Active Listening 101: Everything You Should Know

January 5, 2024

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11 min read

A plus-size Asian woman with short hair in a motorized chair plays a bar game with another woman with long dark hair, also in a wheelchair.

Active listening is a required skill for effective conversation. So why is it so difficult? 

It can be challenging because this ability isn’t necessarily something you’re born with. It’s something you’ll continue to learn throughout your life. 

In our comprehensive guide, we’ll give you everything you need to know about this skill, from easy tips and tricks to how to improve, common pitfalls, and active listening examples. 

What Is Active Listening?

Active listening is the ability to not only listen to a speaker, but also to engage and interact with them in a meaningful way during a conversation. It requires you to be able to reflect on what was said and respond to the topic.

7 Tips for Active Listening

Active listening is a skill you can work on and hone your entire life. However, you’ve got to start somewhere. If you’re having trouble with it, a few tips and tricks can help. 

Here are the top seven tips for building your active listening skills. 

1. Prepare yourself before the conversation.

Although some conversations are impromptu, meaning you can’t really prepare for them, active listening works best when you can take a second to get your mind right. Remember that as the listener, it’s your job to give them the space to communicate and share their feelings.

If it’s a planned conversation (or you’re in a setting where active listening is important, like school or work), make sure there’s no obvious distractions. It should be a relatively quiet environment. Turn off your notifications and put away your phone.

2. Pay attention.

It might seem obvious, but one of the most important tips for active listening is to pay attention. Zoning out or letting your mind wander — even if the conversation seems tedious or boring to you — is a surefire way to hinder your listening skills.

Standing or sitting up straight and making eye contact can help you pay attention easier. Focus on not just the words they’re saying, but also the emotions they convey. For example, consider their facial expressions, nonverbal cues, and tone. It helps when there are no distractions. 

3. Don’t interrupt.

Interrupting isn’t part of active listening. As such, it’s best to let the speaker finish their thought before interjecting with other information or a question. This tip allows you to get the complete context of the conversation while also validating the other person and showing genuine interest in them. 

4. Acknowledge their feelings. 

One of the most common pitfalls of active listening is when you don’t validate or acknowledge the speaker’s feelings. Instead of just listening with a straight face, you can empathize by directly acknowledging their emotions. 

For example, you could say things like, “Wow, that must’ve been a difficult choice to make” or “It sounds like that was a pretty exciting experience for you.” 

5. Be encouraging.

Similarly, you’ll also want to encourage the speaker to show you’re actively listening. For example, nodding can encourage the person to continue talking. You can also pair the nodding with some affirmatives, like “I see,” “gotcha,” or “uh-huh.” 

It shows that you’re interested in what they have to say and care to hear more.

6. Ask questions. 

Although you don’t want to interrupt the speaker, asking questions shows you’re engaged and curious about what you hear. After they’ve finished their sentence or thought, you can ask some clarifying questions to get more information. 

You can also ask them how they feel about the situation, depending on the conversation topic. 

7. Be patient. 

Most importantly, when it comes to active listening, you need to be patient with the speaker. Be responsive and present for the conversation and let them express what they need to. Don’t try to rush them or get them to “hurry up” with what they’re saying. It’ll come off as rude and impolite. 

How to Improve Your Active Listening Skills with AI

Taking advantage of generative AI is more common now than ever. In fact, you can use AI to improve your active listening skills, too. Here’s how.

Try exploring communication technology tools, such as Yoodli. Yoodli is an AI-powered conversation coach that evaluates your speech and speaking patterns to give you actionable feedback you can use to improve. You can work on not only your active listening skills, but also your overall conversation abilities. 

Using Yoodli’s conversation coach is a great way to practice your active listening skills.

You can start by choosing an AI conversation partner — such as a stranger or a coworker — and a topic. You can further personalize your experience by choosing a personality for your AI speech partner, whether that’s friendly, reserved, or something else entirely. 

From there, you practice speaking. Your AI partner will listen to what you say and provide a response. That’s where your skills come in. Carefully listen to the AI partner’s response and use your active listening techniques. For example, practice rephrasing what was said and asking open-ended questions.

A screenshot of Yoodli's conversation coach, showing how you can practice active listening
Practicing active listening is much easier with a coach to guide you through it.

After your AI-generated conversation, you’ll get a personalized report of all your speech data, such as: 

  • How loud you speak
  • Your body language
  • How many filler words you used
  • Your speaking pace
  • Your word choice

You can even practice with a friend. When you upload a recording of you and a friend chatting, Yoodli can tell you how long you talked compared to how long you listened, which is a helpful stat when you’re trying to improve your skills. 

Active Listening Examples

This specific type of listening encompasses many essential methods and means of understanding. As such, there are plenty of examples to look at. 

Here are just a few examples of active listening: 

  • Making eye contact with someone you’re talking to 
  • Validating the speaker’s feelings
  • Rephrasing what was said in your head
  • Nodding
  • Using phrases of acknowledgement, like “Uh-huh” or “Oh, I see” 
  • Asking questions

At work or in a professional setting, some active listening examples could include: 

  • Not interrupting when others are talking
  • Giving constructive feedback instead of straight criticism
  • Taking notes during calls or meetings
  • Inviting others to engage and participate

There are special considerations when you’re talking to kids, too. Some active listening examples when you have a younger audience include things like: 

  • Getting down to their level by crouching so you can look them in the eye
  • Helping them pinpoint their feelings (for example, saying something like, “Wow, it sounds like you were feeling really frustrated”)
  • Being patient to allow them to feel comfortable and open up (instead of rushing them to finish their sentence, for example)
  • Asking questions, especially open-ended questions, to show your interest

Benefits of Active Listening

Learning how to implement this skill can be incredibly helpful for effective communication. Whether you’re in a professional or personal setting, this is one of the best high income skills you could have. 

