How to Be an Active Listener
Listening skills can make you a better performer—and a more attractive job candidate.
Listen up! If we have your undivided attention, you’re already ahead of the curve when it comes to honing your listening skills. That’s good news, considering that 74% of employers surveyed by Cengage said listening skills are important when they’re looking at job candidates. Of course, there’s always room for improvement. And one way to sharpen your skills is to learn how to be an active listener.
What Is Active Listening?
Active listening is the practice of absorbing, comprehending, responding, and retaining what is being said. At work, it’s a secret weapon for building professional relationships, improving your productivity, and advancing your career.
How to Be an Active Listener
1. “Listen” to Non-verbal Cues
Words aren’t everything. Active listening requires you to also read a person’s body language and glean information from non-verbal cues.
Knowing what to look for is crucial. Generally, experts recommend paying attention to these signs:
- Direct eye contact
- Relaxed facial muscles
- Friendly smile
- Hands are in view, opened, and relaxed
- Arms are open
- Rapid eye movement
- A cold, glaring, or glazed-over look
- A raised eyebrow as if in disbelief or doubt
- Tight facial muscles
- Stiff, forced smile
- Hands are closed or in a fist
- Arms are tightly crossed (indicating a defensive or protective position)
2. Use Body Language Effectively
Your body language indicates whether you’re tuning in, or tuning out, what someone is saying. Best practices include the following:
- Face the speaker
- Maintain eye contact. For optimal engaged-but-not-creepy results, make eye contact 60% to 70% of the time.
- Nod your head when appropriate
- Avoid folding your arms
- Lean in
3. Don’t Interrupt
When learning how to be an active listener, you'll find that silence can be a powerful tool. After all, no one likes being interrupted. So let the person talk. Don’t try to finish their sentences or interject an idea. (If you a need physical reminder to stay quiet, close your mouth tight until it’s your turn to talk.)
The exception? If you must interrupt—say, because you’re running late to a meeting—do so politely. (“I’m sorry to cut you off, but…”)
4. Clarify What the Speaker Is Saying
If something the person said is unclear, try summarizing what you heard—i.e., “I just want to make sure I heard everything correctly”—or saying simply, “Sorry, one more time, please.” Avoid negative phrases, such as “I’m having trouble following you” or “Can you repeat that? You were talking too fast.”
5. Ask Questions
Don’t shy away from asking questions—it shows that you’re paying attention. The goal, though, is to ask questions that take the conversation to a deeper level.
Here are a few examples of thoughtful questions:
- If a co-worker is venting to you about their heavy workload: “It sounds like you have a lot on your plate. Is this the norm or a seasonal workload?"
- If your boss is giving you constructive criticism: “Thank you for the feedback. Can you tell me a little more about how you’re going to measure my performance going forward?”
- If your manager is praising your deliverable: “Thank you, I put a lot of thought and effort into this. How did the client react?”
6. Limit Distractions
Active listening is nothing if not respectful. However, avoiding all distractions is tough, especially when we’re being bombarded by emails, text messages, or social media notifications. Use these simple steps to stay focused when someone is talking to you:
- Put away your cell phone—or, if possible, turn it off or put it on airplane mode so that you won’t be tempted to check email.
- Have the conversation in a quiet and private space.
- Let other people know that you’re unavailable (e.g., you might consider posting a sign on your door that says, “Please do not disturb unless the office is on fire or there are puppies”).
Pro tip: If a co-worker tries to engage you in conversation but you’re too busy to give the person your full attention, let them know. (“I want to be fully present for this conversation, but I’m swamped right now. Let’s schedule a time so that we can talk.”)
Go Beyond Active Listening
Learning how to be an active listener can serve you well on a number of levels. It's just one of many ways you can boost your profile. Need some more help? Monster can send you free tips and advice to advance your career and turn you into the kind of candidate employers can't wait to hire.