Nutshell: Listen up! The inside story on active listening

Written by
Future Talent Learning

03 Nov 2020

03 Nov 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Learning how to give others our full attention can enhance our communication and leadership.

No one person has all the right answers; the perspectives of others are vital to good decision-making. That’s why effective leaders listen. And not just with their ears…

For psychologist Paul Watzlawick, “one cannot not communicate”. Every behaviour is a form of communication, whether conscious or unconscious. So, as well as paying attention to what people say, we need to ‘listen between the lines’ and also look out for the non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions or body language. These can speak volumes, even when people are silent.

Listening is an especially important skill in navigating more difficult conversations. This requires our full attention, and if we’re rushing ahead – to deliver a point in the hope of avoiding conflict, for example – we will struggle to resolve situations where multiple interests and agendas must be aligned. 

To paraphrase the Greek philosopher Epictetus, we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

Paying our full attention is a smart investment

To build true connection and trust, we also need to demonstrate to the speaker that their message is both received and understood. And we can do this most effectively through active listening. 

Active listening is the process of giving our full attention to someone as they speak, and paraphrasing and reflecting back what they say, while withholding judgement and advice. 

We practise active listening to comprehend what is being said, to collaborate in solving problems, and also to offer support and empathy to the speaker. It involves giving feedback, both verbal and non-verbal (smiling, making eye contact, leaning in and mirroring). And it requires patience; for example, not butting in to fill periods of silence and not jumping in with our own ideas and opinions.

Rather than listening to reply, we must listen to hear what other people are saying and be fully open to having our minds changed in the process. Listening is a sign of self-confidence, signifying that we are willing to accept the best answer to a problem, rather than bullishly sticking with our own solution or ideas.

It’s not always easy, so the five stages of active listening provide a useful framework:

  1. Testing understanding
  2. Questioning
  3. Building
  4. Feedback
  5. Summarising

Testing understanding is how we clarify what the speaker has said. A simple way of doing this is to rephrase the key points and put them back to the speaker, taking care neither to echo their exact words, nor to distort their meaning. For example:

“Can I just clarify?”; “You’re saying that…”; “My understanding is that…”; “Let me make sure I’ve got this right. You’re saying…”

Testing our understanding in this way makes clear we’ve received and understood the message. It also makes the speaker feel heard and valued, which can boost their confidence and morale.

Questioning the speaker may be necessary to gather more background detail, facts and figures or other information pertinent to decision-making. Questioning also enables the speaker to take a pause and arrange their information into more manageable chunks, so that it’s easier for all listeners to absorb and digest.

Questions may be open-ended or specific. For example:

“Could you tell me some more about…?”; “It’s clear that the current situation is intolerable for you. Where would you like to see changes made?”


“How long do you expect this process to last?”; “What is your average rate of staff turnover?”

Note that questions beginning ‘who/where/when’ tend to be open and facilitative, while ‘what/how/why’ questions are more analytical, closing down discussions.

Meanwhile, acknowledging the speaker’s feelings shows sensitivity as well as eliciting more information. For example:

“You seem worried/excited about this project; could you tell me more about your perspective?”

Building on the speaker’s proposal with thoughts of our own, while taking care not to hijack the original idea, is important too. A simple way of doing this is to highlight the aspects we like with an acknowledging phrase (such as “That’s a great point!”) and then share associated ideas or facts. For example:

“What you said about X is really interesting. I think we should discuss this further…”; “Your thoughts on X sparked off some ideas and I’d like to propose we…”

Feedback gives us the chance to reflect back to the speaker how their message has affected our own emotions. It also enables us to check that we have understood their sentiments, and allows for empathy. Plus, it gives the speaker a chance to correct any misconceptions at source. Feedback should always be non-judgemental, clear, honest, immediate and brief.

Summarising clarifies and reinforces the message for both listener and speaker. It finishes off one subject, creating the opportunity to move on to another and giving the speaker the chance to correct us if we summarise inaccurately. For example:

“So, let’s recap what has been said and agreed.”; “Ok, let me note down the key points we’ve discussed.”

It may be appropriate to do this after each defined topic, especially when a decision has been taken. However, it’s sometimes preferable to save the summarising to the very end of the discussion, going over any notes to collate what has been said and agreed.

Barriers to good listening 

Of course, unfamiliarity with this five-step formula is not the only reason we struggle to hear what others say. The space between ourselves and others may be littered with unhelpful attitudes, assumptions and biases, and to get around or over them requires empathy. 

In their seminal article Barriers and Gateways, published in Harvard Business Review in 1952, Carl R Rogers and F J Roethlisberger were among the first researchers to promote the importance of listening and empathy in the workplace. This was controversial at the time, given the strict workplace hierarchies of the 1950s. 

To quote Rogers: “Through my experience in counselling and psychotherapy, I’ve found that there is one main obstacle to communication: people’s tendency to evaluate. Fortunately, I’ve also discovered that if people can learn to listen with understanding, they can mitigate their evaluative impulses and greatly improve their communication with others.”

We all have a natural urge to judge, evaluate and approve or disapprove of other people’s statements, an urge that may be heightened in situations where feelings and emotions run deep. This blocks interpersonal communication. 

