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How to Be an Active Listener While Public Speaking

How to be an Active Listener


By Liz Peterson - February 21, 2022

Communication is a two-way street. All too often, when public speaking or giving a presentation, people focus on the speaking. After all, that’s the part where the spotlight is on us. But listening (or active listening) is equally as important; for a start, it’s how we know our message or lesson has been received. Learning how to be an active listener, therefore, is a valuable lesson, not just for public speaking but in all our social interactions.

Most of us aren’t as good at listening as we’d like to admit. More often than not, we’re not truly listening to other people; we’re waiting our turn.

In the words of Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Such an attitude means listening is turned into another form of speaking – like the pause between breaths. But listening is so much more.

How to be an Active Listener

In this article, I’ll explain how to be an active listener. We’ll examine some tips to improve our listening skills, as well as just why it’s so valuable to listen before you speak.

What is active listening?

Active listening is the skill of listening, comprehending, and digesting a speaker’s message – and then responding thoughtfully. It takes Stephen Covey’s observation and flips it around. No longer are you listening to reply; this is listening to understand.

The aim is to retain the message being conveyed. There are two key benefits of active listening:

  1. You learn more from the people around you.
  2. Speakers feel more valued – because they know they’re actually being heard.

Even better, it’s just polite. We all know when people aren’t listening to us. Yet, many of us still do it. Learning how to be an active listener is, therefore, a highly valued interpersonal communication skill. It’s also a lot more rewarding. After all, everyone knows something you don’t.

How to be an active listener

Research suggests we only remember 25 to 50 percent of what we hear. When you’re talking to your friends, family, colleagues, or clients for 10 minutes, they’ve only heard half the conversation. On the flip side, it also means you likely remember less than half of what you’re told. 

Active listening is therefore critical to avoiding misunderstandings and reducing potential conflict. Here are five tips that’ll teach you how to be a better active listener.

1. Listen

Sounds a little obvious? It is. Listening is the first step to active listening. But, if it were so easy, we’d already be doing it. So, how can we improve?

The trick is to listen with the intent to describe – for we can only describe what we understand. Try to paraphrase the speaker’s message back to them at key moments to show you fully understand their meaning. It’ll also help clear up any vague details.

Example: “So what you’re saying is, you need to hire additional team members because the new contract has doubled your current workload.

That’s not your only option for a response.

2. Ask open questions

Open questions do not have a “yes” or “no” response. “Is the bakery open?” is a closed question. “What are the bakery’s opening times?” is an open question. In active listening – and good communication in general – always start with an open question. Your question should show you’ve understood the essence of their message but now need further information.

Example: “That’s a good point – the new contract is large. What new positions do we need to prioritise to meet the increased demand?

Only once you’ve understood the broader topic can you drill down into the specifics with a close question: “Would five new team members be enough?”

3. Don’t interrupt

Interrupting is the cardinal sin of active listening. In general, if someone is still speaking, they still have something to say. Nor is every pause an opportunity to jump in. The longer you let the other person speak, the greater your chance of understanding their message. 

Of course, public speaking is never so clear cut. For example, in a group discussion, you may need to interject for clarification quickly. Afterwards, a simple “So, you were saying…” will steer the conversation back on topic.

4. Maintain eye contact and an open posture

What’s the surest sign someone isn’t listening? They’re looking elsewhere. The eyes aren’t just a window into our souls; they also betray our inner thoughts. If we’re bored, or distracted, or disinterested, our eyes drift. It’s natural.

But it’s the antithesis of active listening.

That’s not to say you should stare – as intense eye contact is intimidating. Rather, glance at each eye for five seconds before looking away. After a while, it becomes second nature.

An open posture will also convey an open mind. Avoid crossing your arms and legs – it looks defensive or closed. Instead, lean forwards slightly and nod or affirm (“Yes”, “I understand”) along with what they’re saying. 

5. Add to the message; don’t deviate

Sudden, seemingly random tangents are the clearest sign of disinterest. When replying to a speaker, share similar experiences or recall previously shared information. 

Example: “Last week, you mentioned Samantha is going on maternity leave. How does that affect the current staffing situation?”

Empathy is also a fantastic example of how to be an active listener. Empathy is often confused with sympathy. But while sympathy is feeling sorry for someone’s situation, empathy shows you understand it. It creates mutual trust and a deeper connection. In short, the speaker feels heard.

Example: “You’ve done a fantastic job under difficult circumstances. Let’s see how we can get you more resources.”

Conclusion

Learning how to be an active listener can feel unnatural at first. Passive listening is our default setting. But as you practice these techniques, using verbal and non-verbal cues to convey your understanding, you will improve. All it takes is a little effort – it is active listening, after all.

Learn to be an Active Listener!

Need help learning how to be an active listener? Contact Speech and Voice Enterprises today and learn about our online 2-Day Public Speaking Seminarsaccent reductionvoice improvement training, and more online public speaking courses today!

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