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Top 8 Traits of an Active Listener

What does it mean to be an active listener? For starters, it means to remain aware of the speaker and focus on what you are hearing. Are we always ready to hear what others have to say? No, and that's where active listening skills come in.

An active listener is an equal participant in the communication process. In the classic communication model below, the speaker is the “sender,” and the listener is the “receiver.” Between the two are those invisible steps in the process that can signal success, failure, or leave both people in a perpetual state of confusion at the end of the meeting.

This communication model appears in my eBook, Business Communication: Achieving Results, available at

  • Message Encoded: The speaker must choose words and phrases that the listener will understand. How well the information encodes depends on the speaker's ability to use tone and word choice to an advantage.

  • Channel: For a face-to-face meeting, the channel will also include the setting of the meeting.

  • Noise: Noise will have an impact on the channel. A busy cafe or a meeting room that is too large are poor choices for a one-on-one meeting.

  • Message Decoded: The listener takes in the information. How well -- and how much -- of the speaker's intended meaning comes across depends on the listener's skills.

Understand the role of the speaker.

1. Stay in the Moment

Clear your mind of thoughts about past events or future concerns before the meeting. Know that awareness and focus improve communication. Their overarching goal, of course, is for the listener to hear and understand the spoken message. The goal will be the same for all speakers regardless of title, status, or rank. Each one of these eight traits increases the likelihood that successful communication will occur, fulfilling the goal of the speaker and the listener.

If I go into a one-on-one meeting with a coworker in the middle of an extremely busy day, my thoughts will be scattered and I will undoubtedly feel my neck muscles contracting, causing a slightly bothersome headache. This is not a good sign for a successful listening session. What should I do? First, take a few deep breaths before entering the meeting room. Concentrating on the breathing, becoming aware of each inhalation and exhalation, is an excellent way to bring conscious attention to the here and now.

2. Suspend Judgement

Do not fall victim to your own selective hearing. We all have our triggers: those words, phrases, tones, and gestures from others that catapult us back into unfortunate situations that still reside in the recesses of our memory. We don’t have to understand why we react, just be aware that we do and work to recognize when the triggers are casting shadows on the current situation, influencing how we perceive the speaker.

In addition to triggers, humans tend to hear what they want to hear, attending only to content that agrees with their own background, values, and beliefs. We may have predictable reactions to information that runs contrary to our values. We may not hear the context in which the speaker presents the information, missing necessary content. We may shut down our listening behavior and fail to hear the entire message, judging every contrary word. Be aware of the instances in which you are coming to conclusions that cannot be supported by the information presented.

If we met with the speaker in other circumstances, we may recall how we felt about the person in the past and let our judgmental remembrance rule our attitude in the present. Again, be aware when this happens and understand that meetings should be judgement-free zones.

3. Maintain Attention

Do not be shy about asking to take a short break during a lengthy meeting, especially if you find your attention waning. A brief walk can help to reset your focus.

It takes practice to keep your thoughts still. If the information awakens your creativity or your problem-solving faculties, it may be necessary to jot down short notes to help you focus on the moment. You can always revisit the topics later.

4. Paraphrase

If you can paraphrase what the speaker has said, you demonstrate your ability to comprehend. You show that you are listening and understand the content of what the speaker has said. A lull in the conversation or a question posed to you by the speaker presents the perfect moment to engage in paraphrasing what you heard.

5. Ask Questions

Another way to express engagement is to ask questions. Most importantly, it helps you understand and expand on points you heard. Avoid interrupting the speaker in mid-sentence but do ask questions that are relevant to the topic under discussion. If you are concerned about forgetting the question, write it down.

6. Be Able to Summarize

At the conclusion of the meeting, summarize the speaker's main points as you have heard them. It doesn't have to be a long summation. With practice, you will learn and be able to summarize in broad terms that include any pain points expressed by the speaker.

7. Take Short Notes

If the meeting is long and complex, you may want to take short notes to boost your recall after the meeting's conclusion. You may need to check back with the speaker in a week or two to see how the topic has progressed. Was there a problem to solve? Was there a personal situation shared that you need to address?

In a busy, multi-tasking work environment, notes can be a lifeline for your memory. Inlude the time, place, and persons in attendance.

8. Ask for Clarification

Ask for clarification of terms that you do not clearly understand. If the speaker uses an industry phrase that is new to you, do not hesitate to ask for a definition. You might also need clarification when the speaker jumps from one topic to another in a seemingly abrupt manner, especially when the topic is a personal, emotional one.

An active listener is also an empathetic one, a skill to develop along with awareness and focus. That, however, is a subject for another blog post.

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