Five Simple Steps to Improve Your Active Listening Skills

Listening and empathy are inextricably linked.

What Is Active Listening?

Why do we put actively in front of listen and hail it as superior? Because most of us need to be reminded there is a difference. We can listen to the radio or TV in the background while we work, cook or converse with someone, but we might not be able to give you a very good summary, let alone tell you what we learned or most enjoyed from it.

When we “actively listen,” however, we are focused. The sounds (words, tone and emotions) are not simply around us. Instead, they penetrate us. Other distractions, even in my peripheral vision, are eliminated. Envision engagement moving from the edge of the mind to the innermost brain, capturing the imagination.

Active listening skills are paramount for leaders because we all need to be known.

Long touted as the cornerstone of Emotional Intelligence, empathy tells us this is so. Reflect for a moment on how important it is for you to be noticed by your leaders. What does it mean to be sought for your perspective, experience, knowledge or skill on various matters? Consider what this kind of recognition and affirmation has done for you, both personally and professionally. You can empathize with those looking for the same from you.

Do you prioritize this kind of attention for your team? Perhaps you might approach this as a specific way you can pay it forward, with active listening as the investment you make to support the people you lead, develop and influence.

How To Improve Active Listening?

Include Informal Interaction In Every Meeting

Realize that the personal exchanges in the hallway, over coffee, when a group spontaneously runs out for a bite or exits a board room, have evaporated. That was where life got lived. Info about the kids, the new car, the upcoming vacation and the diagnosis of their ailing parent was shared here. Leaders must deliberately and consistently create time and space for this relationship building in a virtual and remote environment or risk the continued waning of kindnesses, camaraderie, understanding and trust building between teammates.

Look At Them

Put down your phone and pen and raise your eyes to focus on their face. Simply by looking at someone, you will hear more and more deeply. Furthermore, position their face right below your camera so your eyes look almost directly into the webcam. In Zoom, for example, you can grab and drag a square (face) anywhere in the grid; continually move the speaker’s square to top center under your camera.

Don’t Look At Content When Presenting

When sharing your screen as a presenter, don’t look at the content on the screen. You created it and you know what it says, so look into the camera instead. Each person in the group will sense that you are looking at them, individually. Also, examine their reactions to your content. Do they appear puzzled? Intrigued? Dismayed? Pleased? Finally, consider hiding just your webcam image so you aren’t tempted to look only at yourself.

Notice Non-Verbal Communications

Listen for what they are not putting into words. Which expressions cross their face? When they speak, how would you describe their tone, pitch, speed and volume, and what do these indicate? Are they able to match your gaze? Why or why not? Do not presume, ask. Confirm the signals and cues you notice so your imaginations or projections don’t become a false narrative. Give the person the opportunity to confirm or correct you for complete clarity and honesty.

Pick Up Your Pen

There is a time to just listen and a time to take notes. This communicates that what you are hearing is important to you and there are actions you will take based on their information and ideas. If you take digital notes, moving your gaze to a second screen or monitor, let the person know where you are looking and why so they don’t wonder if you are multitasking or distracted.

Leverage Effective Communication Tools

Use repetition, paraphrase and summary to demonstrate that you have heard them. Say, “What I hear you saying is” or “The two things you appear to be most concerned about are”. Once the message is clearly received, ask follow-up questions like, “How will that benefit the team/our client?” or “If I could get that resource/permission/result, what would that bring to you/our team/this project?” or “Based on our conversation, I would like to take the following action(s)”.


  1. Of the list of five action tips listed above, which one pricked your conscience? Determine to practice it DAILY for the next week … and take note of the visible impact this has on people you listen to.
  2. Share your focus area with someone you trust. Invite them to ask you throughout the week about your progress and observations. If they are in meetings with you, ask them to provide you feedback and what they observed as others responded to your efforts.