Active Listening: Understand Before Being Understood

Most people think of the best communicators as being outspoken and articulate, but one of the most important rules of communication is actually silence—the art of active listening. This invaluable skill is especially beneficial for leaders because it helps you better connect with your team. By exploring what it means to be an active listener, you can assess and improve your own active listening skills and instill this crucial communication tool in your team.


Active Listening Defined

Active listening is a communication skill that involves not just hearing words but accurately understanding their meaning. It involves presence, concentration, and body language. Think of active listening as a skill; mastering it requires time, effort, and patience.



Perhaps the best way to understand active listening is to contrast it with passive hearing. Active listening requires your complete attention and intentional focus, whereas passive hearing occurs with low to no effort. Half-listening to a podcast while you’re also checking email or doing chores is generally passive hearing. On the other hand, sitting alone in a quiet room free of distractions and taking notes while tuning into the same podcast is active listening. It has been scientifically proven that the mind cannot absorb and retain at the same level when multitasking. 



Intent in listening boils down to listening to understand versus listening to be understood. Are you actively interested in understanding the other person, or are you simply waiting for your turn to reply?

Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, describes active listening as the single most important principle in interpersonal relations. I love his quote “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” It’s all about active listening. Listen with the intent to first understand the other person’s perspective, and then help them to understand your perspective. 



Body language plays a critical role in active listening. Things like maintaining eye contact, leaning in, nodding, smiling, and mirroring indicate to the speaker that you’re actively engaged. In fact, nonverbal communication, including cues from both the speaker and the listener, makes up a whopping 55 percent of communication while spoken words only account for 7 percent. 

Body language is especially impactful during virtual meetings. Active listeners are nodding and using facial expressions to indicate their engagement. On the other hand, you can tell when people are reading or looking at another screen because their eyes are moving around. Everyone may be on the call, but only those who are actively listening are truly present.


Developing Your Listening Skills

Refining your active listening skills requires self-awareness and self-discipline. Fortunately, each day presents opportunities to work on skills like paying attention, exercising patience, and providing feedback. Try the tips below during your next meeting:

  • Take a self-assessment: Track the amount of time that you speak during the meeting versus the time everybody else speaks. This provides a starting point so you can increase your time spent listening. 
  • Take notes: Note-taking forces you to pay closer attention.
  • Limit your speaking: Decide how much time you want to speak versus listen. Set a time limit for speaking and challenge yourself not to exceed it.
  • Don’t interrupt: Be mindful not to interrupt others when they’re speaking. Resist the urge to fill every silence.
  • Manage your body language: Practice providing feedback such as nodding, smiling, and maintaining eye contact.
  • Speak last: Force yourself to remain quiet until you’ve heard from everyone else in the meeting.
  • Use a moderator: Designate someone to facilitate meetings. Give the moderator authority to select who speaks when and how much time they have to speak. 


Improve Your Team with Active Listening

Leaders today have a responsibility to their people and their teams. Active listening plays an important role in understanding how to meet the needs of your people. In fact, it’s one of the hallmarks of responsible leadership. Receiving and understanding messages through active listening creates genuine connection, better engagement, and deeper relationships. 

Think about it. Team members are more likely to be comfortable speaking their mind when they trust that their leader and their fellow team members will listen to their message. Active listening cultivates mutual respect and psychological safety—key components of high-performing teams. Collaboration and cooperation come easier when teams engage in active listening. 


Active Listening for Leaders

Active listening allows you to develop a deep and authentic understanding of the needs and perspectives of your team members. Remember, communication is a two-way process, and if you don’t absorb the other person’s message, you’re hardly communicating at all.


Questions to Consider

  1. What’s the next step you can take to become a more engaged and active listener?

  2. What percentage of time should you spend speaking during a thirty-minute meeting?

  3. How can you help others in your organization become active listeners?

Contact me to learn more about the role of active listening in responsible leadership.