Best ways to practice active listening

Listening skills can make you a better performer—and a more attractive job candidate.

Best ways to practice active listening

Active listening can help you build professional relationships.

Listen up! If we have your undivided attention, you’re already ahead of the curve when it comes to honing your listening skills. That’s good news, considering that 74% of employers recently surveyed by Cengage said listening skills are important when they’re looking at job candidates. Of course, there’s always room for improvement. And one way to sharpen your skills is to practice active listening.

What is active listening?

Active listening is the practice of absorbing, comprehending, responding, and retaining what is being said. At work, it’s a secret weapon for building professional relationships, improving your productivity, and advancing your career.

Here are six ways to practice active listening skills.

“Listen” to non-verbal cues

Words aren’t everything. Active listening requires you to also read a person’s body language and glean information from non-verbal cues.

Knowing what to look for is crucial. Generally, experts recommend paying attention to these signs:

Positive: 

  • Direct eye contact
  • Relaxed facial muscles
  • Friendly smile
  • Hands are in view, opened, and relaxed
  • Arms are open

Negative: 

  • Rapid eye movement
  • A cold, glaring, or glazed-over look
  • A raised eyebrow as if in disbelief or doubt
  • Tight facial muscles
  • Stiff, forced smile
  • Hands are closed or in a fist
  • Arms are tightly crossed (indicating a defensive or protective position)
  • Fidgeting

Use body language effectively

Your body language indicates whether you’re tuning in, or tuning out, what someone is saying. Best practices include the following:

  • Face the speaker
  • Maintain eye contact. For optimal engaged-but-not-creepy results, make eye contact 60% to 70% of the time, recommends Patti Wood, an Atlanta-based body language expert and author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma.
  • Nod your head when appropriate
  • Avoid folding your arms
  • Smile
  • Lean in

Don’t interrupt

Silence can be a powerful listening tool. After all, no one likes being interrupted. So let the person talk. Don’t try to finish their sentences or interject an idea. (If you a need physical reminder to stay quiet, close your mouth tight until it’s your turn to talk.)

The exception? If you must interrupt—say, because you’re running late to a meeting—do so politely. (“I’m sorry to cut you off, but…”)

Clarify what the speaker is saying

If something the person said is unclear, try summarizing what you heard—i.e., “I just want to make sure I heard everything correctly”—or saying simply, “Sorry, one more time, please.” Avoid negative phrases, such as “I’m having trouble following you” or “Can you repeat that? You were talking too fast.”

Ask questions

Don’t shy away from asking questions—it shows that you’re paying attention. The goal, though, is to ask questions that take the conversation to a deeper level.

Here are a few examples of thoughtful questions:

  • If a co-worker is venting to you about their heavy workload: “It sounds like you have a lot on your plate. Is this the norm or a seasonal workload?"
  • If your boss is giving you constructive criticism: “Thank you for the feedback. Can you tell me a little more about how you’re going to measure my performance going forward?”
  • If your manager is praising your deliverable: “Thank you, I put a lot of thought and effort into this. How did the client react?”

Limit distractions

Active listening is nothing if not respectful. However, avoiding all distractions is tough, especially when we’re being bombarded by emails, text messages, or social media notifications. Use these simple steps to stay focused when someone is talking to you:

  • Put away your cell phone—or, if possible, turn it off or put it on airplane mode so that you won’t be tempted to check email.
  • Have the conversation in a quiet and private space.
  • Let other people know that you’re unavailable (e.g., you might consider posting a sign on your door that says, “Please do not disturb unless the office is on fire or there are puppies”).

Pro tip: If a co-worker tries to engage you in conversation but you’re too busy to give the person your full attention, let them know. (“I want to be fully present for this conversation, but I’m swamped right now. Let’s schedule a time so that we can talk.”)

Keep your ear to the ground…for new job opportunities

Active listening can serve you well on a number of levels. You never know when a casual conversation at a party or professional event can turn into a job opportunity. Need some help keeping your ears open? Join Monster for free today and start getting job alerts sent directly to your inbox so you can apply as soon as something catches your eye. As a member, you can also get career advice, interview tips, and job search strategies emailed to you weekly so you can see how to get yourself to the next rung on the career ladder.