Here are some of the top benefits of active listening.

Personal (and professional) growth and development

Not surprisingly, this skill leads to both personal and professional growth and development. 

To start, this type of listening builds your foundation of knowledge. In order to learn something, you first need to listen. Knowing how to actually listen can help you better pick up information. Before you know it, you’ll be expanding your understanding of everything.

Active listening also introduces you to different perspectives, which aids your personal growth. Coming across new perspectives builds your self-awareness, too. When you pay attention to others, you can become more in touch with your own biases and personal areas of improvement. 

Improved collaboration and problem solving

Problem solving and collaboration only works when you have all the right information. This type of listening ensures you have the correct information to go off of. You’ll be able to steer clear of any miscommunications or misunderstanding with active listening. Not only that, but you can make more informed decisions and problem solve effectively with accurate information.

Having access to diverse perspectives and an open discourse allows for increased innovation and creativity among groups. It’s hard to come up with and discuss new ideas with a group that does listen to others. For example, in a professional setting, this can do wonders for collaboration, innovation, and brainstorming. 

In a similar vein, knowing how to listen actively can bolster team spirit, especially in work settings. It’s one of the best ways to avoid a toxic work environment: making sure everyone feels heard and appreciated. 

Best of all, this type of listening can ease stress and decrease conflicts. That’s because active listening can clear up any potential misunderstandings before they evolve into conflicts. 

When you have less conflict, you can focus on the things that matter, like relationship building. 

Better relationships across the board

One of the best benefits of active listening is that it improves your relationships, both personal and professional. 

Active listeners are able to establish a foundation of trust and understanding from the get go. You can connect easier with those around you since it shows people that you genuinely care what they have to say. Not only will they have their thoughts and feelings validated, but they’ll also feel an increased sense of trust with you. 

Because this type of listening improves your communication skills, you’ll be a better communicator. Successful communication fosters connection and relationships, whether that’s at school, at work, or in your own time.

Plus, you’ll be better able to empathize and offer support when people need it. Through active listening, you can pinpoint problems easier and understand the emotions of others. Using that information, you can show your support in ways they’re looking for.

Barriers to Active Listening

That’s not to say that active listening is easy or even comes natural to people. There are quite a few obstacles to be aware of. 

Here are some of the most common barriers to watch out for.

Distractions and multitasking

It should come as no surprise that external distractions can be a barrier to active listening. Some of the most common culprits include:

  • Loud, noisy environments 
  • Surroundings that make you uncomfortable 
  • Other people trying to talk to you

If you’re trying to multitask while listening to someone, this can also affect how well you’re able to listen.

Unconscious biases 

Everyone has their own unconscious biases. It’s completely normal, which makes it one of the most significant barriers to active listening. These biases come in many forms, but they all have a commonality: hindering effective communication. 

Cultural differences can also fuel this type of bias. For example, nonverbal cues like hand gestures can vary across cultures. Something that’s considered “normal” or harmless in one culture could be offensive in another, such as pointing. 

Power dynamics

Depending on the setting, power dynamics can also prevent successful active listening. For example, if you’re in a situation where you think you might be judged, you’re less likely to be able to listen like you would if you were comfortable and relaxed. 

If there’s a fear of retaliation, you’re even less likely to express your true opinions, feelings, or questions because of the perceived risk. 

Active Listening Exercises to Try

If you want to practice implementing some of your skills in real-world scenarios, you can do so with a group of friends or coworkers. 

Here are a few active listening exercises to try and experiment with

Charades

Chances are, you’ve at least heard of the game known as charades. It’s an activity where participants use body language, such as facial expressions and hand gestures, to get other participants to guess what they’re imitating or describing. 

This game is a perfect active listening exercise because it requires everyone to work on understanding nonverbal cues. 

Paraphrasing activities

Because paraphrasing (or being able to paraphrase) is such a huge component of active listening, activities where participants are required to paraphrase are great. 

If you’re looking for a good paraphrasing activity, try assigning participants a topic they can speak on. Let them speak for a few minutes and then have others in the room try to paraphrase the main points. This helps drive home the importance of listening carefully and reflecting on what was said before responding. 

Friendly debates

Debating can be a serious business, but you can practice your active listening skills with a few friendly debates. Here’s how this active listening exercise works. 

First, choose a debate topic. Pick something lighthearted, such as: 

  • Which is better: mustard or ketchup?
  • Should cereal be considered a soup?
  • Do you appreciate books or movies more?
  • Would you rather have the power to teleport or have wings?
  • Which reigns superior: “Star Trek” or “Star Wars”?

Whatever it is, engage in a friendly debate about the topic. This puts your active listening skills to the test. You’ll have to listen to the other person’s points, reflect, and respond in a meaningful way while also interpreting their nonverbal cues.  

Why Is Active Listening Important?

Active listening is important because it’s essential to effective communication. Whether you’re giving a presentation at work, interviewing for a job, or just engaging in small talk with a stranger, active listening is necessary. 

Plus, all the aforementioned benefits of active listening adds to its importance. 

The Main Takeaway 

Learning how to become an active listener is well worth it. It’ll not only take your communication skills to the next level, but it can completely transform and revitalize your relationships with others. 

It’s an underrated communication tool that many people overlook. All the more reason to perfect this skill!

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