What Is Active Listening?
You become a better leader when you become a better listener. Practice these 6 active listening skills and techniques to turn any conversation into a coaching opportunity.
How to Use Active Listening Skills to Coach Others
Active listening requires you to listen attentively to a speaker, understand what they’re saying, respond and reflect on what’s being said, and retain the information for later. This keeps both listener and speaker actively engaged in the conversation, and it’s an essential building block of compassionate leadership.
Active listening and reflecting, responding, and giving feedback aren’t always easy. Here are some helpful active listening tips for managers:
- Pay close attention to the speaker’s behavior and body language to gain a better understanding of their message.
- Signal that you’re following along with visual cues like nodding and eye contact.
- Avoid potential interruptions, like fidgeting and pacing.
- Do not evaluate the message and offer an opinion, but rather, simply make the speaker feel heard and validated.
- Be an attentive listener and have your toolkit of active listening techniques at the ready for whenever coaching conversations occur.
At CCL, we help leaders go beyond basic active listening skills so that they’re better equipped to truly listen to understand others — including the facts, feelings, and values that may be hidden behind the words actually being shared. At the organizational level, when everyone has developed strong active listening skills, this builds a workplace culture of truth and courage.
6 Active Listening Techniques
The Active Listening Skillset
Enhancing your active listening skill set involves more than just hearing someone speak. When you’re putting active listening skills to practice, you should be using these 6 techniques:
1. Pay attention.
One goal of active listening and being an effective listener is to set a comfortable tone that gives your coachee an opportunity to think and speak. Allow “wait time” before responding. Don’t cut coachees off, finish their sentences, or start formulating your answer before they’ve finished. Pay attention to your body language as well as your frame of mind when engaging in active listening. Be focused on the moment, make eye contact, and operate from a place of respect as the listener.
2. Withhold judgment.
Active listening requires an open mind. As a listener and a leader, be open to new ideas, new perspectives, and new possibilities when practicing active listening. Even when good listeners have strong views, they suspend judgment, hold any criticisms, and avoid interruptions like arguing or selling their point right away.
When you’re the listener, don’t assume that you understand your coachee correctly — or that they know you’ve heard them. Mirror your coachee’s information and emotions by periodically paraphrasing key points. Reflecting is an active listening technique that indicates that you and your counterpart are on the same page.
For example, your coachee might tell you, “Emma is so loyal and supportive of her people — they’d walk through fire for her. But no matter how much I push, her team keeps missing deadlines.”
To paraphrase, you could say, “So Emma’s people skills are great, but accountability is a problem.”
If you hear, “I don’t know what else to do!” or “I’m tired of bailing the team out at the last minute,” try helping your coachee label their feelings: “Sounds like you’re feeling pretty frustrated and stuck.”
Don’t be shy to ask questions about any issue that’s ambiguous or unclear when engaging in active listening. As the listener, if you have doubt or confusion about what your coachee has said, say something like, “Let me see if I’m clear. Are you talking about …?” or “Wait a minute. I didn’t follow you.”
Open-ended, clarifying, and probing questions are important active listening tools that encourage the coachee to do the work of self-reflection and problem solving, rather than justifying or defending a position, or trying to guess the “right answer.”
Examples include: “What do you think about …?” or “Tell me about …?” and “Will you further explain/describe …?”
When engaging in active listening, the emphasis is on asking, rather than telling. It invites a thoughtful response and maintains a spirit of collaboration.
You might say: “What are some of the specific things you’ve tried?” or “Have you asked the team what their main concerns are?” or “Does Emma agree that there are performance problems?” and “How certain are you that you have the full picture of what’s going on?”
Restating key themes as the conversation proceeds confirms and solidifies your grasp of the other person’s point of view. It also helps both parties to be clear on mutual responsibilities and follow-up. Briefly summarize what you’ve understood while practicing active listening, and ask the other person to do the same.
Giving a brief restatement of core themes raised by the coachee might sound like: “Let me summarize to check my understanding. Emma was promoted to manager, and her team loves her. But you don’t believe she holds them accountable, so mistakes are accepted and keep happening. You’ve tried everything you can think of, and there’s no apparent impact. Did I get that right?”
Restating key themes helps increase accountability.
Active listening is first about understanding the other person, then about being understood as the listener. As you gain a clearer understanding of the other person’s perspective, you can begin to introduce your own ideas, feelings, and suggestions. You might talk about a similar experience you had, or share an idea that was triggered by a comment made previously in the conversation.
