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Active Listening Skills – 10 Tools that Top Listeners Have

Active listening is the most important element of interpersonal communication skills. When leaders truly listen, people feel they care about them, value them, and in return want to do a good job for them.

Today we hear a lot regarding the topic of active listening. What defines a competent active listener? How do we know if we have the skill? Would your employees, spouse, coworkers, family members agree that you are a good listener?

Active listening is the ability to focus completely on the speaker, understand their perception, comprehend the information and respond thoughtfully and then recall specific details without needing information repeated.

In reviewing many articles regarding active listening there are similar ideas that have just been repeated year after year without taking into consideration the changes we have seen in the workplace and in the communities we live in. With the growing diverse demographics which include various cultures, generations, nationalities, and life experiences, using active listening in a way that is respectful will allow for an open and honest conversation.

When we look at stats that relate to active listening and how much stimulus we are exposed to each and every day, it’s no wonder we experience miscommunication and it’s no wonder we cannot possibly absorb everything we hear or our brains would most likely explode.

Fun Facts  

  1. We listen at a rate of 125- 250 words per minute

  2. We think at 1000 – 3000 words per minute

  3. 80% of our day is spent communicating

  4. 55% of our day is spent listening

  5. 35% of businesses feel listening is a top skill required for success

  6. Gottman has stated that the #1 reason marriages fail is by not listening

  7. The knowledge that we retain = 85% from listening

  8. What do we remember after a conversation is finished is approx 50%

  9. When we say we are listening yet are really distracted or preoccupied = 75% of the time

  10. What we do retain within the week the discussion occurred = 20%

Through meeting with various people at all levels of their careers, I find individuals who identify themselves as great active listeners, people that really know how to listen to the individual speaking. Yet throughout this conversation at every opportunity when I would attempt to contribute to the conversation, ask a question or even offer some of my perspectives, I would be cut off, shut down, talked over, disregarded or ask to please remain quiet and stop interrupting until they are finished.

Once they stop to take a breath, I ask them a very simple question: “from your last conversation, can you tell me three important facts that you recall from that conversation?” I am usually met with a blank face. They will attempt to fill in the dead airspace by telling me what they stated, what was important to them so again I ask: ” What was their response to your comment?”

Active listening is more than just sitting in a physical space with another individual, allowing them some air space, nodding your head and looking them in the eye.

Are you Actually an Active Listener?

Do you self-identify as an active listener but are now doubting whether you may, or may not, have all the skills you thought you had?

Have you had conflict or challenges within conversations when you feel you have done everything within your competency to ensure they have felt heard, yet comments come back that show they did not feel heard at all?

Have you missed certain details, tasks or information that was relevant to the next steps resulting from you being focused on your thoughts and not what was being shared with you?

Has an employee told you that they tried to convey they were NOT interested in moving up within the company and you felt you knew better?

Has your spouse tried to assist you in understanding how they feel and what is behind this feeling and without hearing them fully you make the suggestion that they are just stressed and maybe need to not take things so personally?

If any of these sound even a bit familiar what I can offer you below will help build the understanding of true active listening and provide skills and tips to improve your abilities. Even if you are a fair to good listener currently, there is always room for improvement.

These skills can be acquired and developed and will make a difference in your ability to be a competent active listener.

Understanding the concepts behind active listening and the benefits that can be felt by all individuals within the conversation will make a difference in your success in every aspect of your life. Most people just want someone to hear their perspective, empathize with them and feel what they have to say is important.

Approach each conversation with the goal to improve your communication skills and ability, to learn something new about the other person, and to leave the conversation with a better sense of how you can coexist in this world more effectively.

10 Skills

#1 – Eye contact – most articles will tell you to lock in and not lose eye contact. I have a variation of these skills. In our North American culture, we have been informed that it is very important to keep eye contact within a conversation. In our diverse culture, we have now found that within some cultures it is seen as offensive to look someone in the eye.

During a conversation, they may say do not break eye contact, yet I have found myself deep in thought in the middle of a conversation and I will break eye contact to look out a window or even stare at the back of the wall.  This should not be seen as a distraction from the conversation. It can be confirmed by asking the individual if they need the time or if they respond with a further question pertaining to the conversation and confirm for you they are actively listening.

For the most part, eye contact does provide individuals with a feeling that you are paying attention to what they are saying. If you see that the individual keeps trying to break eye contact, as long as they are engaged in the dialogue and contributing to the conversation feel free to continue.

