Active Listening Skills, Examples and Exercises

September 20, 2017 - DOM BARNARD

In today's world of high tech and high stress, communication is more important than ever, however we spend less and less time really listening to each other. Genuine, attentive listening has become rare.

Active listening can help build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding and avoid conflict. By becoming a better listener, you’ll improve your workplace productivity, as well as your ability to lead a team, persuade and negotiate.

Active listening definition

Active listening requires the listener to fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said. You make a conscious effort to hear and understand the complete message being spoken, rather than just passively hearing the message of the speaker.

In this article, we'll cover the following:

  1. Why is listening important?
  2. Benefits of Active Listening
  3. What makes a good Listener
  4. Verbal and non-verbal signs of active listening
  5. Four different listening styles
  6. Examples of active listening
  7. Barriers to effective listening
  8. Tips to becoming an effective listener
  9. Listening exercises


Why is listening important?

Listening is the most fundamental component of communication skills. Listening is not something that just happens, listening is an active process in which a conscious decision is made to listen to and understand the messages of the speaker.

Active listening is also about patience, listeners should not interrupt with questions or comments. Active listening involves giving the other person time to explore their thoughts and feelings, they should be given adequate time for that.

We spend a lot of time listening

Various studies stress the importance of listening as a communication skill. The studies on average say we spend 70-80% of our waking hours in some form of communication. Of that time, we spend about 9 percent writing, 16 percent reading, 30 percent speaking, and 45 percent listening.

Studies also confirm that most of us are poor and inefficient listeners. Most of us are not very good at listening, research suggests that we remember less than 50% of what we hear in a conversation.

Active listening skills are very important

Benefits of active listening

There are many important benefits of active listening, these include:

  • Builds deep trust - As you cultivate the habit of listening sincerely, you invite people to open up. They can sense that you will not be jumping to conclusions based on superficial details. They also realise that you care enough about them to listen attentively. While building trust takes time, it leads to great benefits such as lifelong friendships and a promise of help in difficult times.
  • Broadens your perspective - Your own perspective in life is not the complete truth or how everyone else sees it. The way you understand life from your beliefs and thinking is only one way to look at it – listening to other people’s perspectives allows you to look at life from different perspectives, some of which you may not have thought of before.
  • Strengthens your patience - The ability to be a good listener takes time and you need to develop it with regular efforts over time. But as you gradually get better and better at listening, an automatic benefit is that you develop patience. Patience to let the other person express his or her feelings and thoughts honestly while you don’t judge.
  • Makes you approachable - As you present yourself as a patient listener, people feel more naturally inclined to communicate with you. By being there for them, you give them the freedom to express their feelings.
  • Increases competence and knowledge - Great listening skills make an employee more competent and capable, regardless of their position. The more an individual can get information out of the meetings, the instructions, and reports provided to him, the more efficient and successful they will be at completing the task. Listening also builds knowledge and helps fulfil work requirements through progressive learning.
  • Saves time and money - Effective listening not only reduces risks of misunderstanding and mistakes that could be very damaging to the business, it saves time and money by avoiding starting a task or a project over again, just because the directives given were misunderstood. Employees do not waste precious time and a specific budget allocated to a project.
  • Helps detect and solve problems - As a leader, they should always be attentive to what employees have to say. In the workplace, they are the first ones to spot flaws and come up with suggestions for improvements. Listening to colleagues will help you understand what needs to be changed and worked on to retain talent and make improvements.

What makes a good listener

Good listeners actively endeavour to understand what others are really trying to say, regardless of how unclear the messages might be. Listening involves not only the effort to decode verbal messages, but also to interpret non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and physical posture.

Effective listeners make sure to let others know that they have been heard, and encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings fully.

You also need to show to the person speaking that you’re listening through non-verbal cues, such as maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, agreeing by saying ‘Yes’. By providing this feedback the person speaking will usually feel more at ease and communicates more easily, openly and honestly.

Listening vs. hearing

Hearing is an accidental and automatic brain response to sound that requires no effort. We are surrounded by sounds most of the time. For example, we are accustomed to the sounds of cars, construction workers and so on. We hear those sounds and, unless we have a reason to do otherwise, we learn to ignore them.

Hearing is:

  • Accidental
  • Involuntary
  • Effortless

Listening, on the other hand, is purposeful and focused rather than accidental. As a result, it requires motivation and effort. Listening, at its best, is active, focused, concentrated attention for the purpose of understanding the meanings expressed by a speaker.

Listening means paying attention not only to the story, but how it is told, the use of language and voice, and how the other person uses his or her body. In other words, it means being aware of both verbal and non-verbal messages. Your ability to listen effectively depends on the degree to which you perceive and understand these messages.

Listening is:

  • Focused
  • Voluntary
  • Intentional

Verbal and non-verbal signs of active listening

It’s a horrible feeling talking to someone and realising that they are not really listening. There are some simple steps you can take to let the speaker know you are actively listening, such as asking relevant questions, positive body language, nodding and maintaining eye contact.