To open the gateway, we need to listen with understanding – something which, Rogers argues, requires us to consider the idea expressed and the other person’s attitude from their point of view. This gives us a sense of how it feels to that person and enables us to understand their frame of reference regarding the subject being discussed.

However, it is far from easy and it takes courage. As an exercise, Rogers suggests that the next time we are in an argument, we restate to the other person what we understand their view to be, before giving our own; a process he describes as an “understanding catalyst”. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s item number one on the active listening checklist.  

It was actually Rogers, along with his colleague Richard Farson, who coined the term “active listening” in their 1957 paper of the same name. They suggested that listening actively could make people “more emotionally mature, more open to their experiences, less defensive, more democratic, and less authoritarian”.

“I hate a good listener,” said no one, ever…

For Rogers, the potential of active listening was unbounded. He posited the prospect of better relationships between workers and bosses – and even between countries on opposite sides of a conflict – were they only to listen and learn.

Roethlisberger, on the other hand, notes that given our many differences in background, experience and motivation, it may seem “extraordinary that any two people can ever understand each other”, especially in the context of boss/team member relationships. To counter, he offers two schools of thought:

  • The ‘explain’ approach assumes that communication between A and B fails when B does not accept what A has to say as being factual, true or valid; and that the goal of communication is to get B to agree with A’s opinions, ideas, facts or information.
  • The ‘listen’ approach assumes that communication has failed when B does not feel free to express his or her feelings for fear they will not be accepted by A. Communication is facilitated when A or B (or both) is willing to express and accept differences.

With the ‘explain’ approach, there is always the risk that A (let’s call her Alison) will assume that her inability to get through to B (let’s call him Ben) is because she hasn’t explained things clearly enough (cue more explaining…) or even that Ben is just too stupid, unwilling or thick-skinned to understand, which leads him to becoming more defensive. 

With the ‘listen’ approach, A (Amber, this time) takes time to consider Ben’s feelings as well as her own. Instead of trying to get him to understand her, she tries to understand him – and not just his viewpoints but the reality as he perceives it. Ben might not agree with what Amber is saying but if he feels less defensive, he may be better able to express his differences and more willing to re-examine his own assumptions. 

A positive outcome isn’t guaranteed either way, but whose chances should we fancy as a leader – Alison’s or Amber’s?

Silencing the inner critic

While the emphasis that Rogers and Roethlisberger placed on feelings and empathy was radical at the time, today their insights seem almost obvious. So, why are we still not getting it right? 

In What Gets in the Way of Listening, Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins suggest it’s the voice of our own inner critic that may be to blame.

Just like evaluating, monitoring how we are performing in a meeting or presentation can overshadow our ability to hear the underlying meaning of concerns raised by others, or to miss their cues to move swiftly along. So, to be a good listener, we also need to put aside our fear and anticipation of what may get thrown our way; we need to stop thinking about ‘getting a good grade’ and start actively listening. Remember: we need to be prepared to have our mind changed – or even to be changed – by what we hear.

Other barriers to effective communication may arise from the growing complexity of today’s business environment. 

Greater diversity in the workforce is both necessary and valuable, but colleagues who have fewer shared experiences may be more likely to make assumptions and judge one another, which means greater potential for misunderstanding.

In addition, we all have unhelpful listening habits which can be difficult to break. 

Becoming distracted, daydreaming or only pretending to pay attention; asking about unimportant details and missing the bigger picture; ignoring what we don’t understand instead of asking focused questions. These are all bad habits that we need to shake off. Hijacking the story with our own examples and anecdotes is also a major no-no.

There are also factors that we can’t control, such as workplace culture and how much a company values good communication. Melissa Daimler, who has led global learning and organisational development at Adobe, Twitter and WeWork, suggests that while listening is a powerful leadership tool, it works best in organisations that make time for it.

Fast-growing or fast-changing companies with ever-evolving teams and priorities may gain most from mastering the skill of active listening – or “360 listening” as Daimler calls it. In her opinion, “this is where the magic happens”.

In a world of sponges, be a trampoline

As the philosopher Michel de Montaigne proposed, “speech belongs half to the speaker, half to the listener” – and we cannot shirk our part. 

By listening actively rather than passively ‘soaking it up’, we are better placed to understand and empathise with others. For Christine M Riordan, provost and professor of management at the University of Kentucky, this ability and willingness to listen actively and with empathy is often what sets a great leader apart from the pack.

Those who engage with others rather than endlessly debating, and who take the time to hear and learn, are most likely to elevate and energise those around them. And it is these ‘trampolines’ who will overtake the ‘sponges’ as they progress in their careers.

We just need to put down our phones and (unless we’re communicating virtually via videoconferencing) close our laptops in order to show the person speaking that they have our full attention. Who knows what we might discover?


Test your understanding

  • Recap the five stages of active listening and what these mean in practice.
  • Compare the ‘explain approach’ with the ‘listen approach’.

What does it mean for you?

  • Take note of how you listen in the workplace. Which of the five stages of active listening do you need to work on?
  • Practise activity listening in conversations with colleagues, reflecting on how it changes relationships and outcomes.


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