Active listening: meaning, techniques and examples

Active listening: meaning, techniques and examples

Like listening, but supercharged.

Active listening can transform your interpersonal relationships. Truly.

Once you recognise the hallmarks of active listening, you'll begin to notice them out in the wild. And you might even notice a correlation between those who listen, actively, and their reputation for being a kind and caring person.

So, without further ado - let’s learn how to unlock those active listening skills!

What are active listening skills?

Active listening is a communication skill that involves listening to understand the meaning in people’s conversation, not just hearing the words they use. It’s ‘active’ because you are behaving as more than as a casual listener; you are engaging with purpose.

It’s really helpful for having ‘successful’ conversations, but it’s also a huge boost to your interpersonal relationships as it ensures the people you talk to feel heard, and valued. Once you learn how to use active listening in one setting - say, at work - you’ll quickly find that you use it when talking to people at home or socially, too.

Why are active listening skills so powerful?

Making people feel like you’re really listening with the intent to understand them might just transform your relationships! Not only does it make them feel good - like you really value them and find them important - it’s also a good way to make sure you pick up on all the subtle bits of information you can glean from someone.

And that means paying attention to more than just their words! Body language, tone of voice and even the words that are left unsaid can all speak volumes about people’s true feelings.

Active listening techniques and examples

Practise these techniques and, over time, they will start to feel less like completing a slightly awkward exercise and more like natural communication. It’s okay if it takes a while to get there! Communication is something that we do instinctually, so trying to change it isn’t easy.

Notice and practice engaged body language

There’s a surprising range of physical clues you can give to indicate that the person you are speaking with has your undivided attention. Try to keep a mental note of any of these behaviours that you do already, or that you don’t do, so you can make sure you’re not sending the wrong message. Signs of full engagement include:

  • Smiling
  • Making regular eye contact
  • Leaning forwards slightly
  • Open posture - arms and legs are not crossed
  • Your body is facing the person you are speaking to
  • Occasional nods or head tilts while listening

And equally as important are the signs that your conversational partner is uncomfortable. If you spot any of the following in your partner, try to take a step back, change the subject or pause.

  • Creating distance, for example by stepping away
  • Turning away from you, such as angling the top of their body to one side
  • Covering their mouth or face with their hand, hair or something else
  • Fidgeting with an object
  • Crossing the arms or legs
  • Reduced eye contact, looking away from you

Some of these signs will happen over the course of a normal conversation, so don’t be disheartened if someone you’re speaking with covers their mouth once! Just look out for a stack of these behaviours at once and respond accordingly.

Ask the right questions

Asking questions can sometimes feel tricky. For some people, shyness and social anxiety make it difficult to reach out and invite people to share their feelings in that way. But to avoid this is to remove a huge opportunity to connect with other people! People enjoy talking about themselves.

Ask open-ended questions that encourage them to share freely. It shows that you are interested in the person you are speaking to and helps to strengthen bonds; you’ll be surprised what people prioritise when given free rein to talk about themselves.

For example:

  • When someone tells you about a hobby of theirs, ask questions like “How did you get into that?” or “How long have you been doing that for?” - even if it’s not universally exciting, they probably felt a great deal of excitement when they first tried their hobby! And the answers to those first questions help you to gauge what to ask next (questions for a seasoned rock-climber will likely be different for someone who has only been to their local climbing wall twice).
  • If someone is talking about a challenge they are facing, ask questions like “Have you ever dealt with anything like this before?” or “Who do you usually go to for advice/do you have anyone to turn to for advice?”.
  • If someone tells you they’re going to see a friend, ask more about them - how do they know them, what do they usually get up to when they’re together, or even “What are they like?”.

Just remember that you’re asking questions to nurture conversation, not to ‘get the goss’ - try not to pry! And be aware of those subtle signs that your conversation partner is feeling uncomfortable.

Try to understand (not just reply)

When speaking with someone, try to work out what they mean, or intend to convey, with their words. It’s so tempting to fill in the blanks, or overlay our own interpretations over someone else's words. But in the process, we can miss out - sometimes on subtle nuances, but other times we can miss the meaning altogether. That can be alienating to the person you’re talking with, but also detrimental to your own understanding.

For example:

  • When someone is relaying a story about a new experience they have had, listen and try to understand whether they found it to be positive, negative or neutral - and why. Don’t jump in and try to relate; maybe they love things that you find boring, or vice versa. Just let them share their feelings.
  • Spend time noticing when you tend to talk about yourself unprompted during conversations. It’s a really normal thing to do, and most of the time it is helpful and constructive. But if you find yourself frequently telling your own story, make a point to try to learn more about others instead.

Avoid judgement

Of course you should avoid judgement of the person you’re talking to. But also try to avoid judging their experiences, the other people they talk about or the decisions they make. Just listen, even if they are sharing their own judgements, and empathise.

For example:

  • If they are discussing a challenging situation with a friend, don’t try to assess or comment on who was ‘right’. Even if your friend is in the wrong (in your opinion), work out how the situation has affected them and empathise with them and their feelings.
  • If they are telling you about a decision they made that you do not agree with, even if you have very good reasons, do not leap into telling them about how you feel. Find out more about why they made that decision. Are they happy with it? What are the possible outcomes if they get it wrong? You might get to the point where you are asked for advice, or can tactfully offer it, but it shouldn’t be your starting point.

Paraphrase and repeat - carefully

Perhaps one of the better known active listening techniques is paraphrasing what someone has just said to you and repeating it back to them. Done right, this shows that you are listening and have understood.

Unfortunately, it is easy to get this wrong, and when you do it can make people very uncomfortable. You may have noticed it before - perhaps you’ve been in conversation with someone, and they repeated the last word of each sentence you say back to you like an MC? Or they have all-too-enthusiastically parroted your own sentence in almost identical words with just a little too much enthusiasm to sound sincere.

So here’s how to do it carefully. Use your own words to explain what you understood your conversational partner to mean - and try to do so as a question, instead of telling them what they mean.

  • Friend: I’m not sure I’ll go for the promotion to be honest. I’ve worked there for so long that I’ll feel completely betrayed if I do and they choose someone else.
  • You: So you’d be as disappointed about the betrayal as you would about staying in your current role for a bit longer?

That interaction sounds perfectly natural and helps the conversation flow, but it does two things:

  • Shows you are listening and interested.
  • Stops you from talking about yourself, changing the subject, offering advice or any of the other things you should avoid if you want to perfect active listening.

How to put active listening techniques into practice

The first step is to assess where you are already - which of these techniques are already part of your communication repertoire? And which do you need to practise?

Then, choose one - and only one - technique to practise. You don’t have to apply it in all conversations. It would be draining if every conversation you have required your full, undivided and selfless attention! And sometimes, you’ll want to be the one being listened to - that’s fair.

Choose a couple of people or scenarios where you’ll practise and see how it goes. It might start off with you missing your chance and not noticing until afterwards (‘Ah, I shouldn’t have offered that advice!’). But noticing is the first step towards changing.

Then, add a new skill to your list once you've got the hang of practising the current one. Before you know it, you’ll be an active listener! You can also take courses in active listening, so if you’re finding it hard to keep up with your self-directed practice don’t worry.

The best thing is that not only does this skill help you nurture deeper connections, it is a skill for life. You’ll want to check in every now and then - we all pick up bad habits - but essentially, you’re learning how to show empathy, and that stays with you.

Just be prepared to become the ‘listening ear’ of your friendship group or among your colleagues! And make sure you know who you can trust to listen deeply to you when you need it, too.

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