Years ago, during an internal interview for a training role, I had to give a presentation. While I was speaking, one of the managers in the room closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair, and remained that way for the whole presentation. It threw me off a bit – thankfully, there were other people in the room and I directed my presentation towards them.

A few weeks later, I passed the manager in the corridor – and he stopped me and thanked me for my presentation, going into detail about how valuable he found it. He had listened intently to every word I had said and remembered it. And yet, when I was watching him, I had no idea that he was listening; I thought he was asleep!

It was a great example of the effect that passive listening – as opposed to active listening – can have on someone, and highlighted the value of active listening, whether you’re watching a presentation, negotiating, having an important conversation, or just want to build better relationships with the people around you.

Passive vs. Active Listening

Passive listening, as I found during my presentation, can lead speakers to falter or withdraw. When we feel unheard, we’re less inclined to share our thoughts openly. On the other hand, when you demonstrate active listening, you build trust with the person you’re interacting with, encouraging them to be more open and less defensive.

The Art of Active Listening

Want to master the skill of active listening? Here are five ways to show you’re really listening.

1. Eye Contact

Meeting someone’s gaze demonstrates that you’re fully present and listening to what they have to say.

2. Body Language

Lean in to show you’re engaged – don’t slump in your chair, let your gaze wander or close your eyes. Subtly mirror their body language with your own. Establishing rapport through body language builds trust.

3. Verbal Cues

Subtle affirmations like nods, “uh huh,” and “OK” indicate your attentiveness. Avoid interrupting the speaker, but small verbal cues show you’re engaging with what they have to say.

4. Summarising

Reflect back a condensed version of what was said. This shows that you not only listened but understood the essence of their message – and is also a good way to ensure you didn’t miss anything important. 

5. Ask questions

When it’s appropriate (in a natural break in the conversation, or at the end of their presentation), ask questions. This is a great way to keep the conversation going, to engage the person you’re talking to, and to demonstrate that you were listening to what they had to say.

People Remember Active Listeners

Even if you find it difficult to speak up in group settings, you can still demonstrate active listening – and believe me, the speaker will notice. A delegate of one of my NLP Business Practitioner courses once told me about a group interview she attended for a sales job. The first day involved a presentation by some of the sales team followed by a group discussion and exercises for the interviewees. At the end of the day, she met with the hiring manager and was offered the job; he mentioned that even though there were other people who spoke up more during the group discussion, when the sales team were presenting she was fully engaged, clearly listening to everything they were saying, and that was why they’d chosen her.

Active Listening Helps You Build Better Relationships

We’ve all been in one of those conversations where you can tell the person you’re talking to isn’t really listening to what you’re saying; they’re just waiting until it’s their turn to speak. On the other hand, having a conversation with someone who’s fully engaged with you, making eye contact and asking great questions, is really enjoyable, often gets you to open up more than you normally would, and you’ll always remember that person positively.

Whether you’re negotiating an important deal, at a job interview or delivering difficult feedback, active listening will help you get the results you want – but it’ll also help you to build better relationships with the people around you, which has long-lasting benefits beyond whatever you hoped to achieve with one conversation.

Active listening is really simple, and it’s a great skill to practice. I challenge you to take what you’ve learned in this blog post, and use it in the interactions you have for the rest of the week – and notice the effect it has. You’ll almost certainly get more out of those interactions than you would as a passive listener.

If you’d like to develop your active listening skills further, have a look at my Active Listening microlearning course on my online academy Evolve Online Learning. It’s a short, focused 10 minute course designed to develop your active listening skills.