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Chances Are, You Are Not as Good at Active Listening as You Think

Being truly heard is rare in the workplace. Listening is a gift that every leader can give. It leaves your team feeling valued, affirmed, and connected emotionally with you. Being heard creates psychological safety in relationships and is vital to establishing productive conflict and trust. Active listening eases tensions where resentment exists. Although not commonly experienced, listening is a competitive advantage available to any leader looking for a powerful point of differentiation.

Rushing from meeting to meeting leaves most leaders feeling trapped with little time to listen. Most conversations hardly ever get the space to go below the surface with a focus on words rather than their meaning. The hybrid workplace has not helped. In a remote environment, leaders receive less context and fewer cues due to technology limitations. And all of this is happening while distrust is breeding polarization in society, and only 30% of employees believe their opinion counts.

The good news is that exploring, developing, and applying active listening can elevate your employees and grow your business. Here are the three active listening skills you need, two ways to overcome common barriers, one tool to assess your skills, and much more.

Why does active listening matter?

The skill of active listening is the most effective form of listening. The benefits of active listening are well-documented in the workplace. Evidence suggests active listening builds trust, improves the quality of relationships, and creates a positive work environment. Employees that feel heard feel better about their work and their leader. Improved relationships reduce stress.

Active listening is a skill that cannot be outsourced by leaders. Listening to your team's and customers' implicit and explicit needs and wants leads to innovations that are used and valued. Also, evidence suggests that improved perceptions of respect mediate an environment for joint problem-solving and creativity.

3 Active listening skills

Actively listening is your ability to hear and improve mutual understanding. When you actively listen, you pay attention, show interest, suspend judgment, reflect, clarify, summarize, and share to gain clarity and understanding. When practicing active listening, you are available to the other person.

Suspending judgment can be tricky for leaders pressed for time. Leaders are used to fixing problems quickly, so slowing down can be very challenging. The goal of active listening is to hear the other person. Try to understand before you try to be understood. Listening does not mean agreement.

One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say. Bryant McGill

Clarifying involves asking open-ended, probing, and clarifying questions. A good starting question is to ask, what's on your mind? And follow it up by asking, and what else? You might be amazed at what you learn.

Actively listening doesn't mean only listening and asking questions. But it is best to share your thoughts, ideas, feelings, and suggestions after you believe you have heard the other person. The part many leaders struggle with is empathic listening. However, statements like, "You aren't the only one feeling that way," or "I felt similarly," helps to connect emotionally with followers.

The following short video from Simon Sinek is about creating an environment where the other person feels heard.

Active Listening Skill #1: Verbal Listening

Active verbal listening comprises paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, assumption checking, and questioning skills. The words you use matter. Research looking into the value between verbal and nonverbal active listening skills demonstrated that speaking skills are more critical for improving outcomes than nonverbal.

Active Listening Skill #2: Nonverbal Listening

Active nonverbal listening refers to your body language. Eye contact, leaning forward, and an open body position all provide cues of affirmation. Avoid checking your phone, leaning back in your chair, and crossing your arms. Whether intended or not, these are all cues you are not actively listening to the employee.

Active Listening Skill #2: Empathic Listening

Active empathic listening combines verbal and nonverbal listening skills with empathy. Leaders practice this listening by sensing the explicit and implicit feelings being communicated. Active Empathic Listening is vital to innovation and maintaining close relationships.

2 Ways to overcome active listening barriers

The use of paraphrasing with metaphors and paying attention by slowing down are helpful tips for overcoming common barriers to listening.

Active Listening Tip #1: Paraphrasing with Metaphors

Like when playing catch with a ball. When the conversation is tossed to you, that is the time to put what you heard into your own words (paraphrase) and use that to make sure you hear the key points correctly. A metaphor is a phrase that conveys something typically abstract through a symbolic image with shared understanding. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Metaphors help create connections. For example, when attempting to clarify, you could state, "It is like driving in the fog at night," instead of asking, "Are you confused?"

Active Listening Tip #2: Paying Attention by Slowing Down

It is easy not to be aware that you are sending unintended signals that you are in a hurry. Put your technology on mute. Get curious about what they are saying and their emotions. This is not the time to multi-task. Be natural and use verbal and nonverbal cues such as nodding your head or saying yes to let them know you are engaged. Active listening does not typically happen in a rushed environment. The key is not to try and force a conversation into an arbitrarily scheduled time frame. Allow the option to reschedule additional time as appropriate.

1 Active listening assessment tool

When you can't see yourself objectively and don't accurately understand the perspectives of others, you can't make the transformational changes necessary for business growth. Evidence suggests that employee perceptions of their leader's listening skills are very low despite being very important to employees. This is significant because perceptions are proven to influence actions taken. When employees don't perceive they will be heard, they will unlikely continue to speak up.

