Do you really understand active listening?

Matthew A. Overlund
Feb 4, 2020 · 9 min read
Girl listening

How often are you “listening” to someone talk when you realize they’ve just asked you, “Are you even listening to me?”

My usual response is to pretend that I was listening and then try to sell that by piecing together the bits and pieces of what I think I heard. Or occasionally, I just own it and admit that my attention has completely wandered off.

This happens with my wife more often than I care to admit. And no, I’m not always the one whose attention finds other things to do mid-conversation.

What about in your professional circles?

Yes, it happens here for me too. We talk amongst ourselves about the need to improve our communication skills and practices. Probably, more often than you might expect. But, if you work primarily in a remote environment as I do, it’s even more impactful when communication falls down.

So, this tends to be something we try to pay attention to. We can’t simply walk down the hall to another office and clarify a quick point face-to-face. And, when tempers flare, or stress is running high, we are at much more risk of misinterpreting someone’s words.

We don’t use video chat as often as we should. Sometimes we forget. Others times… well, we all have days where we just don’t feel like being in front of a camera.

We lose some of the communication hints that help us when we are face to face: body language, facial expression, eye contact, or lack thereof.

But how often do you stop paying attention to these hints when you are in the room with someone, and your attention wanders?

And how often do those lapses cause problems?

At some point, being the mature adults that we are, someone identifies the quickly escalating situation. That’s when you hear them say, “Clearly, we are not connecting on this, and it feels like we need to work on our communication.”

Maybe there’s even an admission of guilt — one party or the other owning up to the fact that they were the culprit who’s mind took an unplanned left turn to nowhere.

It’s during the subsequent conversation that ensues that someone raises the suggestion that our active listening skills could use some work.

Generally, we nod and agree. We commit to doing better in the future. Most of the time, we probably even mean it…

Why, then, do we repeatedly find ourselves in the same situation? I suspect it is because our best intentions are not enough to solve this problem.

But, how often have you taken a pause to reflect precisely on where your communication skills have lapsed? Have you ever asked yourself: What is active listening? And why the distinction on active?

You are in luck, as we’re going to answer exactly those questions right now.

What is active listening?

Active listening is easy to define by asking a few simple questions about your listening behavior.

After all, we all know what listening is, right? If you ask my wife, as long as she heard the words, she’s listening. She may not be able to repeat them, understand what was said, or repeat them back to me exactly, but she did hear me.

Of course, as likely as not, I’m the guilty party.

Let’s begin with a definitive definition. Active listening is listening with the intent to hear, comprehend, respond appropriately, and remember what was said — preferably with an ability to recall it at a later time.

No, repeating something back a few seconds after it’s been said does not check all these boxes. Sorry!

On to our simple questions. You can use these as mental queues to train yourself to stay engaged. I would recommend, however, that use them to evaluate conversations after they are completed — for what I hope are obvious reasons.

  • Am I listening to understand?
  • Am I listening to recall?
  • Am I listening to respond appropriately?

These are simple questions, with a surprising breadth and depth of impact as you improve in your use of them. As you dig further into what each question may uncover, you’ll find there’s few, if any, communication deficiency that these questions can’t catch.

How do we go about using these questions effectively? We use them to shine a light on our communication faults.

What are we doing wrong, exactly?

Given a set of tools and the direction to build a table, there is a good chance, my creation wouldn’t look like your table — it may not look like a table at all. If I’m being honest, there’s a good chance my table also won’t sit level.

I’ve never been much of a craftsman.

The point is that even with the same set of tools, people will produce different results. My goal is to help you unpack your communication problems and, ideally, implement some improvement. Just telling you what to do is unlikely to be effective.

Let’s take a different tactic then.

While it’s true that we all communicate differently, we also tend to share some of the same common failings. If you start by recognizing those in your own behaviors, you’ll have established a solid foundation for improvement. In no particular order, here they are…

Not asking questions to support understanding

Listening with a goal of retained knowledge requires that you ask clarifying questions where necessary. It can be challenging to achieve this smoothly, especially with those you don’t know well or speak with often, but your understanding is worth the effort.

As your understanding grows, your response will improve, and the conversation with it.

Not providing visual or audible queues to the speaker

Whether a nod of the head, repeated words of agreement, or body language that says “I’m following…” you’ve got a responsibility in each conversation to let the speaker know they should continue.

How you achieve this will be personal to you and your mannerisms. However you realize it, your purpose is to communicate to the speaker that you are engaged, focused, and listening well.

If you are struggling with smoothly presenting questions to support your understanding, adopting these queues — and then pausing them when you need to interject — can ease this transition.

