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The art of great conversation: active listening and how it can empower others

22 March 2022

In both our professional and personal lives, active listening is a crucial skill. It’s not necessarily always an innate trait but something we can learn and practice. Active listening involves being fully present with the person you are speaking to. It is the act of fully hearing what that person is saying and trying to comprehend the meaning of it before responding ourselves.

When we are actively listening, we show the person talking to us that they are being heard, we encourage the conversation and we reflect back what we hear.

‘Listening’ and being ‘heard’ can be an incredibly powerful experience that we should all be experiencing, and actively working towards in our day-to-day lives as charity communicators. So much of the time we are operating on auto-pilot, without really taking the time and space we need. Taking the time to pause, take-stock and empower others is essential and can really set free all of our potential to act on ideas and do great things.

Here are some tips to get you started:

Reassure the person you are speaking with that they are in a confidential space

People might need encouragement to start talking openly, especially when working virtually. Take your time to build that trust. Give the person you are speaking with a description about your space and who is around when you start a meeting. This creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere and lets them in on who you are and your life around you, while also making them feel really comfortable when they are talking and giving them a sense if there’s a possibility of others being able to hear them. The realities of working from home mean that interruptions can’t always be avoided – this is absolutely fine as long as everyone is clear from the start.

Be fully present: focus and take your time to understand

Be fully present in the conversation – be aware of your body language and make eye contact with the person you’re listening to. Be aware of your frame of mind too – try and be mindful and avoid distractions. Really focus and operate from a place of respect as the listener. Take your time to understand what the person you are speaking with is talking about. Try hard not to interrupt, or cut sentences short, let them fully finish what they are trying to tell you. Don’t be scared to allow a pause before responding.

Be curious: ask lots of open questions and keep open-minded

The emphasis should be on asking, not telling. Try to ask ‘open questions’ – How? What? Where? Why? This encourages the person you are talking with to think and really explain things from their perspective as opposed to having the situation labelled by someone else. Try and put your thoughts, opinions and reactions on hold while you really get a sense of the situation.

Encourage the other person to keep talking and clarify points if you need to

Make the person you are speaking with feel like you are listening and want to know what they have to say. Use words of encouragement like: “I see”, “Go ahead”, “I’m listening”, “That sounds interesting” to keep the conversation flowing. Don’t be worried to clarify points if you need to “can I check I’ve understood this correctly….”, “Just to clarify you feel like…”, “Tell me more about….”

Reflect back and paraphrase

Repeating back a word of a phrase that has been said can encourage the other person to expand on what they are saying and explore further. Reflecting back and paraphrasing can also be helpful to show them that you have listened and, you have heard them. It is also a way of checking that you have understood them properly.

Summarise and begin to share when you have a fuller understanding

Communicating back a summary of some of the key themes that you have discussed with the person you are speaking with can be really useful. It can ensure you are on the same page, help to shape future meetings and also encourage the creation of some action points to work on and explore more. The conversation can even begin to shift into some problem-solving: What needs to be explored more? What could you try? What new approaches are you interested in? You want to encourage the person you are speaking with to feel active and confident that they have thought through where they are at, the options available to them and that they own the solution. Your role really is to actively listen and ask those open questions to help the other person reach this point.

The art of active listening is a life skill worth reviewing regularly – it really goes hand-in-hand with practising being mindful. While this can seem like quite a simple idea, in a working world full of distraction, it really requires some focus. Actively listening to another person and making them feel like they are being heard is a powerful gift worth working on. Being a CharityComms Mentor is a great way to practice!

Part of the magic in taking part in mentoring is that there is an opportunity to talk with someone from outside your organisation about challenges you face. With the CharityComms scheme, our mentors are experienced in charity communications, so they have that understanding of what their mentees do, but they are outside of their organisation, making the relationship more neutral and confidential. This often opens up a unique space for mentees to talk a bit more freely and really explore where they’re at.

If you are interested in taking part in the CharityComms scheme either as a mentor or a mentee you can find out more on our dedicated mentoring pages.

If you enjoyed this you may also like one of our podcast episodes: CharityComms podcast: The power of talking and building healthy mindsets

Banner Image: Stas Knop on Pexels

Lally Wentworth

mentoring manager, CharityComms

Lally joined CharityComms in December 2008 to develop and manage the CharityComms membership scheme. She now runs our peer support scheme, including matching communications professionals working in the charity sector in mentoring relationships as part of their professional development.