Idea 038: 5 Ways to Have Active Listening

“What did you say?” I asked my friend Ben who has been talking to me about his favourite trip last year. However, a few seconds after I heard about the food he missed so much, I already forgot what he said.

Are We Really Listening?

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“Are you having Dementia?” Ben was a bit angry about my distraction. I totally understood how he felt, and I would be angry if I were him. Although it seemed a bit disrespect for Ben’s sharing, I didn’t intend to do it.

Sometimes I just couldn’t help but forget things right after I heard something.

Unless we are living in a desert island, we will have a lot of interactions with many people every day. We will talk to our families, colleagues and bosses at workspace, friends, neighbourhoods, loved ones, or even strangers on the street. It is not exaggerated that we might speak and hear 10k+ words per day. How can we memorize all those words?

Of course we cannot, and we don’t need to. We only need to remember some of the important messages.

However, it is very difficult to do it if we don’t have active listening. There are some Chinese sayings like, “….some words go in one ear and out the other.” or “someone takes my word like a passing wind.”, which exactly describe the situations like this.

To be frank, if we simply listen to what others say, it is probable that we will forget the messages after a minute or two. Eventually, we will suffer from the result of missing those messages. (eg, our friends might be mad at us, our bosses might not trust our capabilities any more, or we will lose our credibility)

To avoid this, we need to have active listening.

Before I share my 5 ways to have active listening, I would like to share two Ted Talks about this topic first, one is conducted by William Ury and another is conducted by Julian Treasure.

1. Repeat what we have heard

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Generally speaking, active listening is a technique that requires the listeners to fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being told. To make sure we didn’t miss anything, we can simply repeat what we have heard in our own words.

This is a very simple yet very effective way to perform active listening because we always misunderstand others, especially when we are talking about some complicated concept.

Remember when I started working in my current company, I needed to understand the background about a recent acquisition of a Korea company. Long story short, the acquisition was done in with non-cash consideration, and the amount of consideration was not confirmed yet because of some complicated issue behind the scene.

My boss has shared several emails and agreements with me regarding to this acquisition, and I thought I understood the whole acquisition after reading through all those emails and agreements.

However, later during the audit, when I tried to communicate this issue to auditors, I found that I somehow couldn’t answer some of their follow-up questions. After back and forth emails, I had no choice but sought for my boss’s help again embarrassingly.

Eventually, my boss needed to spend extra time in person to explain the whole story again for me.

This time I played smart and repeated what I have heard from him, and he figured I still got him wrong on some parts of this story. He was so mercy not to blame me for not getting the issue to clearly, but he also implied that I needed to put more time and effort to understand more about the company.

This bad experience proves that we better repeat what we have heard when we have chances to do so, because sometimes we are too confident of our listening skills, or the speakers are too confident of their speeches.

Conversation is a two way process. While the speakers are responsible to deliver the clear messages to the listeners, the listeners are responsible to get the right messages from the speakers as well. To make sure this is done perfectly, the listeners can repeat what they have heard to confirm the content of the messages.

2. Take Notes

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Trust me, it is not a big deal when we take notes on conversation with someone.

Ed Mylett, one of my favourite entrepreneurs, sometimes put a notes in front of him when he is interviewing other successful people (before the COVID-19 outbreak). When he heard of something wealth written down, he will immediately take notes.

I recalled in my previous company, after I had a meeting with my boss, she suddenly asked me, “Why I didn’t see you take any notes?”

At that moment I was a bit nervous. I told her I have already taken some notes in my laptop, but deep down I was surprised she asked this.

My boss was a note-taking person, always bring along with a real notebook when she is attending any meetings. She practically took notes for important messages, plans, schedules, reminders, etc, and always referred to that notes when she needed to recall some memories.

My boss always confessed to her bad memory, and actively took steps to fix this issue. Therefore, she can always achieve active listening in any meeting or conversations.

