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Listening to understand: How to practice active listening (with examples)

Julia Martins contributor headshotJulia Martins
February 6th, 2024
8 min read
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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.

The four types of listening

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

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

  3. Comprehensive listening, which 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, which is when you listen to form an opinion of what someone else said. 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 deepens your own sense of empathy. 

Read: Empathy maps: How to understand your customerImprove team communication with Asana

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. 

Active 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. 

Read: 12 tips to effective communication in the workplace

The 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

Read: The best conflict resolution strategy you’re not using

Tips to improve your active listening skills

Active listening is a soft skill that takes time to develop. Try these five active listening techniques to practice this skill. Below, we’ll also dive into a few examples to help you continue building this muscle. 

1. Avoid interrupting

Sometimes, when a conversation is flowing, you want to jump in and add your own ideas, or elaborate on a thought someone else just shared. This type of interruption moves some conversations along, but it’s not something you want to do when you’re actively listening to understand. 

To practice active listening, dedicate all of your attention and energy towards what the other person is saying. Inevitably, you will have a thought or comment about something they have to say, but try to put those thoughts to the side while you’re listening to understand. 

2. Listen without judgment

As you learn about active listening, you may encounter people talking about non-judgmental listening. Non-judgmental doesn’t refer to positive or negative judgement. Rather, it refers to your internal monologue. In this case, judgment is any thought—positive or negative—you have about what someone else says. When you have these internal thoughts in reaction to another person’s speech, you’re inherently focusing on what you think instead of what they have to say. 

Where possible, try to listen without judgment, and put aside any thoughts that come into your head. It’s OK if your point of view is different from the speaker’s. To be an active listener, simply focus on what they have to say so you can develop a better understanding of the other person.

3. Paraphrase and summarize

Once the other person is done speaking, paraphrase what you heard back to them in your own words. Paraphrasing helps you ensure you understood what the other person was trying to express. If you paraphrase incorrectly, or miss something they were trying to communicate, they can clarify. Then, you can dig deeper into the conversation. 

By paraphrasing and summarizing—rather than adding any additional information—you’re also demonstrating that your focus was on them. During the paraphrasing, avoid adding any comments or opinions of your own, since the purpose of active listening is to focus on the other person and withhold your own judgement. 

4. Model positive nonverbal behavior

Because you’re not doing a lot of talking during the active listening process, the best way to be supportive is to model positive nonverbal behavior. Nonverbal communication is anything you communicate without words—things like your facial expression, gestures, posture, and body language. 

To model positive nonverbal behavior, make eye contact with the person who’s speaking, to show them that you’re listening. Avoid crossing your arms or fidgeting, since those behaviors typically indicate distraction. You can also smile and nod along, if appropriate. These nonverbal cues not only make it clear to the other person that you’re paying attention to what they have to say, they also make the other person more comfortable during the conversation. 

Tip: If you’re meeting virtually, like during a video conference meeting, smile and nod along while the other person is speaking. Avoid multitasking or looking off screen—instead, keep your video on and your attention on the speaker to show you’re engaged.  

5. Ask specific, open-ended questions

Once the person finishes their thought, demonstrate you’re engaged by asking specific, open-ended questions. Avoid adding your own judgment 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?”

  • “What made you pursue that option?” 

  • “What can I do to help?” 

Avoid asking questions or making statements that indicate judgment. For example, instead of: 

  • “Why would you do that?” try asking “What motivated you to do that?” 

  • “You didn’t really mean that, did you?” try asking “What did you mean by that?” 

  • “That doesn’t make sense” try asking “I’m not following, could you explain…” 

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Example active listening dialogue

If you’ve never practiced active listening before, it can be a bit confusing to try out yourself. Below, we’ll walk you through an example dialogue between two people, one of whom is supporting their coworker by actively listening. Before we dive into an example, here are some key dialogue elements to use when you’re listening to understand: 

  • “Tell me more about…”

  • “I see.”

  • “What happened next?”

  • “So what you’re saying is…”

  • “How did you feel after that?”

  • “What would you like to do about…”

  • “What can I do to help?”

