to Gain the Most Out of a Conversation

Active listening is a skill in itself. After all, we may ‘hear’ almost everything that is happening around us. Some of us even develop the habit of listening attentively. But do we listen actively and really understand the meaning of what others are communicating?

What is Active Listening?

Active listening is the art of engaging in a conversation in a way that you not only understand what the speaker is trying to convey, but also actively participate in the conversation, in order to:

  • Gain further insights about the topic being spoken about;
  • Understand the speaker’s frame of mind;
  • Clarify any doubts that you might have;
  • Build rapport and confidence in each other.

It’s a technique that is used alot in coaching and counselling to help practioners listen, comprehend what is being said, retain information, discuss it, and then respond to what is being said. It’s also a great way for managers and anyone interested in improving their communicating skills.

All this goes a long way to make the speaker feel valued and listened to, which multiplies the benefits gained out of the communication process.

Active Listening Stages

The process of listening consists of 5 main steps:

  1. Receiving – what’s been said;
  2. Understanding – what they’ve said;
  3. Evaluating – the next steps;
  4. Remembering – what they’ve said;
  5. Responding – repeating what they’ve said and asking questions.

By perfecting and constantly implementing active listening, you can improve the effectiveness of your conversations with other people. Incidentally, this is a prerequisite to being an effective leader and successful person, as identified by Steven Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

There are three major components to active listening.

3 Components to Active Listening

Speaker Centred Listening

While engaging in a conversation, the speaker should be the one in focus. After all, you are trying to gain something out of what they are saying.

In order to successfully do this, you must give your entire focus to the conversation. Always try to remain neutral and not take a biased view based on your personal thoughts or preferences.

You should also try to understand their emotions and empathise with their view. The act of listening is not complete unless you understand non-verbal cues as well.

Is what they are saying, matching up with their body language? For more information on this topic, Business Insider has 19 science based facts about reading body language quickly.

Reflect First, Respond Second

Listening is adversely affected by disruptions. Believe it or not, even your interruptions, however well intended they might be, cause disruptions for the speaker.

Interruptions result in loss of information both on the part of the speaker as well as the Listener.

Hence, you should listen patiently, reflect upon what was said, think about the pros and cons or the underlying meaning and form your questions as a result of this internalising process you’ve just made.

So, before you put forth your question, paraphrase what they’ve said, to show you’re listening and that you’re compassionate. Get it right, and it’s a surefire way of building rapport and a connection with them.

Here are some examples of repeating what they said for confirmation and clarification:

  • It’s interesting you say that;
  • You mentioned that you like to go jogging;
  • You said that you are struggling to understand your work;
  • Thanks for sharing that with me. I know it’s hard for you dealing with the fact that you are struggling at home with your family life.

Framing your Questions

As an active listener, the question you ask should be instrumental in improving your understanding of the topic. It should bring out more information and create greater interest in the conversation.

Once you have paraphrased their main (or a part) of their conversation, complete it by reframing with a question. This simply means, adding what you’ve paraphrase in step 2 above, with a question, to complete the sentence.

We could add the reframing questions to our previous examples above (they are in bold):

  • It’s interesting you say that, tell me more;
  • You mentioned that you like to go jogging, how long have you been doing it for;
  • You said that you are struggling to understand your work. Tell me where you find it the hardest;
  • Thanks for sharing that with me. I know it’s hard for you dealing with the fact that you are struggling at home with your family life. How can we make it easier for you at work.

Can you see the journey we’ve briefly taken?

  1. We’ve listened intently, and observed what they say and taken note of their body language;
  2. In our own minds, we have processed what they are saying, so we can understand and then reflect with them;
  3. We then repeat a part of the topic or summarise it to them, to clarify we have heard correctly and so they are confident we are listening;
  4. We then add a question to reframe the conversation to ask for more information or change the angle to a solution or next step.

In addition to this very simple but effective active listening technique, here are 5 DO’s and DON’Ts, so you can hit the ground running.

5 Things you SHOULD DO When Active Listening:

Maintain a positive body language

This helps to make the speaker feel valued and widens the avenues of communication. The following gestures on your part can help to improve the perception of your body language.

  • Maintain eye contact with the speaker – This doesn’t mean you need to keep staring. But make sure that you don’t look away for long durations;
  • Smile and nod – An understanding smile and small affirmative nods at appropriate places make the speaker feel that he/she is connecting with the audience;
  • Body Posture – You should maintain a positive and engaging posture, sitting up straight and slightly leaning towards the speaker. A slouching posture reflects lack of interest on your part and can be damaging to the communication process;
  • Mirroring of emotions – Study the emotions that the speaker is going through while they are communicating. Try to mirror these emotions to subconsciously let the speaker know that you are in sync with them. Whether they know it or not, this method speaks directly to their sub conscious mind and makes them feel at ease and connected.

