Active Listening - What is it and are you doing it?

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is that weird situation when you learn something new, like a new word or concept, then feel like that topic crops up again and again just after you’ve learnt about it. This phenomenon has struck me of late, having discussed Active Listening with a colleague a few weeks ago, and then proceeding to see the topic of Active Listening almost everywhere! And it’s made me acutely aware of my own interactions and conversations.

I don’t really like the idea of explaining Active Listening solely as a business communication skill, because it’s not. It’s a skill applicable in every conversation that we have in all walks of life. It’s the practice of being truly engaged, focused and open to creating conversation, rather than driving conversation.

Perhaps to best explain what Active Listening is, I’m better off explaining what Active Listening is not.


Active Listening is not Interrupting

Can you have a conversation with someone and never once interrupt them? It’s actually an excruciatingly hard thing to do, especially if you’re having a conversation on a topic you’re passionate about.

Of course, some interruptions are plain rude. But most of the time they’re unintentional and without malice. It takes someone very self-aware not to interrupt. We often interrupt for fear that the point we want to add won’t be relevant if we don’t interject at that exact moment. We often interrupt to share similar experience, to express empathy, or when we think our input might connect us more.

There’s also a general consensus that we need to speak up in a conversation to make sure we’re heard.

In our professional lives we often consider speaking up in a conversation as a tick-box on the path to promotion and more seniority (but that’s probably a whole other discussion). Finding a gap in the conversation sometimes entails interrupting, right? Wrong. If all parties are engaged in Active Listening there should never be the need for interruption.


Active Listening is not Narcissism or Ego

I think we can all name at least one person where the phrase “they like the sound of their own voice” is a befitting description. I often find that the longer someone in the workplace is relied on as the HiPPO (the highest paid person’s opinion), the bigger the ego. And ego can result in the misplaced idea that more of the conversation should be led and said by that individual.


Active Listening is not Multi-Tasking

It has become the norm to multi-task in the workplace; in meetings, at events, during presentations or in general conversation. We may be checking Twitter, responding to emails or taking notes. And we tend to do this all with one ear still listening. I’m not discouraging multi-tasking, and arguably the more engaging a speaker or presentation, the less likely you are to become distracted. I think it’s acceptable that our behaviour in these situations has evolved to include multi-tasking and multi-screening. But I would challenge you, next time you attend a conference or an event to put the phone and notepad away, don’t whisper to your colleague sat next to you. Just sit, listen, really listen, and focus on the speaker only to see if your experience is different.

Multi-tasking can also mean the mental queue that we often build up in our heads whilst we’re having a conversation. We might be talking but at the same time thinking of how to end the discussion and politely move on. I think this a common way we engage in conversations at networking events. A sort of half in, half out state where we also have one eye on the rest of the room to see who we need to chat to next.


Active Listening is not Conversation with Agenda

I’m torn about how best to explain this one. To have good business orientated interactions we often need to have an internal agenda or outcome. It helps us to steer a conversation to a desired end result. This is important for retaining relevancy and being efficient with time. Directing conversation is a skill in itself, and is also something that can be actively practiced.

But even in conversations when there is an ‘end goal’ the actual conversation doesn’t need to have a set agenda. Take, for example, a meeting you set up with an under-performing employee. The goal might be to find out the cause of their under-performance, but the agenda needn’t be dictated. By practicing Active Listening you will focus much more on what the individual tells you, how they express their words and what vocabulary they use, rather than focussing on an inner monologue checking off the reasons you think are the cause of the problem.


And now you’re suitably thrown with these mind tricks…

Have you done any of the above? Perhaps all of the above? The fact is it’s impossible not to do these things sometimes. But the more you practice not doing them the more you’re practicing Active Listening.

If you’ve got this far reading this article you may well be starting to feel uncomfortable; now we’ve called out these habits are they all you’re going to think of next time you engage in a conversation!? It’s like how you never think about blinking until someone talks about blinking, and then you can’t help but think about how many times you’re blinking.


This article isn’t meant to distract, so that every time you have a conversation from now on you’re not listening but thinking; “am I actually listening? Did I interrupt? Am talking through ego?” It’s hard not to think this once you consider Active Listening. But being conscious of how well you pay attention and listen is a skill, and awareness surely has to be the first step of honing that skill.

Businesses are now dedicating learning and development time to train their staff on Active Listening. But even if you don’t have the opportunity for formal training there are a few things you can try and do yourself:

1.     Practice letting the conversation flow and invite people to talk. Don’t drive a conversation with your own agenda, and see what happens. It could be more rewarding and original.

2.     Consider what the percentage of airtime every participant had in a recent conversation you took part in. And next time the same participants engage in conversation be conscious of shifting that percentage

3.     Next time you have a conversation with a colleague, put your phone away, close your laptop. Don’t interrupt and listen to what they say. Wait until they fully stop talking before you then speak. If it means an anecdotal point you wanted to raise is no longer relevant let it go


And remember, Active Listening is about creating conversation not driving conversation. Blink.