As we all know, the parent who drives and listens in on carpool conversations often leaves with more useful information than if they had tapped their kids phone line. Think about that. By listening and staying quiet in order to hear, you are so present that time stands still and you focus on the words being spoken.

Most people think they are great listeners, but often listening becomes passive rather than active. When we fade in and out of conversations or ask questions at inappropriate times, we are passively listening. And nobody ever does this, right?

Listening is one of the cornerstones of good communication. Eavesdropping in day-to-day communication is not necessary, but the ability to actively listen is essential.

So, what is Active Listening?

According to Bernard T. Ferrari, author of Power Listening and Dean of Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University, great listeners show respect, keep quiet, and challenge assumptions.

“Good listening - the active and disciplined activity of probing and challenging the information garnered from others to improve its quality and quantity - is the key to building a base of knowledge that generates fresh insights and ideas.”

Active listening bears some of the hallmarks of eavesdropping because you're listening with that same intensity, but the other person can see you! Active listening helps build relationships, resolve conflict, solve problems, and ensures understanding. It is a conversation where you are in the moment and not distracted by your own thoughts and feelings.

As researchers, it is imperative that we accurately hear the responses to the questions we ask. While we may be adept at coming up with questions and follow-up probes regarding a product or service, our respondents may never have considered their decision making process. Hence, we need to give them time to process our questions, consider their own decision process, and then articulate it back to us.

Having a conversation with our respondents is primary, but observing and remaining silent as they consider their answers is key. Non-verbal cues carry messages that often words cannot; and you will miss them if you are not paying attention.

You can demonstrate presence to others by looking them in the eye and acknowledging their comments with a nod of the head or the periodic “hmmm.” When you take in their words and their body language, you can better show empathy and understanding.

Pesky obstacles to listening

Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess of  Downton Abbey  serves up wit and judgment with every tea sandwich.

Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey serves up wit and judgment with every tea sandwich.

Judgmental thoughts are a classic stumbling block to listening. Empathy is the desire to walk in another person’s shoes so we can hear with an open mind; as soon as you indulge in judgmental thinking, your effectiveness as a listener is compromised.

Another obstacle? Impatience. In an attempt to speed a person’s thought process, we Interrupt and/or finish their sentence. When you do this, you will not only lose the point the respondent is attempting to make but also may cause them to forget where they were headed with the conversation.

So, what kind of listener are you?

The best way to see how often you fall into passive listener mode is to observe yourself. See how you conduct conversations from your side of the equation. Do you notice you need to stifle yourself regularly? Do you have to wrangle with your own thought bubbles more than a couple of times during a conversation?

Here are a few tips to help you become a great listener:

Leave your phone, computer, papers, and other distractions alone until the conversation is finished.
Think of how YOU feel when someone isn't paying attention to you!

Once the person finishes or takes a break, repeat or summarize what you just heard.
By echoing the speaker’s words, you show that you really are listening and care enough to make sure you understand what is being shared.

Put yourself in the speaker’s place and allow yourself to feel what it is like to be him/her in the moment.
It is a generous act and the person speaking will feel your empathy for what they are saying.

All of us like to know that we have been heard. For one week, challenge yourself to listen to your conversations with intent, listen with empathy, and at the end of the conversation summarize what you heard. You will be surprised at the knowledge you gain and the trust you invoke with others. And remember:

A wise old owl lived in an oak,
The more he saw the less he spoke,
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?

–Unknown Author

What have you overheard driving kids around in the car? Share your ‘active listening’ moments with us on FacebookLinkedInTwitter or Instagram.

Looking for more inspiration?

Hone your listening skills during in-store shopalongs.

Build your empathy with active listening. Check out all 5 steps here.