What Is Active Listening? (Examples, How-to’s, Best Practices)

Active listening is when someone fully concentrates what is being said instead of just passively hearing a speaker. It involves all senses to become fully engaged in the messages that are being conveyed by whoever is actively communicating.

This term can also be called “effective listening,” and can easily be related to business communications. People tend to think about what they will say while others are speaking, which causes them to miss out entirely on the message from a co-worker, manager, or customer. When workers do not employ active listening techniques, it can decrease productivity, keep messaging from getting where it needs to, and negatively impact a project deadline.

Part 1

Why Is Active Listening Crucial to Business Success?

When people give their full attention to those who are speaking to them, they not only hear the words, but they can begin to understand the meaning behind them. A study has shown that nonverbal cues can contribute to 55 percent of communication. A distracted listener can miss out on these indicators. If a worker is talking about a complaint and is nervously shuffling, this can mean something entirely different than a worker keeping a consistent gaze. Everything from the placement of the arms to the distinct elements of the voice can give listeners just as much information as the content of what they are saying.

Therefore, it is vital that everyone from senior leadership to lower-level employees are trained in how to listen effectively. If a trend of poor listening extends to customer service, it can make clients feel unheard about product issues or service complaints. Exemplary active listening also helps senior leadership accept and take action on feedback from employees or concerns from shareholders. However, all of this hinges on the ability of everyone to employ active listening skills.

Some examples of active listening that various employers can exemplify:

  • When a manager makes it a point to summarize the points each employee has produced at a company meeting, and actively lists next steps about how suggestions can be utilized.
  • During a performance review, an employee restates and discusses the points that employers want them to improve upon, and lays out methods to work them into their own professional goals.
  • When a member of senior leadership asks a follow-up question that touches on a point an employee has already made about feedback or a complaint, it reveals they are genuinely listening to what it is important to the worker.
  • An interviewer is keying in on nonverbal cues that reveal that an interviewee might not be confident in their abilities by noticing they drop eye-contact when discussing a strength.
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Active listening in a business setting can be the final puzzle piece in establishing a communication plan that meets the needs of all stakeholders.

Part 2

How Can Leaders Encourage Active Listening?

Active listening requires full engagement of the brain to be completely tuned into what the other individual is saying. There are many instances where people only connect communication to speech and forget to incorporate the importance of listening. Here are a few statistics regarding how much listening plays an active role in the lives of individuals according to PR Daily:

  • The number one quality that employers are looking for is communication skills.
  • Less than 2 percent of people have had formal education involving listening skills.
  • We are conditioned to listen at a rate of 125 – 250 words per minute, but we think at 1000 – 3000 words per minute.
  • According to, people spend up to 80 percent of their day engaged in communication, but only 55 percent is devoted to listening to others. Also, people just retain about 17 to 25 percent of what they hear.

Working professionals encounter dialogue daily, but most have not received any training on how to tune in to actively listen to co-workers. So much information is lost when this does not occur, and because humans only retain a small percentage of what they hear, then it is even more important for business leaders to help professionals strengthen this skill. How can leaders encourage active listening?

  1. Identify How Listening (or lack thereof) Is Impacting the Organization

    If work is being produced with a lot of errors or performance review feedback is falling on deaf ears, then there is apparently a lack of active listening. Leaders need to take an audit of where the breakdown in communication is happening and track down the impact.

  2. Survey Everyone

    It is crucial to get the perspective of as many people as possible to see how their experience has been with listening to colleagues or being heard by others. It is a good idea to make it anonymous, so stakeholders feel comfortable being honest and transparent.

  3. Take Note of Trends

    Best Buy took note of how customer reviews and feedback was falling through the cracks. Eventually, they were able to identify ways to rectify this problem and get the feedback where it needed to go. Active listening involves the assessment of how messages are (or are not) being interpreted. So, taking note of those trends can help leaders develop a plan of attack.

  4. Make Everyone Aware of an Active Listening Initiative

    Leaders can encourage solidarity and unity in promoting a culture where active listening is a priority. Business leaders should let employees know the active impact listening has on productivity, employee satisfaction, and project completion. They should align this plan with organizational goals and reiterate the importance of all levels of the organization utilizing tactics to make sure that messages do not fall by the wayside.

  5. Implementation

    Leaders should identify three to five ways various levels of the organization can use effective leadership tactics to improve their work processes and better meet company goals. They should be clear, concise, and simple to implement.

Part 3

Active Listening Leadership: Best Practices

  1. Engagement Is Essential

    Becoming immersed in the daily processes of the organization is key to understanding where active listening is not happening. Leaders should listen carefully when employees share their opinions and offer perspectives on what is going on around them. If leaders make it a priority to follow-up with employees, then they can practice active listening and get to the root of other problems that may be on the rise.

  2. Training

    As said above, only 2 percent of employees have formal education in listening. Therefore, it is vital that leaders create training opportunities for employees and senior leadership to learn about various principles of active listening. They can employ the help of human resources or a consulting group to take works through multiple scenarios about how to listen actively.

  3. Focus on Behaviors

    Theory is great, but workers need to understand actions that encourage active listening: good eye contact, restating questions asked, asking follow-up questions, burying the need to come up with what they will say while others are speaking, are all qualities that companies should talk about while training.

  4. Lead by Example

    Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Mobile, made it a point to speak with employees and listen to what customers had to say. His efforts were seen by those he managed, and likely contributed to a culture of active listening. For employees to take active listening seriously, managers and senior leadership need to lead by example. They need to let employees know they value what they say and will not only hear it, but act on it. This will inspire employees to do the same with each other and go the extra mile for customers.

  5. Be Compassionate and Avoid Interruption

    Leaders have to care about what employees have to say genuinely. Their input, complaints, or ideas need to be acknowledged by leaders and seen as worthy of being looked at. It is easier for humans to listen and care about what others feel if they can relate to one another. The same is true in a workplace situation. Also, in a fast-paced culture, it can be easy for co-workers and managers to interrupt one another. To efficiently hear what others are saying it is appropriate for workers to keep themselves from disrupting others. This can halt the flow of ideas and make the other person forget that they have to say or feel what they say does not matter.

Active listening is just as essential as creating clear dialogue. If leaders can guide teams to understand the importance of effectively listening, then it can do wonders for productivity and overall employee engagement. Listening needs to be treated with the same amount of significance as public speaking to bring organizations to a higher level of functionality.