#2 – Body Language – I will display a table below of different body languages and how they can be perceived and what might be the reality.  This doesn’t mean every action listed is perceived by every individual this way, it just brings awareness that your conversation is not as collaborative as you hoped for. Look at some of these behaviors and reflect back to your own body language to see if you exhibit any of these. Are they causing someone to not feel heard or dismissed?ActionPerceptionPossible Realityleaning back in your chairbacking away from the conversationwants to relax and hear what you have to sayarms crossedclosed off, disengageda comfortable position to hold your arms inlooking at your cell phonenot interested in what the speaker has to sayensuring that there is no emergency happening while you spend this time listeningreading a document not pertaining to conversationsomething else is way more importantwanting to provide some backup to what is going on in the conversationviewing your computer monitornot engaged in the conversationconfirming what is on the schedule next to allow extra time if required rolling eyes updismissiveexhausted, frustrated with self in coming to a conclusion and now hearing the full storyhuffingtired of hearing themsitting too long / pants to tight and needs more oxygencleaning under your fingernailsdistracted, dirt is more important than what they have to sayembarrassed by what you are hearing or how your actions made them feellooking around the roomsomething must be more important than themallowing yourself a break from intently listening for a long period of timefidgeting on itemthat piece of thread is getting their attention, what do I have to do to be more important than that threadman this thing is bothering me and taking my attention away from this conversation, I have to get rid of it


People smile when feeling fear, embarrassment, acceptance, or even nonacceptance. It is one of the most controversial facial expression that leads to a misunderstanding of the intended message.  Saying NO yet smiling at the same time.  When there is confusion as to what this means some individuals may take this smile as turning the NO to a YES ignoring the verbal.  This is where major problems can start. My message is to be cautious when dealing with conflicting signals.

#3 – Tone – It can be real or perceived but the impact is the same. There is a lot of information regarding tone and the impact it has on a conversation.  With raised levels of a personal tone, it can be perceived as if they are escalating emotionally. The other person may feel increased aggression towards them.

In today’s world when a majority of our business communication happens by email, we have the task of assigning a tone to each email we open to read. If we know the person quite well and have a good relationship, we may read the email imparting a happy pleasant tone. If it’s our mother in law and we don’t quite see eye to eye on how to care for her precious son, we may impart a bit of an edge to that tone.  If an email is coming from your boss, who in the past few face to face meetings has been quite harsh to any employee who doesn’t follow his exact commands, you may impart an even harsher tone.

#4 – Seek to understand, before seeking to be understood. This element in itself is one of the most pivotal skills to perfect. If you focus on first listening to the other person’s perspective, understanding, recollection or reason as to what emotion the incident solicited from them you will have a wealth of knowledge that will allow you to speak your truth.  Providing your perspective while at the same time joining aspects you’ve heard from them that you have in common will confirm you’re listening. Assist them to build an understanding of the differences in perception of the incident that has brought you to this current challenge.

#5- Use “I” statements when you are expressing your views, feelings, and perception of an incident. By using the term “I” in representing your truth you are only representing what is true for you.  When you use the term “You” that will solicit defensiveness from the other parties. In every human interaction involving more than one individual, you will have two truths. This means that each one of you will have locked into your memory your story of the events, message, and series of incidents that lead up to and occurred during the actual incident. This may look very similar with no cause for further discussion or it can look substantially different. This could cause a great deal of conversation and active listening to fully understand the other person’s truth.

We all process information using our personal filters which in turn defines how we view each and every incident we experience.  These filters may cause our story to be different in various aspects and our perception of certain actions or words and what story we tell ourselves regarding those thoughts. I will provide a few examples.

Director- Rushing to a meeting and missed saying good morning to an employee that reports to her. Their relationship has had a few bumps lately, yet the director feels that their relationship is finally getting back on track

Employee – I can’t believe how rude the director has been lately. Just this morning she walked right past her and didn’t even say “good morning” back to her. She now has the nerve to ask why their relationship hasn’t improved.


Husband – Comes home excited that he has been invited to a full weekend of golf with the executive team.  He has already committed to going and is expecting his wife to be on board as he has been waiting for this opportunity for the last 3 years.

The wife – See’s her husband coming in very happy and she knows that he has something to share with her about their upcoming weekend which conveniently is also their 10th anniversary. When they sit down for dinner he starts to tell his wife about the upcoming golf weekend. Silence falls over the room. She does not see the situation with the same lens.