  • “Thank you for taking the time to speak to me.”

Example dialogue to practice your active listening skills

Your team member has been tasked with presenting a new initiative to the broader team. Before they do so, they want to run the idea by you for your thoughts. By using active listening skills during this conversation, you can best support your team member and connect with their ideas. Here’s an example of how that might go:

Coworker: “For this initiative, we’ll feature different customers on our company Instagram. Each month, we will align the featured customer with the month’s broader theme. For example, we could feature a female creator during Women’s History Month in February, or a Black creator during Black History Month in October.”

To practice active listening in this conversation, start by paraphrasing what you heard: 

You: “So what I’m hearing you say is you want to feature a different customer on our Instagram each month, and align that program with a larger monthly theme, like Women’s History Month…” 

Then, ask an open-ended question to dig deeper into the topic:

You: “What would these posts be like?” 

Coworker: “I’m thinking they could each do an Instagram takeover for a day. This way we can amplify their voice, as well as show off the work they create.” 

Affirm that you’re hearing what they have to say: 

You: “I see, this sounds really cool…” 

Then, dig into specifics to demonstrate interest:

You: “Tell me more about how you’d source these creators.”

Coworker: “Well next month is Pride month, so if I get the go-ahead from our manager, I’m thinking about reaching out to an openly queer woman I’ve already spoken to on Twitter and seeing if she’d be interested.”

Affirm that you’re hearing what they said: 

You: “Reaching out to an openly queer woman on Twitter sounds awesome!”

Then, ask an open-ended question:

You: “What can I do to help?”

When to use active listening at work

Active listening is a great way to improve your interpersonal communication, but you don’t need to practice it 100% of the time. After all, having a dialogue with your manager, direct reports, and peers is important. But in certain situations, being an active listener can improve your relationships. 

As a manager

If you manage a team, active listening is a great tool to empower your employees and make sure they feel heard. By listening intently and replaying what you’re hearing back to your team members, you can ensure they feel supported. 

Use active listening as a manager to:

  • Resolve conflict. If a team member comes to you with a conflict, use active listening to understand and clarify what they’re saying. By listening to understand, you can ensure the team member feels fully heard. To effectively resolve conflict, you shouldn’t focus on your thoughts or feelings about a topic—rather, focus exclusively on what your team member has to say in order to effectively support them. Read our article to learn a great conscious leadership strategy for conflict resolution.

  • Facilitate meetings. As a meeting facilitator, you want to make sure everyone is heard and everyone’s ideas are considered—especially during a meeting like a team brainstorm. By practicing good listening skills, you can ensure you capture everything someone is trying to express. Then, by paraphrasing that back to the team, you can ensure everyone is on the same page—and give the team member additional opportunities to expand on their idea. 

  • Problem solve. As a manager, problem solving is less about providing a solution and more about helping your team member arrive at the conclusion themselves. Open ended questions and effective listening help you help your direct report. Oftentimes, they already know the answer to their problem—by asking clarifying questions, you help them realize that.

quotation mark
When your teammate brings up the problem they need to solve, reflect back on what they’re saying (‘What I hear you saying is…’). Sometimes just hearing a problem relayed back inspires someone to realize they already know the answer.”
Justin Rosenstein, Asana co-Founder
Read: How to coach teammates: A key responsibility of effective leaders

As an individual contributor 

Managers aren’t the only ones who benefit from active listening in the workplace. Even if you don’t manage a team, active listening helps you engage with your coworkers and build a more collaborative team environment. 

When to use active listening as an individual contributor:

  • Conflict resolution. Some of the best conflict resolution happens one on one. If a coworker comes to you with a workplace conflict, use active listening to understand their point of view. Active listening helps you approach the situation with an open mind, and more effectively find a solution. 

  • Collaboration. The better you're able to connect with team members, the more effectively you can collaborate. When team members share ideas or opinions, use active listening techniques to fully hear them. By removing judgment and putting aside your own inner monologue, you can more effectively understand what your team member is trying to say, communicate your own thoughts in return, and increase collaboration as a result. 

Read: 10 easy steps to boost team collaboration

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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