THURSDAY THOUGHTS: Best Practices for Active Listening

Think about the best leaders or teammates you’ve encountered over the course of your career.  I bet there is a common theme…they were all great listeners.

Active listening is a crucial skill for anyone in a leadership role, and it’s so much more than just hearing the words being said. You may think you’re a great listener, but are you truly engaging with your team members and really hearing what they’re trying to say? Let’s explore a few best practices for active listening that will help you connect with your team on a deeper level.

First up, let’s talk about the importance of eye contact. Maintaining eye contact shows that you’re fully present and engaged in the conversation. Put down the phone, close the laptop, stop doodling on your notepad, and look your team member in the eye. They’ll appreciate the attention, and feel their words are truly being heard; eye contact demonstrates respect and value.

Next, let’s discuss the art of mirroring, and I’m not talking about standing in front of a mirror and practicing your speech (although that can be helpful too). Mirroring is reflecting back what your team member is saying to show you understand and are engaged in the conversation. An example might be a team member sharing, “I’m feeling overwhelmed with my workload,” you could respond with, “It sounds like you have a lot on your plate right now. Let’s chat about how we can lighten the load.” This simple technique shows empathy and can help your team member feel validated.

Another key practice for active listening is asking open-ended questions. Instead of just waiting for your turn to speak in response to a situation, dig deeper with questions that encourage members of your team to share more about their thoughts and feelings. Open-ended questions create space, and can’t be answered with a one word response.  As the parent of a middle school boy, I hear “fine” a LOT…”how was school”, updates about friends, or world events all illicit the same response; I’ve had to get really creative with my line of questioning to get the real story!  The same goes for members of your team.  If leaders phrase questions in a way that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”, it invites openness, dialogue, and the person on the receiving end of the question will feel more inclined to provide context, ideas, and areas of concern.  For example, instead of asking, “Are you feeling stressed?” try asking, “Can you tell me more about what’s been causing you stress lately?” This shows you’re genuinely interested in understanding their perspective and experience, and can lead to more productive conversations.

Lastly, don’t forget about the power of silence. As leaders, we often feel the need to fill every moment of silence with our own thoughts or advice. But sometimes, the best thing you can do is simply listen and let your team member have the space to express themselves fully. Next time you’re tempted to jump in with your own thoughts, take a beat and give your team member the floor to speak their mind.  If they hesitate, you can coax them with my personal favorite coaching phrase “Tell me more”; it encourages a person to keep going, share more of the story.  In a world that wants us to communicate in 140 characters or less, it is incredibly refreshing to be invited to expand on one’s thoughts.  Asking a member of your team to “tell me more” (and then shutting up), often leads to the biggest “a-ha” moments, both for the leader and the individual contributor.

Eye contact, mirroring, open ended questions, and silence…simple practices, but when done consistently, utilizing these strategies will help you connect with your team on a deeper level.  Listening is a two-way street, so make sure you’re truly engaging with your team members and creating a supportive environment for open communication. Happy listening!

Stefanie Adams is a leadership training facilitator, keynote speaker, adjunct professor, former elected official, wife, and mother based in Wilmington, NC. She earned her M.Ed. in Multicultural Education in 2008, and has over 20 years experience leading and training in corporate, non-profit, and government settings. Her passion is developing emerging leaders, building collaborative teams, and creating positive workspaces as Chief Empowerment Officer of WNY People Development.  In fall of 2024, her book “CheerLEADERship:  Strategies to Build and Support Human-Centric Workplaces for the Future” will be released through Amplify Publishing.

Launched in February 2020, WNY People Development provides virtual and in person training, coaching, and keynote speaking topics for leaders at all levels, and organizations of all sizes. WNY People Development partners with clients to develop relevant, impactful, and skill building training options for employees, particularly front line and first time leaders, Millennial and Gen Z workforce; we create programming that drives improved culture and morale, builds competencies, engages teams, and propels growth through interactive, relevant, and fun sessions. A La Carte courses, and service agreement options available depending on client need. Learn more at