Active Listening

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” Ernest Hemingway

How can something as easy as listening be so complicated or difficult to do? Most people consider themselves good listeners, but few of us really are.

At a young age we’re told to listen, ‘pay attention’ and to ‘speak only when we’re spoken to’ (at least how I remember it). That could have worked when we were 3 or 4 years old but as we got older we developed our own patience level as to when to listen or not.

As adults or work peers being told to listen up is not something we like to hear.  In fact if a conversation starts with: ‘Please listen to what I have to say’ or ‘Hey listen up ‘this is a sure sign that a difficult conversation is about to take place.

Listening is one of the most important skills we can develop when working with people. 

We get it. We understand this concept of listening. If we’re sufficiently aware of listening attentively when someone is speaking we just might learn something new but still, we don’t listen.

Add to the fact that on average, research shows we can hear four times faster than we can talk and because we’re trying to multitask all the time it’s no wonder that people don’t listen any more.

Before we become great Active listeners it’s important to recognize that there are three levels of listening according to Henry and Karen Kimsey-House:

Level 1 – Internal listening

At Level 1, the focus is on you. You spend almost 100% of your time listening to the voice in your head. You listen to the words of the other person, but your attention is on what it means to you. You are comparing, thinking, pondering and analyzing the narrative of the person in front of you. This also means that you are planning what you are going to say rather than really listening to what the person is saying.  The spotlight is on ‘me’: My opinions, my tendencies of relating, having a bias or needing to contribute. If this is the only kind of listening you’re doing in a conversation, then others will often feel frustrated, disappointed or worse upset because you’ll make them feel like they don’t matter. 

When we interrupt others in the middle of a sentence to add our point of view, we are allowing our level 1 to be expressed at the expense of learning and hearing from others; we will associate freely and let our opinion be known and we will interrupt others to do so.  (Creating Intelligent Teams, Rod, Friedjhon).

Level 2 – Focused listening

At Level 2, there is a complete focus on the other person. Sometimes you can see it in each person’s posture: Both leaning forward, nodding, looking intently at each other and agreeing. You listen for the other person’s words, meaning, challenges, emotions. You notice what they say and how they say it. Level 2 listening communicates a sense of caring, cooperation and clarification.

You are engaged with the person in this present moment, and trust that the conversation will take on a flow of its own without needing to control it in one way or another. Level 1 thoughts may come to mind but you’re now actively managing your Level 1 thoughts and reactions (hence a higher awareness) by quietly taking notes, maintaining attention, focus and curiosity with the other person.

In Focused listening, I listen with the intent to understand what the other is saying. To distinguish between levels 1 and 2 we can observe how we ask questions. If we are planning our next question while the person is still talking we are at level 1. If we wait for the answers to be given fully, the information we receive will form our next question and we are at level 2. (Creating Intelligent Teams, Rod, Friedjhon).

Level 3 – Global listening

To listen at level 3 you are listening to the people as well as the environment – it’s often described as environmental listening. It’s the ability to read a room, the mood, the emotions, the unspoken words – and what may happen based on what I’m about to say or do. Is there tension here? I can feel that the team is engaged – this is a great place to work. How come no one has raised the obvious by now? 

In global listening, I listen to what is not being said: What is wanting to be said but not expressed, what is between the lines of the words already spoken and what is the atmosphere of the team.  (Creating Intelligent Teams, Rod, Friedjhon).

Stating the obvious Active Listening focuses on level 2 listening above. The word ‘Active’ is fundamental as you play an active role in listening. Taking on level 2 listening skills makes you a more effective leader.

Here are five key steps on how to maintain proper Active Listening skills. They help you ensure that you are engaged with the other person, and this person knows you are paying attention to what they say. These steps are very simple yet very powerful.

Step 1. Pay Attention

Give the speaker your undivided attention, and acknowledge the message. Recognize that non-verbal communication also “speaks” loudly.

  • Look at the speaker directly. Sit up straight or lean forward slightly to show your attentiveness through body language.  Maintain eye contact, to the degree that you all remain comfortable.
  • Put aside distracting thoughts.
  • Don’t mentally prepare a rebuttal
  • Avoid being distracted by environmental factors, i.e. side conversations, email or Social Media.

Step 2. Show That You’re Listening

Use your own body language and gestures to convey your attention.

  • Nod occasionally.
  • Smile and use other facial expressions.
  • Use (“uh-huh” and “um-hmm”) sounds that you are following. Raise your eyebrows. Say words such as “Really,” “Interesting,” as well as more direct prompts: “What did you do then?” and “What did she say?”

Step 3. Provide Feedback

Our personal filters, tendencies, assumptions and beliefs can distort what we hear. As a listener, your role is to understand what is being said and ask questions.

  • Reflect on what has been said by paraphrasing. “What I’m hearing is,” and “Sounds like you are saying,” are great ways to reflect back.
  • Ask questions to clarify certain points. “What do you mean when you say.” “Is this what you mean?”
  • Summarize the speaker’s comments periodically.


If you find yourself responding emotionally to what someone said, say so, and ask for more information: “I may not have understood you correctly, and I find myself taking what you said personally. What I thought you just said is ‘X’; is that what you meant?”

Step 4. Defer Judgment

Interrupting is a waste of time. It frustrates the speaker and limits full understanding of the message.

  • Allow the speaker to finish each point before asking questions. Practice this by waiting 3 seconds after their last word for you to say something.
  • Focus solely on what the speaker is saying. Try not to think about what you are going to say next.
  • Minimize internal distractions. If your own thoughts start taking over, simply let them go and continuously re-focus your attention on the speaker.

Step 5. Respond Appropriately

Active listening is a model for respect and understanding. You are gaining information and perspective. You add nothing by attacking the speaker or otherwise putting him or her down.

  • Be candid, open, and honest in your response.
  • Assert your opinions respectfully. 
  • Unless they specifically ask for advice, assume they just need to talk it out. Often when people ‘talk it out’ it’s probably the first time they’ve put an idea together since we spend most out of our time living inside our heads or thinking. If they haven’t talked it out till now, in that moment you’ll notice that even they may be surprised on how incongruent it sounds, hence” thinking out loud”.
  • Treat the other person in a way that you think he or she would want to be treated.
  • Ask questions for clarification, but once again, wait until the speaker has finished. That way, you won’t interrupt their train of thought.

To summarize…

It takes a lot of concentration and determination to be an active listener. 

Start using Active Listening today to become a better communicator and develop better relationships. 

Ask questions, reflect, and paraphrase to ensure you understand the message. If you don’t, then you’ll find that what someone says to you and what you hear can be amazingly different!

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