Drill Down to the Details

Don’t try to come up with all the answers. People talk because they may just want to get something off their chest or to discuss something that excites them. 

Practice repeating what they said and then asking questions to drill down for further discussion.

It’s a very powerful way of building rapport, trust and building better conversations.

“You said you watched football last night. What did you think of the game?”

“So you went to The Caribbean, what Island did you stay on?”

“How did you get on with that project you were stressed about?”

“You said you are nervous about that next presentation. What is making you anxious?”

Let your talking take a backseat

Active listening is, after all, about listening. So you should refrain from taking up all the space in the conversation with your own words. You should rather encourage the other person to speak and open their heart.

In this regard, there is an interesting story about a woman having dinner with two of Britain’s most famous leaders – William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.

When asked about her experience, the lady said “After the dinner with Mr. Gladstone, I felt he is the smartest person in the world.” On the other hand, “After the dinner with Mr. Disraeli, I felt I was the smartest woman in the world.”

The woman in question was Jenni Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill.

4. Ask relevant questions

Questions not only help to better your understanding, but also encourage the speaker to take a greater interest in communicating with you. However, you should ensure that

  • The questions are relevant to the conversation;
  • They are not perceived as too aggressive. This might shut-off the other person from communicating freely. Never ask why did you do that? Instead, something subtler helps like, “How did you come to that conclusion?” or “What was your intention?”;
  • You should not interrupt every now and then to ask questions. You should make either a physical or a mental note of the questions that come to your mind and put them across at an appropriate time.

This can be when the speaker solicits questions or when they have finished making a significant point and paused for a while.

Manage your emotions

Try to display a good level of emotional intelligence during the course of a conversation, so as to make sure that you don’t give in to emotional outbursts or triggers. This isn’t a competition. It’s a conversation.

Display of extreme emotions, especially negative ones, can disrupt the flow of a conversation. You should carefully calibrate your emotions during a conversation and listen with an unbiased and neutral point of view.

Remain open to accepting and accommodating multiple views during the discussion.

Things you SHOULD NOT DO:

Show signs of disinterest

A show of disinterest on your part negatively affects the mental state of the speaker. They do not find interest in the conversation and the channels of communication can break down.

Show of disinterest can include:

  • Frequently looking at the time;
  • Putting on a bored expression, yawning etc;
  • Talking to others while the speaker is talking or constantly fidgeting with some object (a pen for example);
  • Sitting in a laid back or slouched posture;
  • Multitasking during a conversation, such as replying to text messages.

Be biased or judgemental

Active listening is about accommodating and respecting others’ points-of-view. This purpose is defeated if you judge the speaker based on your preconceived ideas about a certain subject.

You should rather listen patiently, understand the opposite point-of-view and seek clarifications. If necessary, you can put forward your reservations without being argumentative about it.

Assume you are being purposefully targeted and attacked

What you perceive as targeted attacks during a conversation, could very well be the result of your aggressive counters to an earlier discussion.

Hence, rather than becoming defensive and argumentative, it is better to open up a conversation regarding the same. You can seek clarifications about why your views are being repeatedly objected to.

More often than not, you can find a genuine reason behind such opposition and it is possible to work out the difference in order to bring the conversation back on track.

Cause interruptions

In your quest to seek clarifications, do not interrupt the speaker every now and then. This can halt the flow of the conversation and often make the speaker lose patience.

Instead, you should follow the “reflect before you respond” principle. Make a mental note of the question, reflect upon what the speaker is saying and then ask appropriately if it is still needed to be asked.

This will help you stop engaging in self talk (playing over in your mind what you are going to say next) and help you focus on what the speaker is saying.

Grab Sentences

Often, you find people trying to finish what the speaker is saying. This can often land them way off the mark. The speaker may have intended to say something, while they projected their own thoughts and said the contrary.  It’s also not good for building rapport, too. It’s simply a case of undermining or competing, when there should be none of this during conversation.

For instance, consider this conversation at a meeting between the management and the workers of an organisation:

A: We had a bad financial performance last year…

B: (finishing the sentence): So you would be cutting down on our allowances, right?

But in reality, A) wanted to say, “We had a bad financial performance last year, but this year we have bounced back and I am happy to announce a bonus for all the employees.”

This projection creates a negative impact on the speaker and in this case, it may actually result in declaration of a lower bonus.

Now that we have discussed the DO’s and DON’Ts for active listening, you can start putting them into practice in your everyday conversations. With a little practice, you’ll notice a marked improvement in the quality of communication.

If you want to work further on honing your skills as an active listener, we have curated a list of 10 activities to master the art of active listening with your team.

You can also check out our one golden rule for active listening, too.