8 Ways to Practice Active Listening, No Matter How Much You Love to Talk

I’m a loudmouth. 

As a Leo and extrovert, I’ve always loved to be the center of attention. I get a jolt of adrenaline when I get to speak publicly or lead a meeting.

So I’ve had to learn how to listen more and talk less, which has been a challenge. As a victim advocate and relatively new professional, I had to challenge myself to actively listen better to students and colleagues in order to do my best work.

Here are this loudmouth’s tips for becoming an active listener.

1. Center the Students You’re Meeting With

Meeting with students isn’t about you. It’s about them getting the support and resources they need to be successful. Anytime you meet one-on-one with students, you can practice and strengthen your active listening muscles.

Make eye contact and nod to show that you understand. If they say something that reminds you about an amazing experience you’ve had, challenge yourself to not talk about it and, instead, keep listening.

Lock and turn away from your computer screen and put your phone away when you meet with a student. Ask clarifying questions to better understand what they need from you.

2. Listen in Meetings

I like to be the star of the show, even in meetings. However, it’s important to remember that listening and learning can be an important tool for you in your student affairs career.

In my first full-time job after graduate school, I noticed that in most meetings, I knew the least information in the room out of all the attendees. So, I realized that I could learn a lot about the institution and my work from the people who had worked there longer.

At first, I felt inclined to talk a lot and contribute my thoughts. But I found I didn’t quite know enough about campus history and politics to contribute meaningfully to the conversation. 

Fully listening in meetings that you are not running is a great time to practice active listening.

3. Pick up a Silent Activity

I love to knit and crochet, and I will often put on a TV show or podcast to listen to while my hands are busy. This has helped me train my ears and brain to listen more carefully.

gif of a dog twitching its ears and appearing to be listening intently

If you’ve never taken the time to participate in a silent activity or craft, pick one up and practice listening while your hands are busy. You can try knitting, sewing, crafting, fishing, whittling — anything that intrigues you. Put on a show or podcast on in the background and listen away.

I’ve found that when my hands are busy with repetitive motion, it frees up space in my mind to listen more carefully, instead of thinking about my next to-do list.

4. Meditate or Breathe Deeply

Meditation and deep breathing help me quiet the voice in my brain that shouts, “you must speak now!” In the morning, I spray a rosewater toner on my face and take deep breaths until it dries. This small activity centers me and helps me prepare to actively listen throughout my day.

If you are new to meditation or deep breathing, you can check out apps like CalmHeadspace or Insight Timer for guided meditations. These can be super helpful in centering you for a day of active listening.

5. Think Before Responding

Sometimes I react emotionally before I’ve considered every angle. If you are working on active listening, try to think about the perspectives others might hold (and why) before responding.

This gives you a chance to fully understand and digest what you are hearing. As someone who usually talks first and thinks later, this has been quite challenging for me. But it has been very helpful in my working relationships to consider why someone is saying what they are saying before I react to it.

6. Ask Clarifying Questions

Being a good active listener can include asking thoughtful clarifying questions. If you don’t understand something that’s said in a meeting, it’s okay to ask questions to make sure you understand.

Asking clarifying questions shows the speaker that you are engaged and interested in what they have to say. If you don’t understand something and don’t ask any clarifying questions, you risk misunderstanding the speaker —which is the opposite of active listening.

7. Don’t Multitask

Sometimes when I’m on the phone with my mom, I start doing another task like folding clothes, putting dishes away, or scrolling through Instagram. She can sense it immediately and says “are you multitasking?!” Then she says, “I’ll let you go.” Most people can tell when you aren’t fully listening to them.

This holds true in work meetings. Don’t do tasks on your computer, make a to-do list, or play with your phone. All these things can signal to other people that you are not fully listening to them, which can break their trust in you.

If you have a day with lots of meetings, block additional off time on your calendar for active work. This will allow you to be fully present in all your meetings.

8. Listen to People with Marginalized Identities

People with marginalized identities often feel silenced. Actively listening to them instead of talking over them gives them some power. If you talk the most of anyone in a meeting that you are not leading, consider if it’s a good time to actively listen so that others have a chance to take the mic.

Active listening is an important skill to master no matter what type of campus office you work in. It can help you build trust with students and colleagues and give you a key to understanding others in a new way. 

How have you honed your listening skills? We’d love to hear from more loudmouths-turned-listening-pros @themoderncampus.

Kacie Otto

About the author: Kacie Otto (she/her) is the Violence Prevention Specialist and Victim Advocate at Marquette University. If she’s not knitting or reading a book about feminism, you might find her at a campsite or in a thrift shop. Learn how we can help get your students involved.