Active Listening: Do You Listen to Reply or to Understand?


  • Author Angelo Ponzi
  • Published April 17, 2022
  • Word count 1,083

Think about the last interaction you had. Maybe it was a meeting with a client, a call with a prospect, or even just your nightly dinnertime banter with your spouse and/or kids.

Regardless, I want you to stop and reflect on this singular question: were you really listening?

Were you truly paying attention, or were you waiting to grab the mic and interject your own thoughts and opinions, before even processing what was shared?

While the word “conversation” is tossed around lightly, most conversations are merely people unconsciously talking at each other, rather than conversing with each other. This, in a nutshell, is the difference between active listening and passive listening.

Active listening is an essential soft skill in every aspect of life. The absence of this aspect of communication is detrimental across the board, no matter where it shows up in our lives. The cost of not listening effectively is clear, resulting in careless mistakes at work, family issues, lost relationships… you name it. The cost of not listening effectively in business? Your customers and prospects.

Listening to understand (not to reply)

There are so many components that comprise active listening, but as Stephen Covey so eloquently summed it all up in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand; we listen to reply.”

While the majority of people listen to reply, active listening means listening to understand. It means paying attention without being preoccupied with what to say next. Active listening means fully listening, which can be demonstrated by the following:

  • Not interrupting. Refrain from interjection (no matter how tempting). Wait until the speaker is finished sharing before you offer your two cents. Take a moment to process what the person you are conversing with has to say. This demonstrates that you are listening to understand, not simply reply.

  • Take your time. Slow the conversation down and reflect on what the speaker has said. Dig into the details, connect the dots, look at the bigger picture, and ask meaningful questions where applicable.

  • Showing empathy. If the person you are talking to shares something vulnerable, or even just mentions a difficult situation, express true, genuine concern. Validate their experiences, and connect to them on a human level.

  • Prioritizing balance. Conversations should be an experience of give and take, and there should be a sense of equality and mutual respect throughout. If you find that one person in the interaction is doing all of the talking and the other is doing all of the listening, check-in with yourself. Identify whether you need to create space for the other person to be heard.

Why is active listening important in business?

In past articles, I’ve highlighted the importance of knowing your customer’s pain point. But there is more to it than just approaching people with what you know (or think you know). Responding to your target audience’s problem effectively means actively listening to them on a consistent basis. Truly building a relationship with your clients and prospects means delving into the nature of their situation, not just assuming you understand it from some data points and initial interactions. To truly resonate, you must show your clientele that you truly hear their pain-point as you engage with them.

When you are in the business of selling products or services, there is a tendency to jump the gun and tell your target audience what you can do for them, before taking the time to listen to what they need. But there is so much to learn from the people you aim to serve.

Costly mistakes happen when you don’t listen, and this is only amplified as a business leader, especially in your interactions with your target customers. If you are not actively listening, you may go completely off course, believing you have an offering that your audience needs… even though they are clearly telling you that they don’t!

Active listening can protect you against this unfortunate fate. By truly listening to your target audience, you can identify your own blind spots and adjust accordingly... before investing time, money, and resources into an ineffective solution.

At the end of the day, your customers and prospects are the experts on their own experiences… no matter how passionately you believe you have the answers to their problems. Your customer’s voice must remain your throughline as you iterate and evolve your offerings.

Active listening leads to innovation & collaboration

We all want to be heard. It is human nature. As such, “listening” might feel threatening. What if I don’t get the chance to express my voice? What if this interjection is my only opportunity, you might ask.

While slowing down to prioritize active listening might initially feel like the complete opposite of being heard, this isn’t the case. The reality is, communication is a two-way street. Conversations built on a foundation of active listening are not just conversations… They are collaborations, in which you will not only be heard, but will also learn, grow, evolve, ponder, and expand your perspective.

Active listening not only builds trust, rapport, and a spirit of collaboration between brand and customer but can also lead to innovation on a larger scale.

By being truly present in a conversation, you can bounce ideas off of those you are talking to and consider new perspectives and possibilities that you may not have considered.

When you approach customer interactions with the mindset that they have the insight to offer you, your perspective will inevitably grow and expand as a result. Through active listening, you will learn what your customer truly needs, and uncover everything that you can offer them, beyond what you’d ever considered before.

The moment of truth

Be honest with yourself. Are you truly an active listener, or are you guilty of taking over conversations (however well-intentioned)? Are you quick to speak your mind, or do you slow down to unpeel the layers of the person you are conversing with?

Active listening isn’t a one-and-done act. It’s a soft skill we must continually work to sharpen. But one thing is fundamentally clear: prioritizing active listening will deepen your connections to others and expand your perspectives.

And who knows... you may even expand your business in the process!

Speaking of listening… Want some audio insight on the importance of active listening? Check out my Business Growth Cafe podcast episode on this vital soft skill!

With 25+ years of experience, Angelo is a marketing and branding strategist that works with small to middle-market companies as their fractional Chief Marketing Officer in defining market opportunities, developing competitive profiles, audience personas, brand realignment and strategies, to strategic, integrated marketing plans that help businesses compete in an ever-changing marketplace.

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