Giving no meaningful response or feedback

This is the most active element of active listening. It’s fine to believe you are following the conversation and building a solid understanding. But, communicating the presence of that understanding to the speaker is the counterpart to this.

Put yourself in the speaker’s position. Unless they are speaking merely to hear themselves talk, it’s quite likely they respect you and want to listen to your opinion on the topic at hand.

Multi-tasking, also known as intentional loss of focus

Cultivating yourself as a robustly skilled and valuable communicator is not easy. You are expected to hear, remember, understand, and respond to everything being said.

This is a complicated bit of work, and it deserves your undivided attention.

Attempting to follow multiple conversations at once

This is an extension from the last example, but warrants its own mention, as I know some people struggle with this in particular.

On occasion, I am one of them.

It can be challenging to focus on the conversation at hand when other conversations or verbal distractions are happening nearby. Whether a busy office, a crowded public space, or a TV running in the background, we can often find ourselves trying to split our attention.

How you solve this will depend on the severity of your reaction. Sometimes the only solution is to remove yourself to a more hospitable environment for conversation.

Hearing what we want to hear, instead of what is being said

This one usually stems from a combination of bias and insufficient focus. As our mind wanders, particularly in a conversation where we have strong opinions, bad things can happen. We can find ourselves misinterpreting what was said and then responding in precisely the wrong way.

Be cautious of this, as it can lead to significant blow-ups that, in retrospect, are found to be entirely based on a misunderstanding.

Waiting for our turn to speak

This is one of the communication fallacies that should be uncovered as you reflect on the quality of your responses to the speaker.

Are you responding appropriately? Are you communicating your understanding and pushing the topic at hand forward in a positive way?

Or, are you interjecting your own topic at the first break in the flow? Ensure you are speaking to the issue at hand. To do this, develop a method by which you can remember your desired change of topic for an appropriate time where a shift in direction is acceptable.

Failing to recognize our lack of interest in a topic

With the lofty goals of hearing, understanding, remembering, and participating materially in the conversation, we need to ensure we are doing all we can to make this easier on ourselves.

To that end, its vital that you develop the ability to self-recognize when a particular topic is just not of interest to you.

While it’s not always an option to gracefully bow out of a conversation due to lack of interest, in those cases where we can, we should.

This list is not exhaustive, I’m sure you could easily add a few more, and I hope that you will as you consider the areas where you most need to improve.

How can we improve?

I grew up watching Transformers and GI. Joe on the morning cartoons. One of them has the map to our desired improvement hidden in their catchphrase. And, since it’s not “More than meets the eye,” or “Autobots, roll out!” I’m going to go with the line that ended every episode of GI. Joe: “Knowing is half the battle…”

If we want to solve a problem, we first have to recognize that problem. Step one done. By this point, if you wish to admit them to yourself just yet or not, you’ve uncovered some of your own less than stellar behaviors.

Step two, turn your evaluating ear to the conversation habits of those around you. Not, however, for the reason you expect. As you observe things needing improvement by monitoring your friends, family, and co-workers, I want you to contrast those observations with your own behaviors, again.

It can be difficult for us to self-inventory our own weaknesses. Still, by observing those around us, we can compare them to our own practices. This often helps us see things from a new angle and make realizations we otherwise would have missed. Think of it as playing a sneaky trick on your subconscious.

Finally, step three. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard was regarding how to deal with emotional responses from others. Most often, this is a conversation with someone who has a tendency to let anger get the best of them. So you tip-toe through the conversation waiting for the inevitable explosion — and you lose focus, can’t respond appropriately, and generally put in lackluster communication performance.

Here’s the advice: When emotions take over the conversation, that response is rarely about you. It’s about them, and your best path forward is to try to understand why.

Now turn this around. When your emotions take over control of a conversation, ask yourself why. What are you reacting to?

In doing so, your communication will improve.

Communication is not about saying what you wanted to say, but about being heard and understood completely. That is something that requires a group effort. A bit of well-placed empathy will serve you well.

Hopefully, these suggestions improve your communication with your team — or at the very least, you won’t be caught pretending to listen to your significant other.

I hope you enjoyed this, and if you want to see more from me, I invite you to join my group of Intentional Leaders here.

I hope you join us, and I look forward to sharing your leadership journey.

Matthew Overlund writes non-fiction and coaches professional development for new (or not so new) managers at Leadership & Vision, where he helps amazing people realize a higher potential as they evolve from getting things done to making things happen.

When he’s not writing, coaching, or generally masquerading as a code jockey, solutions architect, or product manager, Matt occasionally writes, thinks, reads, or talks about fiction — where understanding the characters on the page help him try to understand the characters in the world.

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