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What's the Difference Between Active Communication and Active Listening?

By |May 13, 2019

In negotiation training, the terms “active communication” and “active listening” get thrown around often. While these two terms share commonalities, they also have major differences.

Understanding how to be an active communicator and an active listener—and knowing how the two can play off each other—will help you achieve better outcomes in negotiations

First things first, some brief definitions:

  • Active communication is a technique that enables you to verbally and nonverbally communicate in a way that makes you agreeable and easy to understand.
  •  Active listening is a technique that uses verbal and nonverbal cues (e.g., eye contact and nodding along) to indicate that you’re making a real effort to understand your counterpart and makes it easier for you to be trusted.

Now that you’re familiar with both concepts, let’s explore each in more detail.

active communication

How Are Active Communication and Active Listening Different?

At a basic level, active communication is typically me-focused (e.g., “What do I need to do differently?”), while active listening is typically you-focused (e.g., “What can I get my counterpart to do differently?”).

Though they’re on different ends of the spectrum, the premise behind each is actually the same—they are both accomplished by adjusting your behavior. With a simple shift in mindset and use of emotional intelligence, you begin to focus on how changing your behavior will help you get a better response out of your counterpart.

How Active Communication Leads to Active Listening

Once you have an understanding of active communication and active listening, you’ll begin to see how these two skills complement each other.

Active communication often creates opportunities for active listening. By setting the tone of collaboration initially, you’ll then open the floor for your counterpart to return the favor.

Usually, when someone gets a “yes,” they stop listening. Maybe the other side says “yes, and ...” or “yes, but ...”—in many cases, your brain shuts off after the “yes,” and valuable information is lost to the ether.

This is a huge red flag in negotiation. After you’ve nailed your active communication, don’t forget that it’s now your turn to listen intently to their response. Remember, the real meat of a conversation isn’t what comes out of your mouth; it’s what comes out of theirs.

This is why we place so much focus on labels. Labels force you to listen. When you keep asking yourself what you’re going to label in the conversation, your brain is focused on incoming information—not on what you’re going to say next. You listen because you know that you need their words to inform your next move.

Advice for Those New to Active Listening and Active Communication

If you’re new to the idea of becoming an active listener and an active communicator, this mental shift could be a challenge initially.

Most people have been conditioned to go into a negotiation thinking they should immediately state their case and make a point. You have to stop thinking this way altogether. While there are times when you should definitely speak first, your communication efforts should always be focused on gathering more information. Understanding the value of listening is one of the first steps toward sharpening your negotiation skills.

Have patience—with yourself and with the process. If you’re not used to this approach, going into a conversation with the intention of understanding can seem like a waste of time. But in reality, this approach will bring you to a point of collaboration and problem-solving much faster. In the long run it also shortens your time frame.  Differing opinions always take longer to solve than joint efforts to address issues.

We always mean well when we have the solution and implementation figured out. You would think it would save lots of time for both sides if we started with the solution. However, with this approach, there’s an undertone of, “I’m smarter than you; I know your problem better than you do.” If your communication makes the other side feel this way, they will almost certainly dig their heels in. The negotiation table is where solutions are created, not presented.

Active Listening and Active Communication: Building Trust

Active communication is a tool that helps the other side feel comfortable. Timing and deliver of any communication is imperative, the use of silence is an ever present part of execution at the table as well. The goal to uncovering the unknowns is getting your counterpart opened up and thinking out loud in front of you—which puts you in a prime spot to showcase your active listening skills and gain a deeper understanding. By knowing human nature and putting more focus on understanding the other side, you build rapport and trust—making your ultimate case that much more persuasive. Human beings want to help those they trust.

Once you’ve made it that far, odds are the person on the other end has already started to consider how they are going to help you. An indicator that a deal is that much closer is when they are suggesting the solutions.

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