The Importance of Active Listening

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By: Michelle Wilco, Spring 2018 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Student Intern

In the digital age, it can be difficult to fully focus on one task or one person for an extended period of time. Because of this, no matter how much you prepare for a client meeting, you will miss information if you do not engage in active listening. Active listening is a technique that requires you to fully concentrate on the person with whom you are communicating, absorb and focus on what the other person is saying, and then respond accordingly. Active listening is a skill that requires practice, but it is an important habit that can help you communicate better in your personal and professional interactions.

A common mistake new interviewers make when asking clients questions is failing to listen to the other person’s answers. Listening while interviewing sounds simple, but it is easy to focus instead on your next prepared question, rather than paying full attention to the other person. Active listening allows you to completely hear the other person’s response, and you will be surprised how often a response requires you to deviate from your original interview plan and start a dialogue. This deviation is when you will learn some of the most important information from your client because when you are attentive and invested in what the client has to say, she will usually become more comfortable opening up and sharing sensitive, relevant information.

There are many ways to show someone you are actively listening when they speak. The simplest methods include nonverbal indications, such as making eye contact, nodding when appropriate, and leaning forward toward the other person. Verbal cues are also important in establishing trust and active participation in the conversation. These cues can include phrases such as “Right,” “I see,” and “Of course” to indicate you are still engaged in the conversation and are hearing what the other person is telling you. These verbal cues should be short and only offered at appropriate times, so as not to interrupt the other person or break her train of thought. Additionally, if the other person says something that requires a response, do not stay silent. For example, if the person tells you her father recently died, acknowledge this. You do not have to go overboard with fake sincerity or spend a great deal of time dwelling on this subject (unless you both want to discuss it further); simply saying you’re sorry to hear that can be enough to make the other person feel heard and at ease.

Finally, at the end of the conversation (or the end of each topic of conversation), a good active listener should make a point to summarize what the other person said. It may take practice for this to feel natural because this technique requires you to emphasize the most important parts of your conversation without simply repeating the other person’s words. To do this effectively, you should paraphrase what you heard. For example, you can say something like, “It sounds like X is really important to you. Is that right?” In an interview, this can help you clearly identify your client’s goals and make sure you are on the same page.