Effective active listening: Examples, techniques & exercises

Julia Martins 참여자 얼굴 사진Julia Martins
2024년 6월 21일
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What if we told you listening wasn’t as simple as, well, just listening? In fact, different types of listening go beyond learning—you can also listen to improve your relationships, deepen your connections, and build trust. In this article, we’ll walk you through the different types of listening and show you how active listening can help you listen to understand—not just respond.

What is active listening?

Active listening is the practice of listening to understand what someone is saying. When you practice active listening, you’re exclusively focused on what the other person is saying instead of planning what to say in response, as you would during a debate or conversation. To confirm you understand, you then paraphrase what you heard back to the other person. Depending on the conversation, you can also ask a specific, open-ended question to dig deeper into the topic. 

Active listening helps you have more meaningful and engaged conversations. When you’re paying full attention to what the other person is saying—without planning what you want to say or interrupting their conversation—you develop more effective communication skills. 

Good listeners: 

  • Ask open-ended questions to learn more.

  • Paraphrase and summarize what the other person is saying to make sure you fully understand. 

  • Practice non-judgmental listening by setting aside their own biases or points of view. 

  • Demonstrate patience by focusing on the other person instead of your own thoughts. 

  • Exhibit positive, nonverbal communication like eye contact and leaning in. 

  • Avoid distractions and multitasking. 

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4 types of active listening

Ready to become a better listener? Here’s how. There are four different types of listening: 

  1. Empathic listening is when you listen to understand. Think of listening when someone shares a personal story. In this type of listening, you’re focused on the other person, instead of yourself.

  2. Appreciative listening is when you listen to enjoy yourself. Think of listening to music, a motivational speaker, or attending a religious ceremony.

  3. Comprehensive listening is when you listen to learn something new. This type of listening happens when you listen to a podcast, the news, or an educational lecture, like a class. 

  4. Critical listening is when you listen to form an opinion of what someone else says. This type of listening happens when you’re debating with someone or when you’re listening to a sales person.

Active listening—or listening to understand—falls under the category of empathic listening. This type of listening helps you build strong relationships, gain a deeper understanding of your friends and colleagues, and even deepen your own sense of empathy.

Read: Empathy maps: How to understand your customerAsana로 팀 커뮤니케이션의 효율을 높이세요

Benefits of active listening

Active listening is one of the best ways to build your interpersonal relationships and establish closer connections, especially with team members. This soft skill is a key part of conflict resolution, problem solving, and constructive criticism.

When you practice active listening, you:

  • Improve communication

  • Boost collaboration

  • Truly understand what the other person is saying

  • Connect on a deeper level 

  • Demonstrate empathy 

  • Resolve conflict

  • Build trust

  • Establish rapport

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8 powerful active listening skills to master

Active listening is a key component of effective communication and interpersonal skills. By mastering these active listening techniques, you can become a better listener, improve your relationships, and foster open communication in a variety of scenarios and contexts.

1. Be fully present and attentive

To practice active listening, give the person speaking your full attention. Minimize distractions, maintain eye contact, and focus on the speaker's words, tone of voice, and nonverbal cues. Being fully present demonstrates that you value the person's feelings and their point of view.

2. Use positive body language and nonverbal cues

Your body language and facial expressions play a significant role in active listening. Maintain an open posture, lean in slightly, and use encouraging nonverbal cues like nodding and smiling. These positive nonverbal cues show the speaker that you are engaged and interested in the conversation.

Tip: If you're meeting virtually, like during a video conference meeting, use positive body language and facial expressions to show you're engaged. Maintain eye contact by looking at the camera, smiling, and nodding along while the person speaking is sharing their thoughts. Avoid multitasking or looking off screen—instead, keep your video on and give your full attention to the speaker to show you’re engaged.

3. Avoid interrupting or judging

Resist the urge to interrupt the person speaking or rush to judgment. Allow them to express their thoughts and feelings without interjecting your own opinions or biases. Interrupting can lead to miscommunication and hinder the development of mutual understanding.

4. Paraphrase and reflect to show understanding

Paraphrasing involves restating the speaker's main points in your own words to ensure you have understood them correctly. By reflecting on what has been said, you demonstrate that you are actively listening and making a conscious effort to comprehend their message.

