1. Be Empathetic
Active listening begins with empathy. A person who is empathetic can see things from another person’s point of view; they are not limited to their own viewpoint. Empathetic listening helps improve understanding, respect, and trust. Being empathetic can require a great deal of patience and practice and can be especially difficult when personal issues, struggles, and problems cloud your listening. With practice, however, you will be (correctly) perceived as being more caring and understanding, and because of this, you will be able to help deescalate tense discussions.
2. Give Your Full Attention
Focusing on what a speaker is communicating through both words and body language is a central part of active listening. It may seem like a simple skill, but uninterrupted focus on another person requires discipline. Technology and other distractions can easily shift our focus off the speaker, and he or she will usually sense our wanderings. This usually interrupts the flow of communication. Listeners must put away their devices and refrain from watching the clock or moving around. Active listening is about being fully present—giving the speaker undivided attention and being mindful to what is being said.
3. Refrain from Making Judgments
Another essential part of active listening is suspending judgment. Speakers who feel judged by a listener’s counterpoints and disagreements may be reluctant to finish their points and might feel that such an environment is not a safe place in which to share. When leaders judge, they expose their lack of maturity and their difficulty in welcoming differences of opinions. Great leaders listen to understand and welcome different opinions and ideas. They listen without assumptions about why a speaker is saying certain things or using a certain tone, and they treat other people’s opinions with compassion and respect.
4. Respond to Show Understanding
Active listeners show that they understand what a speaker is communicating. This can take a more subtle form such as smiling and making eye contact, or a more direct form such as asking questions and verifying understanding. Relevant questions show the speaker that the listener has been paying attention, and in turn, the speaker’s responses can help the listener learn more about the topic at hand and develop more interest in what is being said. Questions also help build rapport between the speaker and listener. Shared understanding is essential to a conversation and can grow when active listeners clarify points. Paraphrasing and summarizing what a speaker says can help halt miscommunication and conflict.
5. Be Aware of Your Own Inner Response
Active listening at its best involves listening not only to the person speaking but also to one’s own inner response. Your inner response shapes how you listen, so the greater your internal awareness, the more control you will have over your responses. For instance, a listener who is not aware that they are internally judging a speaker will not work to suspend their judgement. Or, a listener who is not aware that a speaker’s story has touched a chord in their own life may respond shortsightedly out of their own experiences rather than listening for the story’s unique impact on the speaker’s life.
The case for active listening is clear. Leaders who practice active listening will be able to enjoy the benefits of improved relationships, less stress and frustration, more compassion, and a broader understanding of others. Being empathetic, paying attention, avoiding judgment, being responsive, and being aware of their own inner responses will all help make leaders active and effective listeners.