What are the keys to active listening: Mastering the 7 Key Active Listening Skills

Sep 11, 2023

To be that empathetic researcher, we need to practice the different types of active listening, and to break that down it helps to understand the seven key active

listening skills. Some of these might come naturally to a seasoned researcher but can also be easy to forget about when teams focus on all the other tactical steps involved in a project. So what are the keys to active listening? Let's dive in.

"The key is asking the right questions and making the respondent feel that they matter - and that their answers matter too," said insights professional Jo Munton.

Let's look at the seven key active listening skills to help you get more meaningful consumer research that leads to actionable insights.

Listening is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Every person is unique, and our approach to listening must reflect that. It’s about caring for people and empathizing to understand them.

Let’s look at the seven skills:

1. Ask good questions

It sounds simple enough, but in a world where some stakeholders pile on more and more questions, this can be harder than it needs to be. Then some questions are just worded less than perfect.

"Always run through in your head how you would respond to a question and see if your response is limited and requires greater depth," said Jo. "If it does, then you are asking the wrong questions."

The anatomy of good questions, at a minimum, includes:

  • Be clear about what you are asking.
  • Don't be leading. "Doesn't this sound like a great product to you..." for example, is highly leading.
  • Keep unnecessary emotion out of the questions.
  • The question topic and formulation are relevant to the participant.

Asking the right questions is fundamental when it comes to active listening. Even if the other six elements of active listening are followed, if the question is bad, the results could be lacking.

2. Techniques for creating a safe space

One of the seven active listening skills is all about creating a safe space for the participant.

That includes the researcher to practice silence. Don’t take “your turn” to speak so quickly but give the participant room to talk and express themselves. Sometimes researchers just have to listen and acknowledge to create that safe space. That can include head nod and eye contact - the right amount.

That means we do not just hear the participant, but we also see them. We acknowledge what they are saying with our attention.  

3. Give participants space to answer

We've probably all seen those clips of reporters asking a question at a news conference, but they share a story before they ever get to the question. Indeed, the background or added commentary is necessary in their minds, but is it really? Just like those reporters, researchers need to be aware of not taking up too much time speaking. Give time to the respondents to express themselves to you based on the conversation.

4. Suspending your own agenda

We all have our own experiences and agendas - that's one reason why hiring an outside researcher can be so helpful. Internal teams certainly want new products and services to succeed, but that can also cloud the goal of what it takes to gather the most helpful research.

Regardless, to set your own agenda aside, it's important to be aware of your biases and to listen to the person's perspectives fully.

5. Hear what is being said, not what you want to hear

Closely related to suspending your own agenda, researchers must hear what is being said. Everyone wants to hear how excellent and groundbreaking our product or new idea is. That can get even more complicated when respondents can feel what the researcher wants to hear.

"Rule of thumb: People will lie to you if it's what they think you want to hear," said Rob Fitzpatrick in his book "The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when Everyone is lying to."

And as Rob said, we need to get to the truth to get actionable insights.

6. Watch those non-verbal cues

Another one of our seven key active listening skills is non-verbal cues. Technically, we use our eyes and not our ears here, but nonetheless, it's important to put the entirety of the respondent's communication together.
Also, keep in mind that this is a two-way street. The respondent might watch your verbal cues. Did that positive statement about the idea make you feel especially good? And when that's visible, the conversation might go down the "Mom Test" trap where the respondents will say what they think you want to hear.

And on the other side of that two-way road are the non-verbal cues the respondent sends. Are they crossing their arms suddenly, averting your eye contact, or are they moving forward in their seats? Those non-verbal cues are worth nothing; sometimes, they might be worth asking about. Asking for clarification is a good thing.

7. Confirm understanding

Confirming understanding helps the researcher and the participant connect on a deeper level. Sometimes, that means it’s worthwhile to play devil’s advocate to ask follow up questions. It shows that everything they communicate is being taken in.  

Whether the communication is verbal, non-verbal, or a mix, it's always good to confirm understanding in a non-confrontational, non-judgmental way.

  • Is this what you meant?
  • I want to confirm that you meant this...
  • Can you elaborate on ...

Follow-up questions are a great way to ensure you hear them correctly and make sure their thoughts are complete.

Active listening helps companies get more usable results from their research. Active listening leads to a deeper understanding of consumers and that's why it's so important to do well.

Have more questions about the seven key active listening skills? Drop us a note now.