5. Ask clarifying and open-ended questions

Asking open-ended questions encourages the speaker to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings. Use clarifying questions to gain a better understanding of their perspective and probing questions to explore the topic more deeply.

Once the person speaking finishes their thought, demonstrate you're engaged by asking specific, open-ended questions. Avoid adding your own biases or judgments to those questions—remember, you're focusing on what the other person has to say. For example, ask:

  • "Tell me more about that."

  • "How did you feel in that situation?"

  • "What made you pursue that option?"

  • "What can I do to help or support you?"

Avoid asking questions or making statements that indicate judgment, as this can hinder open communication and mutual understanding. For example, instead of:

  • "Why would you do that?" Try asking, "What motivated you to make that choice?"

  • "You didn't really mean that, did you?" Try asking, "What did you mean when you said that?"

  • "That doesn't make sense." Try asking, "I'm not following; could you clarify the main points for me?"

6. Validate the speaker's perspective and emotions

Validation is an essential active listening skill that involves acknowledging how the speaker feels. Show empathy and understanding, even if you don't necessarily agree with their point of view. Validating the speaker's emotions creates a safe space for open communication and fosters a stronger connection.

7. Withhold advice unless asked

As an active listener, your primary role is to understand, not to advise. Unless the speaker specifically asks for your input, refrain from offering unsolicited advice or solutions. Instead, focus on listening and supporting them as they work through their own problem-solving process.

8. Summarize key points and action items

Towards the end of the conversation or at key transition points, summarize the main themes, ideas, and any action items discussed. This active listening technique ensures that both parties have a clear understanding of the key points and next steps. It also provides an opportunity for the speaker to clarify or add any final thoughts before concluding the discussion. 

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Active listening examples: Effective communication dialogues

In this section, we'll explore active listening examples and real-life scenarios that demonstrate how active listening techniques can be applied in various contexts. These examples of active listening will cover professional settings, personal relationships, and conflict resolution, providing insights into effective communication.

Example of active listening in a professional setting

Scenario: A manager is discussing a project timeline with an employee who is expressing concerns about meeting the deadline.

Manager: "I understand you're feeling overwhelmed with the project timeline. Can you tell me more about the specific challenges you're facing?" (Asking open-ended questions)

Employee: "I'm worried that we don't have enough resources to complete the task within the given timeframe. I've been working overtime, but it still feels like we're falling behind."

Manager: "It sounds like you're putting in a lot of effort, but the lack of resources is making it difficult to stay on track. Is that right?" (Paraphrasing and reflecting)

Employee: "Yes, exactly. I'm concerned that the quality of work might suffer if we rush to meet the deadline."

Manager: "I appreciate you sharing your concerns. This is a great example of active listening in the workplace, and it can have a positive impact on our team's success. Let's work together to find a solution. What additional resources do you think would help you and the team meet the deadline without compromising quality?" (Validating emotions and asking problem-solving questions)

Read: How to coach teammates: A key responsibility of effective leaders
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Justin Rosenstein, Asana co-Founder

Example of applying active listening skills in personal relationships

Scenario: A friend is sharing a personal problem with you, seeking your support and understanding.

Friend: "I've been feeling really down lately. I'm struggling to find motivation at work, and I feel like I'm not making any progress in my career."

You: "It must be tough to feel stuck in your career. I'm here to listen and support you. Can you share more about what's been contributing to these feelings?" (Showing empathy and encouraging elaboration)

Friend: "I feel like I'm not being recognized for my hard work, and I'm not sure what steps to take next to advance in my role."

You: "It sounds like you're feeling undervalued and uncertain about your career path. That's a challenging situation to be in." (Reflecting feelings and summarizing main points)

Friend: "Yeah, I just don't know what to do. I'm considering looking for a new job, but I'm not sure if that's the right move."

You: "I understand that you're at a crossroads and feeling unsure about your next steps. This conversation is a great example of active listening, and it can have a positive impact on your decision-making process. What do you think are the pros and cons of looking for a new job? I'm happy to help you talk through your options." (Acknowledging uncertainty and offering support)

Example of resolving conflicts through active listening

Scenario: Two colleagues are having a disagreement about how to approach a shared project.

Colleague 1: "I think we should prioritize the design phase first. If we don't get the visuals right, the whole project will suffer."

Colleague 2: "I disagree. We need to focus on the functionality first. The design won't matter if the product doesn't work properly."

