The term “active listening” is easy to misinterpret. Oftentimes, it’s used to describe the nonverbal cues (like nodding and direct eye contact) that we use to show someone that we’re paying attention to what they’re saying. Other times, it’s used to refer to minimal encouragers—short verbal expressions like “uh-huh” and “hmm” that we interject to demonstrate our engagement. Although both examples are powerful communication techniques, they don’t fully encompass or explain what makes this approach active.
What Makes Active Listening Active?
First and foremost, active listening requires an engaged mind. It’s “active” in the sense that it demands your undivided attention and concentration on your counterpart, this action encompasses a variety of communication techniques. Rather than listening to hear, active listening demands that you listen with the intention of understanding. To better emphasize this distinction, we at The Black Swan Group like to refer to active listening as “listening with tactical empathy.”
Although it sounds simple, training your mind to fully engage in the act of listening and withhold personal judgment requires discipline and practice. Most of the time, we listen on a superficial level to hear certain words, or just long enough to get the gist of what someone is saying. Once we think we know where they’re heading, our attention shifts back inward, where we silently compare what we heard to our own logic and worldview. Although we’re still hearing the words that are being spoken (and may even nod in encouragement), we’re mental light-years away.
Even when we think we’re fully engaged in a discussion, we often listen with the wrong objectives. In an effort to protect our autonomy or prove our value, we tend to only listen for information to confirm our own potential misunderstandings (assumptions) or for weaknesses on which to launch a rebuttal. Although we may think we’re two steps ahead, this type of selective listening actually diminishes our power and situational awareness. It also makes us appear less empathetic, trustworthy, and likeable.
Why Listening with Tactical Empathy Matters
Listening with the goal of understanding engages more of your brain and your senses. To truly understand someone, you must listen for dynamic information that will help you see the world from their perspective. In addition to hearing the words your counterpart is saying, try to identify the pictures in their heads, the emotions that are driving their decisions, and the fears that are influencing their perceptions. If you have a sense of how the world looks and feels from their point of view, you can be preemptive with tactical empathy to diminish negatives and win their trust.
Although we call this approach “listening,” it’s more than just an auditory exercise. It involves paying attention to nonverbal cues like body language, tone, syntax, energy, context, and environment. By piecing all of these clues together, you’ll be able to uncover what someone is really telling you—which may be different than what they’ve explicitly said with their words. In a way, listening with tactical empathy involves listening between the lines. When you focus your attention on what wasn’t said (as opposed to what was), your EQ kicks into high gear and your own emotions are forced to take a back seat. At times this may even be described as a “gut reaction”. What are they really telling you?
In addition to demanding your full attention, listening with tactical empathy is active in the sense that it requires strategic communication. In order to “sound out” your counterpart and gain all the information you need to build trust and influence, you need to encourage them to open up. Communication techniques like mirrors, labels, calibrated questions, and no-oriented questions are great information-gathering tools. They’re also an effective means of pinpointing and confirming underlying dynamics. Is your counterpart acting standoffish or hesitant? Are their responses measured or vague? Confirm what their energy is telling you by combining a label and a calibrated question:
- It sounds like there’s something missing. How can I position this in a way that makes you more comfortable?
Pro Tips to Improve Your Listening Prowess
As you work to identify underlying dynamics, remember that sounding someone out involves a bit of educated guessing. When you use a label, you’re essentially suggesting what you think you hear. By opening with the phrase “it seems like ...” or “it sounds like …” (as opposed to making “I” statements), you create a built-in safety net. Even if you miss the mark, you’ve given your counterpart the opportunity to correct you and show that you’re making an attempt to understand where they’re coming from.
It’s also worth noting that listening in itself is a form of communication. As you attempt to read all the signals your counterpart is giving off, they’re also attempting to read you. Be cognizant of the energy you’re exuding and the tone you’re using to communicate. As you deliver a mirror, lean forward slightly, tilt your head, and use an inquisitive tone. When you use a label, be careful not to sound definitive or accusing. Being aware of your own body language will help you manage the energy in the room and create a more comfortable environment for your counterpart.
Taking handwritten notes is losing popularity in the digital age, but it can be a powerful listening aid. In the act of committing words and key conversation points to paper, you’ll help your brain connect the dots and formulate summaries, labels, mirrors, and calibrated questions. If you’re negotiating as a team, sharing your notes after the negotiation is a great way to facilitate communication and determine where to pick up next time. As an added benefit, the act of note-taking is often interpreted as a form of respect. If someone is explaining something to you, writing it down shows that you think what they’re saying is important and deserves priority.
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