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Tips for active listening

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic make it more important than ever to communicate effectively and empathetically with colleagues and students.

By Braelin Pantel, Ph.D., and Marina Pereira

July 7, 2020

Four students in a classroom listening to a lecture.Metropolitan State University of Denver faculty and staff members speak every day with students, colleagues and University partners who are concerned about the future and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. These conversations offer a great opportunity to practice active and intentional listening in service to our fellow Roadrunners.

Here are some conversation tips to develop your own active-listening skills:

  • Listen for – and confirm – intent. Listening is different from hearing. Active listening requires you to be engaged and involved. Is your conversation partner asking for help? Are they asking a question? Are they sharing feedback? Try to get on the same page about the purpose/intent of a communication early on. Be present, do not interrupt, and avoid the temptation of having a solution or a quick response. Listen. Understanding the other person’s intent makes it easier to adapt your listening to their needs and purposes.
  • Details, identity and context matter. Home in on details. For example, how does your conversation partner pronounce their name? What pronouns do they use? Are they speaking from a place that is private (if applicable) and safe? What technology are they working with? Similarly, make sure you identify yourself and clarify your role. It is important to check assumptions, ask questions, ask for clarification and ensure that you are responsive and sensitive to their unique situation and identity. 
  • Be upfront about time and/or place limitations. If necessary, schedule a conversation so that you can “arrive” focused and dedicated. Likewise, if you cannot respond immediately to an email with the appropriate level of attention, shoot the person a quick note confirming when you will be back in touch and follow up.
  • Resist the urge to jump right to “the” solution. Depending on the nature of the conversation, a “solution” may not be what is needed (or helpful). Listen for the relevant context before determining how (or if) you can help.
  • Empathize — and communicate empathy. These days, almost everyone is experiencing significant challenges. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the place of another and understand someone else’s feelings by identifying with them. Regardless of your role at the University, a healthy dose of authentic human connection can go far in establishing a helpful working relationship with students and colleagues. Carve out time in your interactions with students and others to check in, ask how they are doing, notice when they are not doing well and offer thoughtful and compassionate responses.
  • Personalize your conversations. This helps others feel and know that they have been heard. Contextualize your responses, learn and use their name, avoid assumptions, be cautious about generalizations, and be sensitive to your own biases. This is especially important in working with students and colleagues who hold diverse identities and whose lived experiences in this wild COVID-19 world (and otherwise!) are vastly different.
  • Video etiquette. Think of Team or Zoom meetings as face-to-face meetings and conduct yourself as you would if you were at your office. Make sure to have your video on – it provides a sense of safety and availability. If it is not possible, explain why. Avoid distractions such as connection problems, background noise, poor lighting, multitasking or eating.
  • Wrapping it up. Before ending a conversation or email, summarize the conversation — with particular attention paid to follow-up actions — and invite the other person to do the same to confirm you’re on the same page. Offer an open invitation for the other person to circle back, and commit to checking in with them as well.

What are your tried and true listening techniques? How have you adapted your approaches over the past few weeks? Tips? Counter-considerations? Email to share your ideas and feedback.

Topics: Best practices, Community, Excellence, Inclusion, Student Success

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