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June 27, 2022

Active Listening: 8 Steps to Become a Better Active Listener


Leaders inspire their teams by showing they care. One of the most important ways leadercommunicators show they care is to listen—truly listen—to what people have to say. (There’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth.)

Active listening is a foundational skill of Heart First leadership that helps build authentic connection and understanding. With a shift to a hybrid work environment and fewer opportunities for in-person connection, making time—and space—to actively listen is critical. When managers make an effort to listen to employees, they see the benefits in terms of engagement and positive relationships, which moves an organization toward success.

It's not only about inviting employee input on a project, initiative or ways of working; it’s actively listening to understand their employee experience. It’s also about proving you value that input by showing appreciation for an employee’s point of view and taking action on it.

To create a culture where people feel their input is valued, you need to facilitate dialogue. Senior leaders must set the tone, establish expectations for the entire organization and model active listening.

What is active listening?

Active listening requires techniques of focused listening, understanding what’s being said and responding and reflecting in a thoughtful manner. Active listening is a critical skill for leaders because it helps us derive meaning and context to support the employee experience and gather valuable information to identify barriers or opportunities and work together to achieve shared goals.

Why is active listening important?

Active listening is more than just gathering information, it’s about fully concentrating on what’s being said to achieve shared understanding. It takes work and practice, and the impact can make a significant difference in the quality of relationships, followership and overall results a person has. It helps build trust and shows empathy for what others are expressing and experiencing, and that shared trust builds connection with your colleagues, and most importantly, your employees.

How to Become an Active Listener in 8 Steps

Consider the following skills and techniques to become a more active listener:

1. Approach each dialogue with the goal to learn something.

Regardless of level, think of the person you are speaking with as someone who can teach you. Have an open mind without pushing an agenda. Allow “wait time” before responding. A helpful technique is to think to yourself, “teach me” the next time you’re listening to an employee—it will drive curiosity and make you more open to learning. Plus, it will prompt you to listen more and speak less.

2. Stop talking and focus closely on the speaker.

Suppress the urge to think about what you’re going to say next or to multitask. Be present and show you care. Your nonverbal body language shows the speaker how engaged you are. Mindfully listen to what they have to say. Making the space to actively listen is meaningful and demonstrates the speaker’s words matter. Clear the calendar, put the phone away, minimize distractions, and truly focus on the words you are listening to and the intent behind them.

3. Open and guide the conversation.

Effective communication is all about facilitating dialogue that keeps both the listener and speaker actively engaged in a two-way conversation. Open and guide the conversation with broad, open-ended questions that prompt dialogue and cue the speaker that you’re interested in learning more. It’s not just focusing on what they say—it’s understanding how and why they feel that way. Avoid close-ended questions that can be answered with just a “yes” or “no.” This is your time to gather employee perspective—use it.

4. Drill down to the details.

Drill down to the details by asking direct, specific questions that focus the conversation, such as "Tell me more about..." "How did you come to this conclusion?" or "How would this work?" Match the conversation cadence and encourage the speaker to elaborate and share their personal experience or suggestions. Questions such as “Why do you feel this way” or "How do you envision more support..." show that you’re actively listening and care.

5. Summarize what you hear and ask questions to check your understanding.

Make sure you are clear on what’s being said. Throughout the conversation, paraphrase what you are hearing to show you are actively listening and considering the speaker’s point of view. Use this technique as an opportunity to ask clarifying questions such as, "If I’m understanding you..." or "Tell me if this is what you’re saying...." This provides more context and ensures you’re walking away with the message they want you to know.

6. Encourage with positive feedback.

Show appreciation for the speaker’s willingness to share their thoughts—even if you don’t necessarily agree with everything they are saying. If you can see that a speaker has some trouble expressing a point or lacks confidence, encourage him or her with a smile, a nod or a positive question to show your interest in learning more. Listen for various points of view and encourage others to express them and be authentic with an observation like: “The fact that you and I disagree on a topic is a good thing,” and tell them why.

7. Listen for total meaning.

The art and skill of active listening is also observing what’s not being said. Understand that in addition to what is being said, the real message may be nonverbal or emotional. Checking body language is one way to seek true understanding. Tone of voice, crossed arms or poor eye contact are often clues to the message someone is communicating. Check in throughout the conversation so you don’t miss your chance to get the real story and their feelings behind it.

