People often assume it’s what they say that matters most in job interviews or in conversations with supervisors or coworkers. After all, you can’t prove yourself and what you’re capable of without first telling the people around you what you know, right?
What if we told you the key to making advances in your career isn’t just about what you say? What if boosting your career has as much to do with how you listen? Or how proficient you are at active listening, to be precise.
- What Is Active Listening?
- Why Is Active Listening Important for Your Career?
- How Can Active Listening Help Your Job Search?
- How Can You Demonstrate Active Listening?
- How Can You Improve Your Active Listening Skills?
What Is Active Listening?
“Active listening is simply the act of listening with intent and strategy,” says Nadia Ibrahim-Taney, a university career coach and lecturer who spends her days teaching students how to get hired and be successful in the professional workplace. The art of active listening is one of the lessons she hopes her students retain when they leave her classroom.
Researchers have called active listening “the highest and most effective level of listening,” describing it as listening for content, intent, and the feelings of the person you are listening to. “It’s...a way of gathering more information and data for deeper insight into what a person might be feeling or saying,” explains Leigh Espy, a project management and leadership coach with 20 years of experience.
But active listening isn’t just about what you retain from a conversation—it’s also about how you communicate that interest and attention to the person you’re speaking to, through both verbal and non-verbal cues. “Active listening is a way of listening that uses body language and words to let others know you’re listening, engaged, and really hearing what they're saying,” Espy says.
It’s a skill that may come more naturally to some than to others, but one that most everyone can work on developing. And for the sake of your career, you should.
Why Is Active Listening Important for Your Career?
“Active listening is important in a work environment in several ways,” Espy says, and it’s likely to benefit your day-to-day work as well as your career in the long run.
It can help you:
Get the Information You Need
When you learn to adopt a completely engaged listening style, you’re able to gather all the information you need to successfully complete a project. In some cases, it will save you from having to return to your supervisor with additional questions and in others, it will ensure that you know when you do in fact need more information. Either way, it allows you to present yourself as a smart and thoughtful self-starter who can get the job done.
“Active listening is a fundamental competency in effective and efficient work collaboration and success,” Ibrahim-Taney says. “If you aren’t understood or you’re not understanding someone else, it makes it very difficult for you and your team or client to move forward.”
Reduce Misunderstandings and Wasted Work
Of course, if you’re actively listening and working to be a proficient communicator, one of the obvious benefits is that there will be fewer opportunities for misunderstandings that could lead to work being completed inefficiently or incorrectly. When everyone understands expectations, underlying intentions and goals, and other nuances around what’s being said, chances are much higher that work will be completed correctly the first time around.
Build Successful Working Relationships
Active listening can also help to de-escalate tense situations and improve morale among team members. When you show someone you’re making them and what they have to say a priority, they’re more likely to feel heard and valued. This helps to build self-esteem and rapport among coworkers you communicate with, and can ultimately lead to better outcomes.
Make You Someone People Want to Work With—and Recommend to Others
Active listening can also have a long-term impact on your career. Simply put, it makes you someone others are going to be more interested in working alongside, now and in the future.
When you listen attentively and thoughtfully, it makes people feel seen, heard, and supported, Ibrahim-Taney says, which can increase loyalty among your coworkers and supervisors, even in the face of complications and mistakes. And while the quality of your work is of course important, people tend to remember how easy or difficult other colleagues are to work with and how they felt when they were working with you. Good listening skills make you someone they’re more likely to seek out again or recommend for projects, jobs, and other opportunities.
How Can Active Listening Help Your Job Search?
Of course, building relationships often takes time and a variety of conversations over a period of working together. But that doesn’t mean active listening can’t be beneficial in shorter-term settings such as job interviews. In fact, Ibrahim-Taney says active listening can often mean the difference between getting an offer or not.