Verbal and non-verbal signs of active listening

Non-verbal signs of active listening

The people are listening are likely to display at least some of these signs. However these signs may not be appropriate in all situations and across all cultures.

  • Smile - small smiles can be used to show that the listener is paying attention to what is being said or as a way of agreeing or being happy about the messages being received. Combined with nods of the head, smiles can be powerful in affirming that messages are being listened to and understood.
  • Eye Contact - it is normal and usually encouraging for the listener to look at the speaker. Eye contact can however be intimidating, especially for more shy speakers – gauge how much eye contact is appropriate for any given situation. Combine eye contact with smiles and other non-verbal messages to encourage the speaker.
  • Posture - can tell a lot about the sender and receiver in interpersonal interactions. The attentive listener tends to lean slightly forward or sideways whilst sitting. Other signs of active listening may include a slight slant of the head or resting the head on one hand.
  • Distraction - the active listener will not be distracted and therefore will refrain from fidgeting, looking at a clock or watch, doodling, playing with their hair or picking their fingernails.

Verbal Signs of active listening

  • Positive Reinforcement - this can be a strong signal of attentiveness, however too much use can be annoying for the speaker. Occasional words and phrases, such as: ‘very good’, ‘yes’ or ‘indeed’ will indicate that you are paying attention.
  • Remembering - try to remembering a few key points, such as the name of the speaker. It can help to reinforce that what is being said has been understood. Remembering details, ideas and concepts from previous conversations proves that attention was kept and is likely to encourage the speaker to continue.
  • Questioning - the listener can demonstrate that they have been paying attention by asking relevant questions and/or making statements that build or help to clarify what the speaker has said. By asking relevant questions the listener also helps to reinforce that they have an interest in what the speaker has been saying.
  • Clarification - this involves asking questions of the speaker to ensure that the correct message has been received. Clarification usually involves the use of open questions which enables the speaker to expand on certain points as necessary.

Four different listening styles

If listening were easy, and if all people went about it in the same way, the task for a public speaker would be much easier.

1. People orientated

The people-oriented listener is interested in the speaker. They listen to the message in order to learn how the speaker thinks and how they feel about their message. For instance, when people-oriented listeners listen to an interview with a famous musician, they are likely to be more curious about the musician as an individual than about music.

2. Action or task orientated

Action-oriented listeners are primarily interested in finding out what the speaker wants. Does the speaker want votes, donations, volunteers, or something else? It’s sometimes difficult for an action-oriented speaker to listen through the descriptions, evidence, and explanations with which a speaker builds his or her case.

For example, when you’re a passenger on an airplane, a flight attendant delivers a brief safety briefing. The flight attendant says only to buckle up so we can leave. An action-oriented listener finds buckling up a more compelling message than a message about the underlying reasons.

3. Content

Content-oriented listeners are interested in the message itself, whether it makes sense, what it means, and whether it’s accurate. Content-oriented listeners want to listen to well-developed information with solid explanations.

4. Time

People using a time-oriented listening style prefer a message that gets to the point quickly. Time-oriented listeners can become impatient with slow delivery or lengthy explanations. This kind of listener may be receptive for only a brief amount of time and may become rude or even hostile if the speaker expects a longer focus of attention.

To learn more about listening styles, read The Importance of Listening - Listening Styles


Examples of active listening

Here are some examples of statements and questions used with active listening:

  • Paraphrasing - "So, you want us to build the new school in the style of the old one?"
  • Brief verbal affirmation - "I appreciate the time you’ve taken to speak to me"
  • Asking open-ended questions - "I understand you aren’t happy with your new car. What changes can we make to it?"
  • Asking specific questions - "How many employees did you take on last year?"
  • Mentioning similar situations - "I was in a similar situation after my previous company made me redundant."
  • Summarise questions - A job candidate who summarises their understanding of an unclear question during an interview.
  • Notice people speaking - A meeting facilitator encouraging a quiet team member to share their views about a project.
  • Summarise group conversations - A manager summarizing what has been said at a meeting and checking with the others that it is correct.

Barriers to effective listening

Everyone has difficulty staying completely focused during a lengthy presentation or conversation, or even relatively brief messages. Some of the factors that interfere with good listening might exist beyond our control, but others are manageable. It’s helpful to be aware of these factors so that they interfere as little as possible with understanding the message. Here are some key barriers:

Barriers to effective listening by being distracted

1. Noise

Noise is one of the biggest factors to interfere with listening; it can be defined as anything that interferes with your ability to attend to and understand a message. There are many kinds of noise, the four you are most likely to encounter in public speaking situations are: physical noise, psychological noise, physiological noise, and semantic noise.

2. Attention Span

A person can only maintain focused attention for a finite length of time. Many people argued that modern audiences have lost the ability to sustain attention to a message. Whether or not these concerns are well founded, you have probably noticed that even when your attention is glued to something in which you are deeply interested, every now and then you pause to do something else, such as getting a drink.

