To get a taste of what listening well is like imagine listening to music. Most people listen to people the way they listen to background music, tuning in and out when something catches their interest. Active listening is being fully present much like when you’re wearing your headphones and are totally focused on a new tune.
To listen well there are some obvious first steps like removing distractions like your phone, computer screen, or ambient background noise. Remind yourself that you are not listening to “fix” anything, that will help you focus on hearing what is being said. Let the person reveal the issue. Acknowledge their experience and validate their feelings otherwise it’s likely the person will shut down. It could sound like this “I completely messed up that customer call and I think I’m going to be fired.” Instead of “don’t worry, you’re not going to get fired” which dismisses their concern, say “Oh no, what happened?”
Encourage the person to elaborate by asking open-ended questions. Make eye contact and lean forward if you’re in person to signal your interest. Show you heard what was said by paraphrasing what you heard back to the other person. This helps ensure you heard accurately and it helps the other person feel understood.
Once you’ve confirmed the other person has disclosed the entirety of what they need to say ask them what they’d like from you. Try “How can I best support you?” or “What would be most helpful—for instance would you like to brainstorm some solutions?” Ask permission so that the control remains with the person who is talking.
Effective communication is a two-way street and improving how you receive information will help minimize misunderstanding, build better bonds, and increase both your efficiency and effectiveness.