We’ve all been in conversations where we suspected that the other person wasn’t really paying attention. It’s annoying and disrespectful, especially when the topic is particularly important or sensitive.
Still, we’ve all been guilty of mental multitasking at some point. According to an often-referenced article from the University of Missouri, 45% of communication is listening, and yet the average person remembers only half to a quarter of the information they hear. Whether you’re in a classroom, a business setting, or a relationship, failing to hear 75% what’s said to you is a recipe for disaster. Active listening aims to solve this problem.
What is Active Listening?
Rather than giving someone a fraction of your attention, active listening is making a conscious effort to hear, understand, and retain information that’s being relayed to you.
It involves more than listening to the words they say. Instead, you consciously analyze what you hear, and try to pick up on intent, content, and emotion from the speaker. Active listening requires paying attention. If you’re watching TV or scrolling through TikTok on your phone while someone is talking, you’re not actively listening.
The other side of active listening is making sure the other person knows that you’re doing so. We can all tell when we’re speaking with someone who is zoned out. Even if they’re paying attention, cues like eye contact, verbal acknowledgement, and replying with insightful comments matters.
Why Active Listening Matters
Verbal communication is crucial in every aspect of life, but it’s especially important in your career. From your first job interview to routine meetings, it’s important to understand and retain what your colleagues, bosses, and clients are telling you.
Active listening can help you collaborate more effectively, reduce misunderstandings and wasted work, negotiate more effectively, build more successful working relationships, and make a better impression on the people you work with — all important skills to help with career advancement throughout your life.
Learning How to Listen
Active listening takes practice. Here are a few tips on improving your listening skills:
Pay attention! Most people allow themselves to be distracted easily. Put down your phone, mute the TV, and make eye contact with the person talking to you. Make mental notes about the speaker’s broader point, as well as a few specific things they’re saying. Why are they telling you this? What is takeaway? How does the speaker feel about what they’re saying? Don’t think about answering. Focus on what they want you to hear.
Show that you’re listening. The speaker can tell if you’re paying attention. Make eye contact, nod when appropriate, and give small verbal comments like “yes” and “huh.” Don’t interrupt to reiterate something they just said though. This might seem like a good way to show your engagement, it can derail the conversation.
Offer feedback. When the opportunity comes up, you’ll be able to offer insightful feedback on what was said. This might take the form of reflecting on what was said, asking follow-up questions, or offering your own perspective. Active listening can avoid that deer-in-the-headlights feeling that can happen when someone asks, “What do you think?” If you’ve been actively listening, you’ll be ready to respond thoughtfully.
Don’t jump to conclusions! You’re not a mind-reader and neither is the person talking to you. If you find yourself becoming upset about what’s being said, ask for clarification. Say, “It sounds like you mean X, and I just want to clarify. Are you saying Y?” By giving them a chance to rephrase or clarify, you avoid making unfair assumptions.
Active listening takes practice, but it has the potential to vastly improve your ability to hear people, communicate, and remember important details in everyday conversations.