“Active listening in an interview shows you are present, interested, and actively part of the conversation, not thinking about the next answer you want to give or the next question you hope to ask,” Ibrahim-Taney says. “Staying in the same mental space as your interviewer makes them feel like you are part of the interview together and it becomes more of a casual conversation with an organic back-and-forth.” When hiring managers feel good about applicants, she says, they’re more likely to move them on to the next stages of hiring.
As an applicant, active listening also provides you with more details about the job and people you’d be working alongside—information that can help you decide if this is really the position for you.
How Can You Demonstrate Active Listening?
If one of the main goals of active listening is helping people to feel heard, how you demonstrate those listening skills matters.
It’s pretty straightforward, in theory. “Active listening can be done by engaging in one activity: truly listening to the speaker,” Espy says. That doesn’t mean it’s simple, though. “It's easy to be distracted by other things or think about what we're going to say next. Active listening takes effort.”
It’s an effort you can put forth by first focusing on your own non-verbal communication:
- Make eye contact.
- Turn your body toward the person you’re speaking with.
- Nod to show understanding or agreement.
- Take brief notes if this is a work-related conversation where retaining information will be important to a future project.
- React with appropriate facial expressions (smile when the speaker says something funny, for instance).
- Pay attention to their body language—is there anything they are telling you without saying it? “If a person says they’re calm, yet they’re fidgeting or tense, you have indicators to tell you otherwise,” Espy says. And those indicators may give you a chance to ask questions that show you are paying attention.
This brings us to ways you can verbally engage in active listening, which is especially important during remote meetings, virtual brainstorming sessions, and other conversations you have without the benefit of being in the same room. “A great way to verbalize active listening is to summarize and confirm back to the person the subject of what they were trying to communicate,” Ibrahim-Taney says. To best accomplish this, she suggests:
- Asking questions to clarify needs and concerns. If you’re being asked to take over the planning of an annual work event, for example, you might want to ask about the goals and desired impact of the event as well as the obstacles former planners have run into in the past.
- Using the information you receive from their answers to reframe or clarify the problem. If you’re told previous planners have had the most trouble finalizing a location, you could say, “Okay, so to ensure we’re on track, we should probably focus on location before other logistics and aim to finalize a venue by [date]. Does that sound right to you?”
- Presenting some potential solutions based on what you learned. Here you might suggest reaching out to previous venues that worked well to find out if they are available again before calling other local hotels about their conference rooms. This is a great time to reiterate your priority of finalizing a location first and foremost.
“When I became a career coach, I had to learn patience and active listening skills,” says Ibrahim-Taney, who uses these techniques regularly in her own line of work.
For example, “If a client communicates they’re upset they aren’t getting a job, I will ask probably five to six follow-up questions really narrowing in on the pain points.” While she knows the main issue is they want a job and are upset they haven’t been successful in their job search, she says that by asking these questions she may find out they are worried their resume, interviewing skills, or LinkedIn profile are holding them back.
These are specific problems that can be solved—problems she is only able to identify by staying present, taking notes, and asking strategic investigative questions. Once she has that information, she reframes the concerns back to her client and makes suggestions for addressing those concerns.
How Can You Improve Your Active Listening Skills?
Here’s the good news: Even if you feel like you’re not the best listener now, active listening is a skill that can be developed.
“As with all skills, active listening is learned and therefore can be enhanced through practice and feedback,” Ibrahim-Taney says. Rather than waiting until you are in a meeting with your boss or are interviewing for your dream job, start by practicing active listening now. Today. In every conversation you have with every person you meet. “Find folks that are willing to sit with you for five to ten minutes and just talk about their day.” During those conversations, focus on listening and paying attention without getting distracted. Then practice asking questions and reframing what you learned from the conversation.
You could also look into signing up for interpersonal skills courses that focus on developing active listening. Or you could join networking groups with your main goal being to practice your active listening skills.
No matter what setting, or settings, you choose to practice in, know that “the more you do it, the easier it becomes and feels second nature versus a learned skill,” Ibrahim-Taney says. And the more comfortable and confident you become with active listening, the more you’ll find it benefits you in your career.