How Do We Get Better at Active Listening?

For a lot of people, listening is simply the quiet space between statement and rebuttal. Naturally, we’re focused on our own dialogue—both internal and external—and on what we’re going to say next. That’s normal! But as I’m sure we all know, thoughts can get loud, which is why good listening is not as simple as being silent when someone else talks. It’s built on so much more. With practice, we can put aside the habit of passive listening, keep our thoughts fixed on what the speaker is saying, and become better at active listening.

  1. Adopt a mindset that centers on learning. Try to change your perspective and see from the other point of view. Or consider listening to discover what you may be missing or even to uncover where you could be wrong.
  2. Identify the goal of the conversation and align with it. You don’t want to change topic or agenda but instead, add to it. You can certainly challenge the speaker, and even outright disagree, but there should be a two-way dialogue happening with the goal of solving a problem or addressing an issue.
  3. That’s right—don’t fall back on silence. Ask plenty of good questions throughout the conversation that shows you’ve not only heard them but understood and have something valuable to add. You should be a trampoline for the speaker. Instead of passively soaking in what they say, be the jumping-off point for a conversation that flows back and forth. A good active listener lends energy and insight to the topic. 
  4. In addition to active listening, practice 360 degrees of listening. This goes beyond what we hear and instead forces us to “listen” with our eyes and intuition as well. What is their body language, facial expression, posture, tone? There is so much to be learned by these small details. While the exact percentage is up for debate, it’s estimated by some that 80% of what we communicate with comes from these non-verbal cues.
  5. When in doubt, come back to RASA. Communication expert Julian Treasure developed the RASA system (receive, appreciate, summarize, ask) for active listening. To receive is to pay close attention—don’t let your thoughts wander. Appreciation refers to moments of audible feedback or nodding. Summarization involves repeating something back to the speaker to assure them you’ve heard and understood. End by asking clarifying questions. 

Active listening can be an especially important skill for someone who is also learning the most effective way to practice generative conflict. To learn more about generative conflict, or task-based conflict, check out our most recent blog