How to Practice Active Listening In-Person or Online

Much like decision-making and problem-solving, active listening is a vital leadership skill. It often gets overlooked, but it is essential to effective communication, building rapport, and resolving conflicts. It can ensure understanding in the workplace, leading to fewer misunderstandings and errors, saving time and re-work. Active listening will improve relationships, establish trust, and increase your empathy for others. However, active listeners are a rare commodity in an increasingly distracting environment, with many people and many devices vying for our attention. Especially now, when so much communication takes place over video conferencing, it is challenging to stay focused and really listen to one another. 

The goal of active listening is to acquire information from others as well as understanding. It involves listening with full attention, using all your senses. It is important to engage with the person speaking fully, so they are confident they are being heard and understood. It is a skill that can be learned and improved with practice.  There are several techniques to enhance active listening in both in-person and virtual conversations. Here are just a few: 

    1. Listen without judgment. First and foremost, be prepared to listen and understand the other person’s point of view. Stay focused on hearing what they have to say before rushing to a judgment or assuming you already know the information they are trying to share. 
    2. Give your full attention. For in-person conversations, this could mean closing the door and turning off your phone to ensure there are no interruptions. When the conversation takes place over video conference, it is best to completely shut down your email and internet browser tabs. It is very tempting to multi-task when you see notifications pop up, and it is discouraging to the speaker to see your eyes wander to another screen or your hands typing while they talk. 
    3. Be aware of your body language. Show the speaker you are actively listening to them through appropriate eye-contact and posture. You can show interest by leaning in and keeping your eyes on the person speaking. Avoid crossing your arms or slumping down in a chair, as you can appear to be defensive or bored with the conversation. In video calls, try to look at the camera, and have the screen and camera facing you from the same direction, so it feels natural to look at the screen and camera while the other person is speaking. It is even more important to practice non-verbal cues like nodding and smiling over a video call, so people know you are still listening. 
    4. Don’t interrupt. In the 7 habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey says, “The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” Let the other person complete their thoughts before sharing your own. While short verbal feedback can be appropriate, like interjecting “That’s Great” or “Oh wow, that must be frustrating” to show you are engaged in their story, it is important to wait for a pause before asking questions or responding.
    5. Summarize and ask clarifying questions. When it is your turn to reply, summarize what you heard the other person say to make sure you understood them correctly. Then, ask questions to get any information you need to get the entire picture. However, make sure your questions are not off-topic or just a way to change the subject so that you can speak.