What Is Active Listening and How Can You Improve This Key Skill?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn active listening techniques that will help you become a better communicator. 

[Featured image] A group of colleagues sit around, actively listening to a woman in the middle of the conference table speak.

Active listening is a key communication skill that involves absorbing the information someone shares with you, and reflecting back—through questions and your body language—that you heard them. Active listening is considered a valuable workplace skill because it can often lead to clearer communication and build more effective relationships with your colleagues, manager, and clients.

As with any skill, you can improve active listening with practice and by approaching conversations with greater intentionality. In this article, we'll go over what it means to actively listen and review seven ways you can improve your listening abilities.  

What is active listening?

Oftentimes, we don't retain what we hear. In fact, the average listener only remembers 25 percent of a talk or lecture two months later, according to testing from Harvard Business Review [1]. Active listening requires much deeper attention and empathy, which ideally leads to a greater understanding. It is the practice of paying full attention to what someone is saying in order to demonstrate unconditional acceptance and unbiased reflection, according to researcher Harry Weger [2].

Carl Rogers originally developed the methodology, sometimes known as “reflective listening,” for psychologists in the 1950s [3]. It has since been used in fields such as business and education. When we practice active listening, two outcomes typically happen: You retain important information and the person speaking to you feels understood.

Benefits of active listening

The practice of being more conscious while listening can benefit your career. In your day-to-day conversations with colleagues, in networking, in sustaining genuine connections as a manager, listening makes people feel heard. Empathy, the basis of active listening, is crucial in building meaningful relationships. Active listening can even help you manage your emotions, retain data and information better, and resolve conflict.

Demand for social and emotional skills, including active listening, is projected to grow by more than 20 percent across all industries between 2016 and 2030, according to McKinsey [4]. Further, research suggests that good interpersonal skills are a strong predictor of workplace success overall, due to the link between team effectiveness, empathy, and inclusivity [5].

Learn more: 22 Ways to Improve Your Communication Skills in the Workplace

To get a better sense of active listening, watch this video from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School:

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With active listening, we demonstrate concern, and we demonstrate interest in other people and their ideas, and we can actually shift emotions and how people are feeling.

7 active listening techniques

If you're interested in improving your active listening skill, the techniques listed below may be useful. They are derived from the notion that active listening is a practice that can always be improved.

1. Focus on the intent and purpose of the conversation.

Active listening begins with an intent to be conscious and receptive to the other person—including the intent and purpose of the conversation—in order to truly understand and empathize with them. Incorporating mindfulness into active listening means that the speaker has your full attention.

Being mindful generally means being respectful and aware of the present moment. No daydreaming, no interrupting, and no thinking about what you're going to say in response. Instead, take in the content and purpose of their words and body language. That way, you and the speaker build an authentic connection.

2. Pay attention to body language.

Much of communication relies on the nonverbal. In fact, in face-to-face conversation, communication is 55 percent nonverbal, 38 percent vocal, and 7 percent words, according to researcher Albert Mehrabian [6].

Body language refers to the conscious and unconscious gestures and movements that express or convey information. It can include facial expressions, posture, hand gestures, eye contact or movement, and touch. When listening to others, consider what your body language says. Nodding your head, making eye contact, or smiling (if appropriate) are excellent cues to show that you're paying attention.  

3. Give encouraging verbal cues.

Verbal cues are responses a listener may express to show they understand what's being shared. This includes what Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer considers “minimal encouragers,” such as replying “yes, I see” or “mmhmm” or “I understand.” These are often used alongside gestures and expressions, such as smiling or nodding.

In turn, the speaker might give verbal cues when they want the listener to pay extra attention, like speaking more slowly or loudly to emphasize certain points, stressing certain words, using a different tone of voice, or pausing. In that silence, they might expect a response from their listener.

Neurodivergence: Listening with the ears

Neurodiversity is "a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation. These differences can include those labeled as Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyscalculia, Autistic Spectrum, Tourette Syndrome, and others [7]."

While many of us might consider eye contact and body language to be hallmarks of good communication, neurodivergent individuals may communicate in different ways than we are used to. This could manifest in less eye contact and more limited body language, as well as more blunt and unfiltered use of language. 

When in conversation with neurodivergent individuals, practice content-oriented actions like paraphrasing, summarizing, and asking questions to help the other person feel heard. 

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4. Clarify and paraphrase information.

Sometimes, it is not enough to nod and maintain eye contact in a conversation. In the workplace, you might have doubts about whether your mind grasped the full picture. Clarifying and paraphrasing the information back to the speaker can help both of you fill in any gaps in understanding.

In formal situations, with a supervisor or a professor: Paraphrasing information can help you ensure that you have completely and accurately understood what the other person is trying to communicate.

  • Supervisor: “I just wrapped up a meeting with the executive staff, and your budget proposal has been conditionally approved for next quarter.”

  • Direct report: “So we can begin hiring for the new roles as long as we meet our quarterly goal? Is that correct?”

  • Supervisor: “Yes, exactly.”

5. Ask questions.

Asking questions can eliminate confusion. You may think you have processed most of what they said, but you still have questions. By asking clarifying questions, you ensure you have heard the correct information.

As an active listener, you can also demonstrate interest by asking questions. Asking an open-ended question can encourage the speaker to elaborate on an important or interesting idea. It also shows that you have been listening attentively up to that point, and you want to know more. This can nurture a bond between the speaker and listener.

6. Refrain from judgment.

When practicing active listening, it is important to remain open, neutral, and nonjudgmental. What’s so wonderful about taking the steps to become a better listener is that you can engage with new ideas, perspectives, and opportunities that you may never have accessed previously. Withholding judgment, avoiding criticism, and approaching each conversation with an open mind can open many doors.

7. Summarize, share, and reflect.

Toward the end of your interaction, make sure you end on a high note. Share a quick summary or a few notes about what the speaker said. If prompted, give your thoughts and opinions in a way that demonstrates you have digested the information. In informal settings, sharing thoughts and feelings may lead to deeper and meaningful conversations.

After the interaction, reflect on what you learned. Whether it was a lecture, interview, or a conversation with an old friend, you may have strong feelings or ideas that need to be processed or written down. You may want to share your reflections with your teacher, colleague, or friend. Feel free to reach out to them and engage with them after the initial interaction.

Next steps

Build job-ready communication skills at your own pace with the Achieving Personal and Professional Success Specialization from the University of Pennsylvania, or practice the fundamentals of conflict resolution and intercultural communication with the Conflict Management Specialization from the University of California Irvine.

Maximize your career potential by furthering your abilities through a range of online courses and specializations on Coursera.

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Article sources

1

Harvard Business Review. “Listening to People.  https://hbr.org/1957/09/listening-to-people." Accessed January 12, 2023.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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