Once the situation has been talked through in this way, both you and your coachee have a good picture of where things stand. From this point, the conversation can shift into problem-solving: What hasn’t been tried? What don’t we know? What new approaches could be taken?
As the coach, continue to query, guide, and offer, but don’t dictate a solution. Your coachee will feel more confident and eager if they think through the options and own the solution.
Used in combination, these 6 active listening techniques are the keys in holding a coaching conversation.
The Benefits of Active Listening
Next, it’s important to take a step back and understand why active listening matters.
- It helps establish trust between parties. By showing empathy for others, you can foster psychological safety. Being a thoughtful listener, asking questions, seeking clarification, and encouraging others to share their perspective will reinforce your role as a spouse, friend, colleague, coach, and mentor. It can also help build a sense of belonging at work.
- It enables you to coach others more effectively. Being a strong, attentive listener will inspire your co-workers and direct reports to respect you, and you’ll likely see improvements in your relationships with them as a result.
Once you begin to put the active listening skillset into practice, you’ll notice the positive impact it has in a number of areas, including in personal and professional relationships, at work, and in various social situations.
Now that you understand what the 6 active listening techniques are, seriously consider whether you are a truly active listener. You may want to try growing your active listening skillset by taking our 7-day active listening challenge.
Assess Your Active Listening Effectiveness
Many people take their listening skills for granted. We often assume it’s obvious that we’re practicing active listening and that others know they’re being heard.
But the reality is, we as leaders often struggle with tasks and roles that directly relate to active listening. Accepting criticism well, dealing with people’s feelings, and trying to understand what others think all require strong active listening skills.
Even with the best of intentions, you may actually be unconsciously sending signals that you aren’t listening at all. You may need to brush up on your active listening techniques if any of the following questions describe you. Do you sometimes:
- Have a hard time concentrating on what’s being said, especially when the person speaking is complaining, rambling, or gossiping?
- Think about what to say next, rather than about what the speaker is saying?
- Dislike it when someone questions your ideas or actions?
- Zone out when the speaker has a negative attitude?
- Give advice too soon and suggest solutions to problems before the other person has fully explained their perspective?
- Tell people not to feel the way they do?
- Talk significantly more than the other person talks?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re not alone.
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How to Improve Your Active Listening Skills
To boost your active listening skills, try putting these techniques into practice:
- Limit interruptions. Silence any technology and move away from distractions so that you can pay full attention to the other person. Take note of the person’s tone of voice and body language as well.
- Pay attention to what’s being said, not what you want to say. Set a goal of being able to repeat the last sentence the other person says. This keeps your attention on each statement.
- Be okay with silence. You don’t have to always reply or have a comment. A break in dialogue can give you a chance to collect your thoughts.
- Encourage the other person to offer ideas and solutions before you give yours. Aim to do 80% of the listening and 20% of the talking.
- Restate the key points you heard and ask whether they’re accurate. “Let me see whether I heard you correctly…” is an easy way to clarify any confusion.
- Consider revisiting the topic. You can listen without comment and not agree with complaints. If it’s something you want to pursue, ask the person to write it down along with a possible solution, then schedule another time to discuss.
Active Listening Solutions for Leaders
Even if leaders display strong active listening skills, our research has found that employees still don’t feel listened to if their leaders don’t then take action on what they heard.
That’s why it’s critical to hone leaders’ active listening skills and build new capabilities that strengthen conversations across the entire organization. Partner with us to ensure that everyone at your organization is able to hold better conversations every day, and learn more about our suite of conversational skill-building solutions.
Ready to Take the Next Step?
Become a better listener and communicator, both at work and at home, by practicing your active listening skills. Take our Active Listening Challenge to discover 7 specific active listening techniques to try in your conversations next week.
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Improve your active listening techniques today with our week-long challenge.
Frequently Asked Questions About Active Listening for Leaders
According to our research, there are 6 active listening skills that leaders should practice, including paying attention, withholding judgement, reflecting, clarifying, summarizing, and sharing.
Some real examples of behaviors that show active listening include encouraging the speaker to offer their ideas and solutions before you give yours. Or, you may consider restating the speaker’s key points and checking whether your summary is accurate. Finally, if you don’t agree with the speaker’s analysis or comments, you may suggest revisiting the topic at another time. This allows both parties to withhold judgment, and gives time to reflect on the conversation.
A good listener is an active listener. They practice attentive listening, understand what the speaker is saying, reflect before they respond, and retain the information for later. Good listeners also use active listening techniques like making eye contact, nodding to acknowledge their understanding, and avoiding interruptions during the conversation.
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