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What Is Active Listening?

three coworkers sit at a table and actively listen to a fourth coworker.

Active listening is a soft skill that can help you get your job done effectively and make your coworkers see you as an empathetic, capable teammate. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, communication skills — specifically active listening — are a core career readiness competency. 

So what is active listening, and how can you become better prepared for the workforce by improving these skills? In this guide, we’ll cover:

Active Listening Skills Definition

Active listening is focused, engaged, and respectful listening.

“This means that you’re paying full attention and not multitasking, looking at your phone, or waiting to give your opinion,” Colleen Stevenson, post-secondary transition coach and founder of Choose Your University, says. 

When someone actively listens, they acknowledge the speaker through nonverbal cues, such as eye contact and nodding. Then, when the speaker is done talking, they ask clarifying questions and paraphrase what they’ve heard to ensure they’ve fully understood. 

Active listening examples include:

  • Asking a follow-up question to the speaker on a point they made at the beginning of your conversation
  • Listening to a coworker explain their findings without interruption
  • Hiding your self-view on Zoom and looking directly at the speaker while they’re talking
  • Pausing before responding to the speaker to gather your thoughts and react to what they said
  • Repeating back what the speaker said to you to see if you’ve understood them clearly
  • Saying short affirmations while the speaker is talking (ex: “yes” and “that makes sense”)

Why Are Active Listening Skills Important in the Workplace? 

Active listening in the workplace helps facilitate better communication. When everyone practices this skill, there’s less confusion about work processes, goals, and results. This makes it easier for everyone to get their job done well because they better understand what they need to get done and why they’re doing it.

Active listening has a positive effect on team culture, too. When coworkers listen to one another, people are more likely to extend empathy and create a more respectful work environment.

“Active listening is important in the workplace because it allows history, culture, and information to be shared,” Bryana Holcomb, business and success coach, says. “From a cultural standpoint, this creates a space where employees can feel comfortable being their true selves. Through active listening, they know what they have to say is valued and thus will share more freely and more often. Essentially, it creates an environment of inclusion where all employees can shine, authentically.”

How to Include Active Listening Skills in a Job Application

Instead of simply writing “active listening” on your resume, Stevenson recommends providing concrete examples of how this skill has made you a better employee.

“[Active listening] might mean that you can effectively take on and lead projects independently with little guidance,” she says. “It might also mean that you work well in teams because you can understand your colleagues’ perspectives well, which allows you to resolve disagreements or come to an agreement more easily.”

Whether active listening has made you a better independent worker or teammate, describe how using this skill impacted your work within your resume job explanations. For example, you could write:

Decreased project completion time by 25% by collecting and implementing team feedback on workflows.

Here, you’re showing that you listened to teammates by seeking their feedback, taking note of what could be improved, and making a successful change based on what you heard.

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In the interview, you can elaborate on your experiences and show the hiring manager these skills by demonstrating active listening skills. You can show these skills by:

  • Maintaining good eye contact, even if you’re in a Zoom interview
  • Showing you’re listening through nodding and short affirmative phrases
  • Letting the hiring manager speak without interrupting them
  • Asking clarifying questions during the interview about what they’ve said
  • Responding naturally to questions instead of providing formulaic, rehearsed responses

How to Improve Active Listening Skills

You don’t need to wait to be in the workforce to improve this skill. You can practice active listening in your everyday life, whether in class, with a friend, or with a family member.

Let Others Speak

It can be easy to get excited about what someone else is saying and want to jump in with your ideas. Practice patience and letting other people speak through their points before responding. Remember, it’s not a race! The speaker might have more valuable points to add to the conversation if you let them continue talking. It’s better to endure a few awkward pauses instead of interrupting someone’s train of thought. 

Clarify

“Ask questions on anything you don’t fully understand,” Stevenson says. “Paraphrasing means that you’ll repeat information back as a question, which gives the speaker an opportunity to either agree and acknowledge that you understood, or to clarify and correct your statement.” 

You don’t need to clarify every point the speaker makes. Yet summarizing their points back to them not only helps them explain further but also helps you better process and retain information.

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Be Mindful

Active listening also requires patience and mindfulness — skills you can practice on your own without a conversation partner.

“Practice an active listening meditation, where you close your eyes and focus just on what you’re hearing,” Trie Angeleva, mindful career and life strategist, says. “Pay attention to which sounds are loudest and clearest, which are in the background, and which come and go or remain constant. The goal is to notice sounds in a way you don’t usually. When your mind wanders, notice and gently return your attention to listening. Try to do this for at least five minutes. With practice, we become much more aware, and our ability to listen in a focused manner strengthens.”

Active Listening: The Bottom Line

Active listening requires practice, but it’s a valuable verbal communication skill that helps you be more effective at work and an empathetic, respectful coworker. You can build this skill by practicing patience, non-verbal affirmations, and clarifying questions — then show off these skills in the interview, too.

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