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6 Tips for Better Active Listening

Posted on August 1, 2019
dog with big ears

When you step into a meeting with your boss or a presentation with your colleagues, it's no longer just you and the other person, or people in the room. There are screens and smartphones, e-mails and texts, and a million to-do lists swirling around the space and in our collective minds. It's easy to become distracted at work. Have you ever been working on a project and an e-mail notification pops up and you forget what you were writing? Or you were speaking to a coworker and suddenly realized you didn't process a single thing they just said? Or have you ever noticed everyone else was three slides ahead of you in a meeting? If the answer is yes for any of these, don't worry, you're not alone—and the power of active listening is here to help.

So what exactly is active listening, and how can you improve this skill and apply it in the workplace? To get expert advice on the subject, we spoke with Ralph Andracchio, a Philadelphia-based personal and professional development coach with IN/FORMATION Coaching and Communication. We also met with Kathy Choy, a senior consultant in learning and development with Drexel's Human Resources.

What is active listening?

According to Ralph, "Put simply, active listening is being present and open to everything that's happening around you. Used in conversation, it's the process of taking in, remembering, and responding to what your conversation partner is saying." Though Ralph notes that listening means paying attention to more than just words, "... it's also about their body language, tone, inflection, emotional state and a whole host of other non-verbal facets. Active listening is noticing what is being said as well as what's not being said. And then using that information to connect with the other person and move your interaction forward in a way where everyone feels heard and acknowledged."

What are the benefits of active listening?

When it comes to the importance of listening skills, Ralph's approach is holistic. In his words, "Think about how much information we are exposed to at our jobs daily. And now think about how much of it we remember, retain and ignore (consciously or unconsciously). Now think about what would happen if we chose to listen during a meeting with our manager actively. How much more information we would gather if we noticed their emotional state, or what words they repeat, or their body language while talking about another client. And then connecting with them about those discoveries. When we practice active listening, we open up and become more present and aware. Which can uncover new discoveries and new opportunities in our work that could lead to stronger relationships with our coworkers, our teams and our managers."

Kathy shares that "active listening can help reduce miscommunications by reinforcing to your colleague or manager that you understood what they said and are ready to move forward on the same page." Furthermore, "Active listening provides a great opportunity for the listener to be present and hear ideas other than their own. When listening to others, we are often waiting for them to take a breath so we can insert our thoughts into the conversation. By resisting that temptation and listening actively, we may hear something unexpected, new, surprising, or enlightening."

How can active listening improve workplace relationships?

According to Kathy, "It's amazing how active listening can create a positive, productive environment for relationships to grow in. Being present, offering affirmation in body language and our words, mirroring or paraphrasing, and showing curiosity through thoughtful questions can be both empowering and validating to the listener. When we demonstrate positive behaviors like active listening, we are modeling that behavior. When others see that we're successful, they'll want to do the same."

Ralph continues, "People who practice active listening are more open to having meaningful dialogues with those around them. In turn, those around them are more likely to have conversations with that person and feel acknowledged and heard. This makes for a more positive and connected work environment for everyone.

In short, active listening can help create a culture of positive reinforcement, support and understanding.

What gets in the way of active listening?

There are plenty of external distractions that keep us from being present and focused in a meeting, conversation, or even alone at our desks. E-mail can be shut off and phones can be put away, but what about all the distractions swirling in our heads?

One of the biggest causes of distraction, according to Ralph, is, "Judgement. No matter who it is, what job they have, or what their goals are, people always get sidetracked by judgment. Either from other outside sources or from within their way of thinking. They might be thinking 'This is a dumb idea' or 'I sound silly saying this' or 'I should just stay quiet and go with the flow' or myriad of other negative judgmental thoughts. That's where active listening can help with your self-talk as well. First, notice these judgmental thoughts when they arise. Then you can start to figure out how to replace them with more supportive, confident, courageous words and actions."

6 Tips to improve listening

There are plenty of small ways every day you can practice active listening and improve your listening skills—at work or home. Try the following challenges, shared by Ralph and Kathy, and see what difference they can make:

Repeat or paraphrase what you just heard

When you listen actively, you periodically check in with the speaker to make sure you understand. When you paraphrase what you heard the speaker say, it creates an opportunity for them to let you know that you're on target, or how you've misunderstood what they were trying to say.

Set yourself up for success

Re-read the meeting agenda beforehand and make sure you're prepared. Have your notes ready and jot down a few questions you already have brewing, that way you can be more focused from the start.

De-clutter your space and screens

It's hard enough to take in a conversation when you have your worries and checklists taking up space in your brain. Start with your actual physical space. Is your desk piled up with clutter? If so, you might notice it during a conversation or while writing an e-mail and become more easily sidetracked.

When it comes to your digital workspace, close extra tabs and windows if you need your computer or tablet open to take notes or share a presentation, if not, leave the screen shut and put your phone away.

Make eye contact

Where does your attention go when you talk to someone? Are you constantly checking your phone or your watch? Are you distracted by people walking by? Make it a point to have meaningful eye contact with your conversation partner.

Do a posture check

The way we're sitting can affect our emotional state and our level of attention. If you're listening with your body, it's easier to listen with your ears.

Take a minute to be mindful

Just 60 seconds. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Do some stretches — anything to pull your attention back to the present moment. The more you practice being mindful, the easier it will be for you to fall into a mindful state during your day during meetings and conversations.

Learn more about Ralph and his coaching philosophy

Learn more about Drexel's Learning & Development


Rachel Semigran

Communications Manager

Goodwin College of Professional Studies

Posted in interpersonal-communications