3. Receiver Biases

Good listening involves keeping an open mind and withholding judgment until the speaker has completed the message. Conversely, biased listening is characterized by jumping to conclusions; the biased listener believes, "I don’t need to listen because I already know this." Receiver biases can refer to two things: biases with reference to the speaker and preconceived ideas and opinions about the topic or message. Everyone has biases but good listeners hold them in check while listening.

4. Listening Apprehension

This is the fear that you might be unable to understand the message or process the information correctly or be able to adapt your thinking to include the new information coherently. In some situations, you might worry that the information presented will be too complex for you to understand fully.


Tips to becoming an effective listener

Tips to help you develop effective listening skills.

Face the speaker and maintain eye contact

Talking to someone while they scan the room, study a computer screen, or gaze out the window is like trying to hit a moving target. How much of the person's divided attention you are actually getting? Fifty percent? Five percent?

In most Western cultures, eye contact is considered a basic ingredient of effective communication. When we talk, we look each other in the eye. Do your conversational partners the courtesy of turning to face them. Put aside papers, books, the phone and other distractions. Look at them, even if they don't look at you. Shyness, uncertainty or other emotions, along with cultural taboos, can inhibit eye contact in some people under some circumstances.

Be attentive and relaxed

Give the speaker your undivided attention, and acknowledge the message. Recognise that non-verbal communication is very powerful. In order to be attentive you’ll:

  • Maintain eye-contact with the speaker
  • Direct yourself towards the speaker
  • Pay attention to what's being said
  • Put aside distracting thoughts

Mentally screen out distractions, like background activity and noise. In addition, try not to focus on the speaker's accent or speech mannerisms to the point where they become distractions. Finally, don't be distracted by your own thoughts, feelings, or biases.

Keep an open mind

Listen without judging the other person or mentally criticizing the things she tells you. If what she says alarms you, go ahead and feel alarmed, but don't say to yourself, "Well, that was a stupid move." As soon as you indulge in judgmental bemusements, you've compromised your effectiveness as a listener.

Listen without jumping to conclusions and don’t interrupt to finish their sentences. Remember that the speaker is using language to represent the thoughts and feelings inside her brain. You don't know what those thoughts and feelings are and the only way you'll find out is by listening.

Don't interrupt or cut them off

Children used to be taught that it's rude to interrupt. I'm not sure that message is getting across anymore. Certainly the opposite is being modelled on the majority of talk shows and reality programs, where loud, aggressive, in-your-face behaviour is condoned, if not encouraged.

Interrupting sends a variety of messages:

  • I'm more important than you are
  • What I have to say is more interesting
  • I don't care what you think
  • I don't have time for your opinion

We all think and speak at different rates. If you are a quick thinker and an agile talker, the burden is on you to relax your pace for the slower, more thoughtful communicator—or for the guy who has trouble expressing himself.

Ask questions to clarify what they are saying

When you don't understand something, of course you should ask the speaker to explain it to you. But rather than interrupt, wait until the speaker pauses. Then say something like, "Back up a second. I didn't understand what you just said about…"

Ask questions and summarise to ensure understanding

When the person speaking has finished talking, ask questions relevant to what they are saying – try not to lead people in directions that have nothing to do with where they thought they were going. Sometimes we work our way back to the original topic, but very often we don't.

You can also summarise the conversation to make sure you understand all the person is trying to say – this works well at networking events at the end of conversations, it also gives you an excuse to move onto another conversation.

Try to feel what the speaker is feeling

Empathy is the heart and soul of good listening. To experience empathy, you have to put yourself in the other person's place and allow yourself to feel what it is like to be her at that moment. This is not an easy thing to do. It takes energy and concentration. But it is a generous and helpful thing to do, and it facilitates communication like nothing else does.

Give the speaker regular feedback

Show that you understand where the speaker is coming from by reflecting the speaker's feelings. If the speaker's feelings are hidden or unclear, then occasionally paraphrase the content of the message. Or just nod and show your understanding through appropriate facial expressions and an occasional well-timed "uh huh."

Pay attention to non-verbal cues

The majority of face-to-face communication is non-verbal. We get a great deal of information about each other without saying a word. When face to face with a person, you can detect enthusiasm, boredom, or irritation very quickly in the expression around the eyes, the set of the mouth, the slope of the shoulders. These are clues you can't ignore. When listening, remember that words convey only a fraction of the message.

To read these listening tips in more detail, visit 10 Steps To Effective Listening


Listening skills exercises

Virtual reality scenarios

You can practice your listening skills in realistic virtual environments. For example, with the VirtualSpeech VR experiences, you can get scored on your eye contact, memory of the conversation and more. VR opens up new opportunities to practice active listening at virtual networking events, team meetings, conferences and more.

Business networking in VR to improve active listening skills

Summarise the conversation

For a week, try concluding every conversation in which information is exchanged with a summary. In conversations that result in agreements about future activities, summarising will ensure accurate follow-through.