3 Keys to Active Listening (and the Power of Asking ‘Why’)

One particular skill sets successful doctors, salespeople, marketers, diplomats, parents, and interviewees apart from the rest. Active listening helps these people truly understand their patients, clients, or children in the moment, and sets them up for continued success in the future.

Active listening is essentially listening to digest and understand, rather than respond. It requires the listener to be a little curious, reflect on what they are hearing, and ask informed follow-up questions. In fact, the CDC, State Department, and Organ Procurement Organizations (OPO) alike have all defined, dissected, and analyzed the power of active listening for their stakeholders. It’s a skill that improves our parenting skills, aids in diplomacy, and helps OPOs delicately and respectfully navigate the emotions of a donor family. 

Across the spectrum of marketing, from branding to public relations to reputation management, active listening plays a crucial role in truly understanding our clients and colleagues. It helps us provide more valuable client service and transcend the role as a vendor to become a strategic partner. 

Here are three keys to active listening (as well as some practical tips on how to start practicing the skill today).

Stay Focused

While this first key is more difficult in an increasingly remote world, it’s important to show that you are focused and paying attention while in conversation. Maintain eye contact and minimize how many times you interrupt the person you are speaking with. Oftentimes, if we can calm our fidgeting and leave a quiet pause in the conversation, the person we are speaking with will really open up, allowing the communication to flow naturally and possibly providing you with more insight into their thoughts.

Things to ask yourself: 

  • What is the body language of the person you’re speaking with? 
  • Is there a way you can encourage openness with your own body language and facial expression? 
  • Do you notice them verbalizing more as you give them more space? 
  • Can you elongate the pause between the end of their thought and your response?

Reflect Key Phrases

The second key plays a crucial role when responding verbally: listen for phrases in what the other person is saying, then integrate those phrases into your own clarifying questions or when restating what they said as a statement. Reflecting these phrases back to the person you’re speaking with will signal to them that you are listening and also provide you with an opportunity to clarify their meaning. 

Phrases to use:

  • “I think what I’m hearing is…[restate a phrase you heard here]”
  • “I understand that [restate a phrase you heard here].”
  • “I want to make sure I understand properly. Could you elaborate on what you mean when you say [restate a phrase you heard here]?”

Lead With Curiosity

The third key is easily said and harder to implement: the basis of good active listening comes from the listener’s own sense of curiosity and empathy. Active listening is best practiced when we genuinely want to know more and learn from the person with whom we are speaking. 

There are nonverbal cues we can give to someone in our facial expression, tone of voice, or even posture. These cues demonstrate we are listening and understand how the other person feels. 

Practical tips: 

  • Validate and encourage the speaker in what they are saying. 
  • Try to listen without making judgments or taking a position. 
  • Wait to express your own ideas, thoughts or opinions on a particular subject until you have acknowledged what the other person has said and meant.

Active listening can help us understand our teammates and clients more efficiently and effectively, ultimately strengthening our relationships. It allows us to connect with people at a human level, anticipate how they might respond to something similar, and be able to provide more strategic recommendations over time. 

While it takes practice and patience, active listening can become a natural part of your daily interactions and help you become a better co-worker, consultant, or simply a better person. 

Let’s talk.