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Mentoring skill: Active listening

Find out how active listening can help you to interact better with your mentee and others.

What is active listening?

Active listening is a way of listening that makes sure you stay engaged with the person who is speaking, demonstrate to them that you are paying attention, and fully understand what is said. As the name suggests, this requires more action on your part than just sitting quietly and not interrupting.

Components of active listening

Staying engaged

It can be easy to get distracted during a conversation. To stay engaged:

  • Look at the person you're speaking to, rather than looking around the room
  • Avoid distractions, such as looking at your phone or checking the time
  • Think about what is being said, not what you will say in reply
  • Pay attention to tone of voice and body language as well as the words being used

Showing that you are listening

It's important that the person you are listening to knows that you are listening. The steps you use to stay engaged will help, but there are some extra things you can do to demonstrate that you are paying attention.

If you are an engaged listener then you'll do most of these things without having to think about it, but it can be useful to be aware of whether you are doing them or not.

  • Use body language, like nodding your head or smiling when you agree with something
  • Use your posture to show you are engaged: stand up straight or lean slightly forward while sitting, and don't slouch
  • Give occasional short verbal responses, like a quick 'yeah' - but take care not to do this too much, as it may distract the person you are talking to

Responding

The challenge of listening doesn't end when the other person stops speaking. It's important to respond appropriately so that the other person knows that you have understood them.

Start by quickly paraphrasing what you think the other person is saying. This will make sure that you have understood and help you to remember what was said.

Give the other person a chance to confirm your impression of what they were saying, or to correct you if you have misunderstood. After this, you can move on to your response - but keep in mind the needs of the person you are listening to while you do so.

Active listening online

If you're communicating by writing online, you can still use some of the principles of active listening to improve your communication. For example:

  • Take the time to read through messages carefully. It's easy to misread things, especially if you approach a message based on your own assumptions.
  • When you reply, try to summarize your understanding of what the other person said before you respond to it. This will help to avoid misunderstandings and to keep you on topic.
  • If you read a message and you know it will be a while before you reply, send an acknowledgement with an estimate of when you will respond fully. This will reassure the other person that they aren't being ignored.