What is Active Listening and why is it important in the workplace?

What is Active Listening and why is it important in the workplace?

Active listening requires full concentration on what is being spoken about, as opposed to passively “hearing” the conversation. It is a skill that can be developed with practice and requires the listener to actively engage in listening, reflect on and summarise what has been said, ask appropriately timed questions, display verbal and non-verbal messages reflective of being engaged as well as remaining non-judgemental. 

Active listening is the foundation of successful communication. It can promote a feeling of being valued or heard or create a feeling of trust, strengthening working relationships and making it a valuable workplace skill.

Below we have listed some signs of active listening and how to improve this skill.

Signs and features of Active Listening

Those engaging in active listening often display a series of non-verbal cues – including smiling or head nodding at appropriate moments, maintaining eye contact, mirroring the speakers’ facial expressions, minimising fidgeting or clock watching and displaying an open posture.

These signs can help the speaker feel engaged with and could help them to continue with their conversation.

Key skills to improve Active Listening

Removing Distractions:

  • This enables listeners to pay more attention to the conversation.
  • Consider holding meetings and conversations in quiet rooms or turning off phones, televisions, computers and other possible distractions.

Be Attentive, Non-judgemental and Patient:

Being attentive to the speaker can create a feeling of being valued and respected, as well as encouraging them to continue, and can be demonstrated by:

  • Remembering the speakers name or any points raised in previous conversations, making notes if appropriate, summarising what has been said and asking appropriate questions.
  • Remaining neutral and non-judgmental is important.
  • Wait until the speaker has finished, or has come to appropriate breaks, before inputting views, challenging the conversation, or offering a different perspective. Even if the listener disagrees with the speaker, try to keep an open mind and look to understand why the speaker feels that way.

Summarise & Paraphrase:

  • Be cautious in using positive verbal reinforcements. Whilst some positive words can be encouraging to the speaker, overuse of these could hinder the conversation or lead to a non-objective slant to the conversation – at times it may be better to explain why you agree or disagree with aspects of the conversation.
  • Paraphrasing involves rephasing the speakers’ words - this could be along the lines of “In other words, what you are saying is…” or “you are frustrated/struggling/happy with XXX because…”,
  • Summarising requires the listener to either repeat an overview of the conversation, or to reiterate the main points back to the speaker, allowing them to respond and clarify if required.
  • Both methods can demonstrate that the listener has been paying attention, and that they have understood what was discussed. They also enable the listener to request clarity where needed and to delve further into the reasons for the conversation.
  • It is OK to request clarification if elements are unclear or need further explanation. Clarification can be obtained via the use of open-ended, probing, or direct questioning.

Asking Appropriate Questions:

  • Open ended questions can encourage the speaker to continue dialogue, however, they should not be leading questions, and ideally should not be closed questions requiring only a “yes, no, maybe” answer.
  • Direct questioning can also provide insightful responses especially when discussing specific topics and probing questions can help to build or delve further into what has been said.

What is non-verbal communication and why is it important?

Non-verbal communication is an important element of Active Listening, it can influence conversations and impact how messages are received and interpreted. Non-Verbal communication is influential both in face-to-face and virtual conversations.

Body Language – both in person and virtually

  • This includes our posture, hand and whole-body movements or gestures. Whilst some hand or body gestures/movement can display engagement in or demonstrate enthusiasm for elements of the conversation, too much can be distracting. Try to keep these to a minimum where appropriate.
  • Posture is an influential non-verbal cue. It can reflect emotions, intentions, engagement, and attitude. During video and face-to-face conversations/meetings think about what your body posture is portraying. Crossed arms, looking off to the distance or sitting at an angle away from the speaker may create an image of boredom or disengagement. Whilst many are still struggling with “office space” whilst working remotely, think about your background – “relaxing” on the sofa may not look professional. It is still important to appear “in the room” even when conversing remotely.
  • Avoid distractions, such as checking emails/phone notifications whilst having conversations. If you are taking notes during a virtual meeting, either on your computer or by hand, it may be a good idea to inform the other attendees so that they are aware of this.
  • Whether a conversation or meeting is happening in person or virtually, try to avoid fidgeting.

Tone of Voice

  • Tone and pitch of voice as well as speed and volume of speech can influence how a message is delivered and received. Raising the tone at the end of sentences can indicate a question. Think about how the conversation may be portrayed by others.
  • Nervousness can be detected in speech, with speech often being delivered faster. Trying some breathing exercises can help with nervousness.

Eye Contact and Facial Expressions

  • Eye contact is another important non-verbal cue. Maintaining eye contact can show engagement and interest in the conversation, whereas avoiding eye contact could indicate disengagement, disinterest or dishonesty – though avoiding staring is equally as important. It can also be used to let other members of the conversation, presentation or meeting know when to speak.
  • Maintaining eye-contact in a virtual setting can be challenging, therefore it is useful to maintain eye contact with your camera when speaking and to avoid looking at the other pictures on the screen. When listening to another presenter on a zoom call or teams meeting, it could be useful to focus on the speakers feed as the digital equivalent to maintaining eye contact.
  • Facial expressions can also indicate unsaid feelings or thoughts about a conversation. These could be in the form of wincing, eye rolling or head shaking, or narrowed eyes/furrowed brows during deep concentration. Facial expressions can at times be innate reactions to conversations or concentration. Trying to remain neutral, especially during times of listening, or engaging in head nodding or smiles can present positive facial engagement.


James Evans at 25/11/2022 12:01 said:

Really like all the detail behind this article, with a strong requirement for emotional intelligence. I have worked a lot in the past with introverts, I would be really interested to read an expanded piece on how to actively listen if someone is uncomfortable speaking up in meetings or group calls. It is defintiely a real skill of the main lead to quickly identify those who are engaged but aren't participating and to find a way to hear their views.

Odgers Interim USA at 30/11/2022 16:02 said:

James, thanks so much for your comment. We recommend you also read the article regarding EQ that we published last week in Perspective. Love your idea to expand the content to explore techniques to involve those who are introverts or uncomfortable in group settings…perhaps more to come on this topic, or others may have some comments or recommendations to add from our community.

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