Here are a few statements adapted from the research by Longweni and Kroon (2018) developed to solicit feedback from direct reports. You should adjust the wording for different audiences, such as your peers, customers, and leader. As designed, they are appropriate for use in a formal leadership 360 survey or anonymous pulse survey.

  • My leader can sense how I feel without me having to say how I am feeling.

  • My leader reads my non-verbal messages when we are in a conversation.

  • My leader reflects on my emotions to let me know that they understand how I am feeling.

  • My leader calms me down when I become angry by reflecting on my feelings.

  • My leader restates my words to make sure that they understand me correctly.

  • My leader makes sure to know what I am saying in a conflict situation.

  • My leader does not justify their actions when I complain about something they have done wrong.

  • My leader does not get angry or defensive when corrected.

How to encourage others to use active listening

Everyone has been in a situation where they don't feel heard. The next time you encounter that situation, here are a few strategies you can use to try and help bring about the change you want to see in others:

  • Find common ground. Whether you are getting to know a person or engaging an executive on a complicated topic, starting with something you share in common can help create interest.

  • Be a role model. Being the change you want to see in the world is a powerful tool for influencing change in the workplace. Don't be the one wanting to be listened to but unwilling to hear yourself. Look in the mirror and assess your skills honestly before fixing someone else.

  • Let them know. Often it is not a lack of desire as to why someone is not using active listening skills. If you decide to provide this feedback, you want to use an "I" statement, such as I don't feel like you are hearing me.

How to develop active listening skills

If you are ready to invest some energy into developing your active listening skills, the following strategies are compiled from various studies on active listening.

  • Daily reflection. Reflect and assess daily how you are doing. Reflect on specific conversations to identify what went well and what still needs improvement. Specifically, focus on how well you pay attention, show interest, suspend judgment, reflect, clarify, summarize, and share to gain clarity and understanding.

  • Find a mentor or accountability partner. A mentor should be someone that is a skilled active listener. This person can role model and help ask good reflective questions to help you learn.

  • Find an accountability partner. An accountability partner can be someone also working on building their active listening skills, or they could be already skilled. The key is that they can observe and catch you using or not applying active listening skills.

  • Focus. Consciously focus on building active listening skills rather than expecting to learn these skills while focusing on another competency.

  • Experiential practice. You can build active listening skills with training, like physical endurance and strength. Use blended experiential methods that require learning by doing. Active listening is influenced by the conversation context and cues best learned by doing. Don't just rely on reading about active listening.

Key Summary Points:

  • Actively listening to employees leaves them feeling valued, affirmed, and connected emotionally with you.

  • Listening eases tensions and makes productive conflict work where resentment exists.

  • When you actively listen, you pay attention, show interest, suspend judgment, reflect, clarify, summarize, and share to gain clarity and understanding.

  • Active Empathic Listening is vital to innovation and maintaining close relationships.

  • The benefits of active listening are well-documented for building trust and improving relationships and the work environment.

  • A study of employee perceptions of their leader's listening skills revealed it was the lowest-rated competency despite being very important to employees.

  • Using metaphors, slowing down, paying attention, and paraphrasing key points are helpful tips when practicing active listening.

  • Being the change you want to see in the world is a powerful tool for influencing change in the workplace.

  • You can build active listening skills with practice, like building physical endurance and strength.


Bodie, G., Vickery, A., Cannava, K., Jones, S. (2015). The role of "active listening" in informal helping conversations: Impact on perceptions of listener helpfulness, sensitivity, and supportiveness and discloser emotional improvement. Western Journal of Communication;79(2):151-173.

Center for Creative Leadership. (2019). Active listening: Improve your ability to listen and lead, second edition, 2nd edition. Center for Creative Leadership.

Gearhart, C., Bodie, G. (2011). Active-empathic listening as a general social skill: Evidence from bivariate and canonical correlations. Communication Reports;24:86-98.

Jahromi, V., Tabatabaee, S., Abdar, Z., & Rajabi, M. (2016). Active listening: The key of successful communication in hospital managers. Electronic physician, 8(3), 2123–2128.

Kourmousi, N., Kounenou, K., Yotsidi, V., Xythali, V., Merakou, K., Barbouni, A., & Koutras, V. (2018). Personal and job factors are associated with teachers' active listening and active empathic listening. Social Sciences, 7(7)

Longweni, M., & Kroon, J. (2018). Managers' listening skills, feedback skills and ability to deal with interference: A subordinate perspective. Acta Commercii, 18(1), 1-12.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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