Before my boss asked me that questions, I only took notes for 70-80% of the meeting I attended. Afterwards, I realized if I didn’t take notes properly, I might be blamed in the future. That is the moment I started treating it seriously.

Now I always take notes in every meeting I attended. This has become my habit.

Note-taking helps active listening because we can write down important messages for future reference. Besides, it can train us how to identify important messages in conversation / meetings so that we can focus on those important messages.

3. Apply Notes

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Sometimes people reluctant to jot notes because they think it is not useful. Embarrassingly, I was one of those people when I was fresh at work.

In my first job after graduation from University, I was responsible for some basic accounting work and some calculation work. During the probation period I tried to takes notes on everything my colleagues taught me. AS a result, in the first month of probation period I have used 50% of my notebooks.

However, even I took a lot of notes, I made mistakes on work quite frequently. Most of the time I forgot the procedures or the sources of data for my work, and it was too late when I found out the mistakes.

“You should have jot all the notes when you had my training!” My colleagues laughed when he said this to me, but I could sense that they are not happy about it.

Later I figured the main reasons of making mistakes – I didn’t really read the notes and applied them at work after the training. In other words, I could say I wrote down notes because I thought I needed to do so.

However, the whole point of taking notes are to apply the notes to the tasks we are going to work on! Let’s say there are 10 steps of work involved in the whole bookkeeping process, if we just write down the notes but never refer to that notebook during work, we can never be sure if we follow the exact 10 steps to finish the work. Eventually, we will make unnecessary mistakes.

The key of taking notes is to jot down the important messages and apply them at work, so we need to make sure the way of taking notes and the way of organizing notes. Therefore, when we read the notes we can easily and effectively apply the notes at work.

4. Conduct Further Discussions

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This is similar to the first way – Repeat what we have heard. However, instead of simply repeating what we are told, it is better to have further discussion on the topics so that we can have in depth understanding on the topics.

Even after 10 years of practical experience on accounting, I still find that the Accounting Standards are difficult to understand. Not only because they are written in professional terms which are hard to understand, they also try to include all possible situation in Accounting.

Sometimes when I attend the seminars on illustration of Accounting Standards, I try to use note taking to achieve active listening. However, most of the time I am still confused after I take notes, because I don’t know how to apply those notes at work.

Although there are some steps stated in the Accounting Standards, when it comes to application it is still quite confusing when we just refer to the wordings in the Accounting Standards.

In view of this situation, it is better to have further discussion with the speakers of the seminars, and ask more follow up questions on the different situation of applying the Accounting Standards, the criteria and limitation of the Standards, and and practical exceptions involved in reality.

By further in-depth exploration on the topics, we can understand more and better, and hence apply the knowledge efficiently and effectively.

5. Create The Environment

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If you find the first 4 ways too common and simple, you might consider this final way.

Actually, active listening skill is a technique that we can learn and improve from practices. It is just like learning a language.

One of the way to master a language is to use more of that language. For example, if we want to master English speaking, the most practical way is to listen to and speak English every single day. To achieve this, we can relocate to English speaking countries.

However, not so many people are qualified and willing to do so. For those people, if they still want to master English speaking, they need to create English listening and speaking environment on their own.

This could be done by, eg, making friends with English speaking people, actively watching and listening to English videos and TV programmes, etc.

Same can be applied when learning active listening.

We can take 30 minutes every day to watch a short English speaking videos and actively take notes. Then, we can summarize the video with 1-2 minutes presentation.

This practice can help improve our notes taking skills, notes organization skills and presentation skills, and hence make us understand more on what we are told. Eventually, we can improve out active listening skill.

To conclude, I think in order to have active listening, we should always

  1. Repeat what we have heard,
  2. Take Notes,
  3. Apply Notes,
  4. Conduct Further Discussions, and
  5. Create The Environment


If you have any questions or have anything things to share, you can reach out to me via email

Besides, if you want to know more about what I have learnt from other successful people, you can click the below link. This could the one of the life-changing articles for you:

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