Mediator: "This scenario is an excellent example of how active listening can help resolve conflicts. I can see that you both have strong opinions about the project's priorities. Let's take a moment to understand each other's perspectives. [Colleague 1], can you explain why you believe the design should come first?" (Acknowledging differing opinions and seeking clarification)

Colleague 1: "In my experience, a well-designed product is more user-friendly and attractive to customers. It sets the foundation for the entire project."

Mediator: "So, you feel that prioritizing design will lead to a more successful outcome overall. [Colleague 2], what are your thoughts on this? Why do you feel functionality should be the top priority?" (Summarizing and encouraging the other party to share their perspective)

Colleague 2: "I understand the importance of design, but if the product doesn't function as intended, it won't matter how good it looks. We need to ensure the core features are solid before focusing on the visual elements."

Mediator: "It sounds like you both want the project to succeed but have different approaches to achieving that goal. This is a great example of active listening in action. Let's brainstorm a plan that incorporates both of your concerns—ensuring the product is functional while also prioritizing user-friendly design. What ideas do you have for finding a middle ground?" (Highlighting common goals and facilitating problem-solving)

Active listening exercises to hone your skills

Active listening exercises are essential for developing and refining your communication skills. Whether you're working in healthcare, participating in webinars, or collaborating with colleagues, the following exercises can help you become a more effective listener. As the Harvard Business Review points out, active listening is a critical skill for success in both professional and personal contexts.

Role-playing exercises for active listening practice

One of the most effective active listening exercises is role-playing. By engaging in simulated conversations, you can practice applying active listening techniques in a safe and controlled environment. Consider the following role-play scenarios:

  • Healthcare setting: One person acts as a patient expressing concerns about a medical condition, while the other acts as a healthcare provider practicing active listening skills to understand and address the patient's concerns.

  • Workplace conflict: One person acts as an employee, voicing a complaint, while the other acts as a manager, using active listening to understand the issue and find a resolution.

  • Sales interaction: One person acts as a potential customer, while the other acts as a salesperson, using active listening to identify the customer's needs and offer appropriate solutions.

Mindfulness exercises to enhance presence and focus

Mindfulness exercises can help you develop the presence and focus necessary for effective active listening. Try incorporating these exercises into your daily routine:

  • Mindful breathing: Take a few minutes to focus on your breath, observing the sensation of the air moving in and out of your body. This exercise can help you center yourself and reduce distractions.

  • Body scan: Lie down or sit comfortably and mentally scan your body from head to toe, noting any sensations or areas of tension. This exercise can help you become more attuned to your physical state and release any stress that may interfere with active listening.

  • Mindful listening: During conversations, make a conscious effort to focus solely on the speaker's words, tone, and body language. Notice when your mind starts to wander or form judgments, and gently redirect your attention back to the speaker.

Group exercises to foster active listening in teams

Active listening exercises can be particularly beneficial when practiced in a group setting, such as during team-building workshops or webinars. Here are some group activities that can foster active listening skills:

  • Paraphrasing circle: Have team members sit in a circle. One person starts by sharing a short story or experience. The person to their left then paraphrases what they heard, focusing on the key points and emotions expressed. The process continues around the circle, with each person paraphrasing the previous speaker's message.

  • Listening triads: Divide the group into triads. In each triad, one person acts as the speaker, one as the listener, and one as the observer. The speaker shares a challenge or experience, while the listener practices active listening techniques. The observer provides feedback on the listener's performance. Rotate roles so each person has a chance to practice active listening.

  • Empathy mapping: Divide the group into pairs. Each person takes turns sharing a challenging experience or situation. As they share, their partner creates an empathy map, noting down what the speaker says, thinks, feels, and does. Afterward, the pairs discuss the empathy maps and reflect on how keeping an open mind helped them better understand each other's perspectives.

By incorporating these active listening exercises and activities into your skill-building efforts, you can become a more effective communicator and build stronger, more empathetic relationships with others.

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Activate your active listening skills

Like any interpersonal skill, active listening takes time. And it isn’t something you should use 100% of the time—having dialogue is important! But when a coworker is sharing something with you, active listening helps you bring empathy, connection, and understanding to the conversation. Listening to understand brings you closer to your team members, in order to lower the barrier to collaboration and boost teamwork.

For more tips, learn about the best conflict resolution strategy you’re not using.

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