Store Manager – Looking around, the store the manager notices a customer approaching the check out lines and as she does the cashier starts to raise her voice. The store manager walks closer to where the cashier is and is trying to signal her to lower her tone and treat the customer kinder. The manager witnesses the constant escalation and continues to try to signal the cashier. The customer leaves and the manager walks over ready to discipline the cashier.

Customer – She has had a long and difficult time as a cashier over her 17 years.  She has been robbed, beaten and verbally assaulted many times. The loss from shoplifting in her current store has been on the rise. As she sees this particular customer approach her line she notices it is the one that security has been watching for the past few weeks.  She suspects that he is hiding merchandise under his jacket and as the customer approaches she is signaling security to watch this customer.  Security is standing at the door which is why the cashier is raising her voice. She is trying to bring attention to herself and the customer. Security has heard the signal they had preset in advance and will confront the customer as she attempts to leave the store.

#6 – Reflect, Reframe, Paraphrase and Summarize. All of these skills, no matter what label we give them, all lead to the same result of building a deeper awareness of the individual speaking that we are actively listening to them.  These 4 skills will say to the individual what it is you are stating: I am understanding (not necessarily agreeing to), I hear whats is important to you, and I also now understand better why you responded the way you did. It also validates for you that what you think you heard is correct, or may require further open-ended questions to be able to build the full understanding. Summarizing involves taking the points that you have noted as important to the other individuals along with the points that are important to you and wrapping them up together to redefine what you are both there to resolve. Opening the conversation towards understanding allows for movement towards resolution.

#7 –  Open-ended questions. Using questions that allow for the greatest amount of input will give you the truest picture and perspective of what is going on for the other person.  It will also help to keep your foot out of your mouth by saying things attributed to your assumptions that you will regret when you listen to the other side of the story.

Open-ended questions examples:

Can you tell me more?

What was important to you about this?

How did this impact you?

What would you like me to know more about regarding this?

How did you arrive at this solution?

#8 Don’t interrupt. Record notes of what you would like to refer back to when it’s your turn to speak. People feel if they don’t speak up right away they will either forget what they need to say, be seen as agreeing with what is being stated, or may not have the ability to make the connection when it becomes their turn to speak. These assumptions are the reason you need to take note of your thoughts. Make a quick note of the thought, then when you are referring back to the specific incident bring in parts of their conversations to help jog their memory then add your comments or clarification.

#9 – Be Curious. By wanting to get to a  deeper level with the person, their actions, their preferences, their understanding of a situation or a comment, you are opening the door to get to know that individual on a deeper personal level.  Curiosity is your best friend when trying to understand a situation and why someone responded the way they did. The only way to resolve any situation is by truly opening ourselves up.  Be curious sets aside judgments, positions and personal biases. It opens your mind to the possibilities of what-ifs.

#10 – Be open, Be honest, Be the change – Here lies a fear of opening up or sharing opinions or experiences, as it leaves us vulnerable to judgment. Assist the participants to feel safe in sharing. If you have erred, as we all do as human beings, it is okay.  Take accountability for the action or words used apologies for it.  We will all make mistakes in our lives, it is how we grow in taking accountability for those mistakes and learn from it.

By improving these skills every time you have a conversation, by reflecting back on every conversation we can look at what we could have done better. Even if the conversation went well and the results were positive, it is worth reviewing what you did and what you could have done better.

Each communication should be viewed as a unique opportunity. Some individuals will respond favorably to some of your methods and some may have quite the opposite reaction. We don’t know 100% where their mindset is today, what happened in their past, or how they view their current relationship status. We could have had a great conversation with that individual the day before and yet overnight they might have received some bad news from their family and are still processing.  Their mind is preoccupied with how to resolve their personal issues and cannot be overloaded with today’s workplace situation.

Even though you have scheduled the meeting for 2 pm today still check in. Whether you are spouses, coworkers, leaders or neighbors this comment pertains to every conversation. If someone is preoccupied with something else they may not be able to have a positive constructive conversation no matter how skilled you are.

Allow each other grace to admit when we are wrong or when we have said something we shouldn’t. As a human, we are emotional beings and we get ourselves in trouble because of that. Know that every person reacts negatively or not in the best way at some point in their lives. We just have to be secure enough in our capabilities and skills to acknowledge it and allow forgiveness.

By developing our active listening skills we will learn about each other, be more patient and have an understanding as to why someone reacted in a particular way, providing an opportunity to explain their actions.

Then it is up to us if we accept the apology, understand (not accept) their point of view, and together develop a way forward.

” BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD” Ghandi “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another person has to say” Byrant H McGill

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