Active Listening (and Why It's A Skill You Need)

  • Alanna Harvey
  • 11 April 2017
  • 07:26 PM

As a former college student, I remember one morning arriving to class a few minutes before it began. Taking a seat with a coffee in hand, I unfolded the newspaper I'd picked up on the subway ride over and began reading (it was 2010 and I didn't consume news on my phone yet). Once class started, I didn't look up from the paper until my teacher loudly repeated, for a second time, that I put it away.

It was a simple enough lesson to learn: showing you're listening is polite; ignoring the speaker in favor of your own interests is not

Today, however, sitting through the average lecture, presentation, or meeting, a truly engaged audience member is now the exception. Listeners are normally in two places at once, and the speaker is expected not to say or do anything about it. If the speaker is unable to retain the engagement of their audience, it's presumably their fault for boring the listener.


Similarly, in education, I've consistently heard how it's the role of an educator to engage their students every minute of the lesson, whether or not the material is boring or uninteresting. If students become disengaged, the educator is at fault and their teaching style should change; while an alternative view is that if students choose not to listen, it's their prerogative, and they'll have to deal with the consequences of their actions later on. 

The problem with either perspective is this: not all of life's conversations, lessons, activities, or presentations will be engaging. Some will indeed be boring and others excruciatingly mundane. But it isn't automatically the fault of the speaker or educator, who should have come up with a more interesting way of presenting the material or discussing the topic. The purpose of listening is not simply to be tested or graded in order to prove your knowledge later on.

The purpose of listening is not simply to be tested or graded in order to prove your knowledge later on.

Active listening is a skill that every boring, uninteresting, or seemingly worthless discussion provides room for practice. It's a basic skill people will benefit more from today than ever before.

Why Practice Listening?

Active listeners are a dying breed. For every one conversation that is had without evidence of a cell phone or distraction present, dozens more needlessly interrupted by pings, buzzes, and poor excuses to check out.

Engaged conversations, between those who show their attentiveness, willingness to listen, and care for the words that are said, are remembered. It's your responsibility, as another human being, to become that engaged listener.

How to Become an Active Listener

1. Bring a notebook, not a laptop

My notebook is filled with dated conversations — from brief phone calls, to elaborate meetings, and everything in between. I take my notebook with me for discussions and presentations of all kinds, and I frequently refer to notes that are months old with ease.

I understand many people's gripes with paper note-taking: their chicken-scratch is illegible, they can't write "quickly enough", or their paper notes are poorly organized compared to digital equivalents. But Harvard Law School Professor, Carol Steiker, argues that paper note-taking, compared to typing notes, forces listeners to become better at, simply, listening. "Students can't write fast enough to do a transcript, so they have to figure out what is most important," she says. Writing notes by hand forces you to absorb what's being said and form your own thought around it.

You can't write fast enough to do a transcript, so they have to figure out what is most important. 

2. Search for the relevance

Any conversation has its value if you listen for it. If it isn't the material, then perhaps it's the speaker; if it isn't the speaker, then perhaps it's the questions the audience will ask, or even the ideas you explore afterward with your peers or alone.

I often write down or make note of thoughts I have while I'm listening. This forces me to actively listen for cues that may be a good opportunity to ask a question or pose a thought later on. But I'm not someone who throws my hand up at every chance: if I don't find the opportunity to speak up or I decide not to, I can at least refer to my line of thinking and bring it up later with a colleague or friend, or even research my thoughts afterward.

In Sherry Turkle's book, Reclaiming Conversation, she emphasizes that boredom in conversation is something we can grow from. "I want students to daydream," she says. "If they went off in thought, they might be making the private connection that pulls the course together for them." In other words, getting caught in a thought is far better than getting distracted by technology that brings the listener somewhere else entirely.

I want students to daydream. If they went off in thought, they might be making the private connection that pulls the course together for them. 

3. Be Polite to the Speaker

You'd be surprised how much one person, and even others around you, will appreciate your uninterrupted eye contact during a conversation. They'll especially notice your unflinching to check your phone when it buzzes while they're speaking.

Keeping your phone face down on the table could be a strategic move, for example, if you're willing to boldly say, when it pings, "I can ignore it, this conversation is more important to me." What a way to make the person feel important in a world that often treats the speaker as second to everyone else.

If you struggle with self-control, then the above suggestion may not work for you. Keep your devices on silent and away from your line of vision if you want to show a level of etiquette to the speaker that will put you above others. 


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