Tips and Techniques for Active Listening

In today’s high-tech, high-speed, high-stress world, communication is more important then ever, yet we seem to devote less and less time to really listening to one another. Genuine listening has become a rare gift — the gift of time. It helps build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding, resolve conflicts, and improve accuracy. Active listening means fewer errors and less wasted time. It’s also the key to great service.

Here are a few tips to assist your frontline staff listen more actively to customers. It can also help supervisors become better listeners and coaches.

  1. Realize you may need to compensate over the phone for the missing elements of eye contact and non-verbal cues. Paying attention is easier in person. By simply making eye contact and paying attention to someone’s body language and physical actions, you get a better picture of not just words, but a physical message. Keep in mind that you miss this over the phone and that it is even more important to take the extra steps of active listening.
  2. Screen out distractions. Mentally screen out other elements around you, like background activity or the conversation going on in the next cubicle. In addition, try not to focus on the speaker’s accent or speech mannerisms to the point where they become distractions. Finally, don’t be distracted by your own thoughts, feelings, or biases.
  3. Keep an open mind. Listen without judging the other person or mentally criticizing the things the caller tells you. If what the customer says alarms you, go ahead and feel alarmed, but don’t say to yourself, “Well, that was a stupid move.” As soon as you indulge in judgmental bemusements, you’ve compromised your effectiveness as a listener.Listen without jumping to conclusions. Remember that customers are using language to represent their thoughts and feelings. You don’t know what those thoughts and feelings are and the only way you’ll find out is by listening.
  4. Don’t be a sentence-grabber. There are many times where we get the same questions or explanations over and over again. It’s tempting to jump ahead of the customer, thinking we’re saving them some time by speeding up and finishing their sentences.While you might know the rest of the sentence or question, it’s rude to interrupt and not allow the customer to finish. And even worse, you may have totally misjudged what the caller was going to say. The caller may be thinking, “Do you want to have this conversation by yourself, or do you want to hear what I have to say?”
  5. Make a mental picture of what you’re hearing. Allow your mind to create a mental model of the information being communicated. Whether a literal picture, or an arrangement of abstract concepts, your brain will do the necessary work if you stay focused, with senses fully alert. When listening for long stretches, concentrate on, and perhaps jot down, key words and phrases. Concentrate on what is being said, even if it bores you. If your thoughts start to wander, immediately force yourself to refocus.
  6. Listen with the intent to understand, not with the intent to reply. When it’s your turn to listen, don’t spend the time planning what to say next. You can’t rehearse and listen at the same time. Think only about what the other person is saying.
  7. Be patient and don’t interrupt. Children used to be taught that it’s rude to interrupt. I’m not sure that message is getting across anymore. Certainly, the opposite is being modeled on the majority of talk shows and reality programs, where the norm seems to be everyone talking at once.

    Interrupting sends a variety of messages. It says:

    • “I’m more important than you are.”
    • “What I have to say is more interesting, accurate, or relevant.”
    • “I don’t really care what you think.”
    • “I don’t have time for your opinion.”
    • “This isn’t a conversation, it’s a contest, and I’m going to win.”

    We all think and speak at different rates. If you are a quick thinker and an agile talker, the burden is on you to relax your pace for the slower, more thoughtful communicator — or for the guy who has trouble expressing himself.

    When listening to someone talk about a problem, refrain from suggesting solutions until the caller is finished. You may not know the best solution until you hear the entire problem.

  8. Ask clarifying questions. When you don’t understand something, of course you should ask the speaker to explain it to you. But rather than interrupt, wait until the speaker pauses. Use some of the key words and phrases used by the caller, and then ask questions to ensure you heard and understood the situation properly.
  9. Using the caller’s own words and phrasing will make you focus, and then demonstrate to the caller you were listening carefully.

  10. Convey feelings as well as information. If you feel sad when the person with whom you are talking expresses sadness, joyful when she expresses joy, fearful when she describes her fears — and convey those feelings through your words and tone of voice — then your effectiveness as a listener is assured. Empathy is the heart and soul of good listening.
  11. To experience empathy, you have to put yourself in the other person’s place and allow yourself to feel what it is like to be that person at that moment. This is not an easy thing to do. It takes energy and concentration. But it is a generous and helpful thing to do, and it facilitates communication like nothing else does.

    Show that you understand where the caller is coming from by reflecting that person’s feelings. Phrases like, “You must be thrilled!” “What a terrible ordeal for you.” “I can see that you are confused” show you are listening and present in the situation. If the speaker’s feelings are hidden or unclear, then occasionally paraphrase the content of the message or use show understanding through an occasional, well-timed “hmmm” or “uh huh.”

    The idea is to give the speaker some proof that you are listening, and that you are following the train of thought — not off indulging in your own fantasies or distractions.

  12. Practice active listening skills. When considering where to place training for active listening skills, think about doing it very early in the training and then asking students to regularly summarize what they’ve heard. Introducing this skill early and then reinforcing throughout training, as well as regularly once they’re on the phone can help make this a skill that will serve them well on the phones as well as in real life.