8. Pay attention to your responses.

Remember that the way you respond to a question also is part of the dialogue. Keep an open mind and show respect for the other person’s point of view even if you disagree with it. When asking for input, be prepared to act on it. Otherwise, employees will be less likely to give you input in the future. While you might not have all the answers during a conversation, reassure the individuals you’ll keep their considerations in mind and are committed to keeping the door open for more dialogue.

Examples to Put Active Listening into Action

In our busy days, we have competing priorities and schedules that can make active listening a challenge, but its importance and opportunity can’t be overlooked. It requires intention and attention. As you think about ways to become even better at active listening, also consider when and where—those moments that matter where active listening can establish a true connection and help the speaker genuinely feel heard.

Consider these common scenarios and employee touchpoints to exercise what you’ve learned and put active listening into action:

  • Onboarding – Get to know your new team members and start to build two-way connections and trust on day one. Actively listen to truly understand employees’ backgrounds, learn about aspirations and make room for questions so you leave the conversation knowing what really matters to them.
  • 1:1s – Go beyond the agenda or project check-ins and use one-on-ones with your team to practice active listening onscreen or in person. This is especially critical to understand how employees are doing and where you might be able to help.
  • Performance Management Conversations – Employees have a lot on their minds, especially during career milestones like an annual review. During these conversations, ask employees what they are most proud of and how you can provide support. Use this touchpoint and practice active listening to show your commitment to their continued career journey.
  • Leader Listening Sessions – Use listening sessions with groups of employees to show empathy and gather insight to solve problems. Inc. Magazine recently profiled how returning Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz did just that to reintroduce himself as a leader and understand what was on employees’ minds.
  • Regular Touchpoints and Check-Ins with Your Team – Use these moments to stay in touch not only on the work but also on how they’re doing. If you don’t have standing meetings with your team members, schedule them now so they happen on a regular basis.

    Larger teams may be less frequent, but just having those touchpoints on the calendar signals something important—that you want to stay connected. Some important topics that go beyond the surface and allow you to practice active listening include:
    • Proactive Check-Ins on DE&I at Your Organization – There’s no need to wait for a crisis to check in. Seek their feedback and input on how your organization can do better. Let them know if they’re open to sharing, you’re open to listening. And if it’s a topic they don’t want to cover, that’s okay, too.

      Think about who might be most impacted by issues today, who might have the strongest feelings and where you can help. The goal is to listen (this is not a time to express your point of view) and help your employees feel heard and know you’re part of the solution, so you can genuinely help impact change.
    • Stay Interviews – Ask your team member how they’re doing and dig deeper, so you get a real sense of the truth. Find out what’s going well, what any sources of frustration are, what gets them excited about work, and how they feel about their role and contribution to the company. Don’t settle for “I’m fine.” If you can get to the root of any issues or opportunities, you can get a better handle on how to solve them together.

      In a recent article, Kate Grimaldi, senior director of enterprise talent strategy at Paylocity suggested asking: “Do you feel if you left tomorrow, there’d be a hole in the company?” She said that how a person answers this question is a clue to how emotionally connected (or not) they feel to the organization. If they’re not feeling good about their contribution, it’s a signal that there are issues that need to be addressed.

      Source: 4 Ways Leaders Can Take Control of the Great Resignation

Story listening: What is it?

As you listen for meaning, also consider the concept of story listening. We talk a lot about the power of storytelling to create an emotional connection with others and that stories are more memorable than facts. What’s new here and critically important is the concept of story listening—listening and understanding the stories of others to create belonging and connections, build relationships and help others bring their best selves to work.

Alisa McGowan, CHRO at Tecomet, a medical device company, talked about this in the forward of my book, Heart First: She said, “Connecting with people in an authentic way is built through understanding someone else’s journey and someone else’s story. It’s about just recognizing the simple fact that everyone has a story ... a story that helps define who they are, what they hope to accomplish, and what truly matters to them when it comes to work and life.”

So, for leaders, leading with heart is about finding out and listening to someone else’s story, and being willing to share theirs in an authentic way and in ways that are helpful to others.

This notion of everyone having a story is critical for leaders who want to build the kind of workplace that is not only diverse, but inclusive of diverse thought, and welcomes the needs employees have today.


Active listening is a superpower for leaders and enhances employee understanding and connection. It takes time but mastering the art of active listening demonstrates you care and value what an employee has to say. And the more we listen, the more we learn to improve the organization and the employee experience.

How will you use these steps to active listening to encourage dialogue in your culture?

—David Grossman

This free one-page quiz asks 10 questions (to be answered honestly by someone other than yourself) that address indications of whether or not you listen well. Take it today … the results may surprise you.

Download this free tool to find out how well you listen

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