Most of us have heard that we must be “active listeners” and refrain from being passive listeners. Passive listening in and of itself isn’t bad, in that passive listening is simply listening or to put it another way, hearing. There are many occasions in which we passively listen, such as background music, television in the background, some conferences or webinars, etc. The danger of passive listening is that we can slip into a trance or get distracted to the point where we are not really listening to what is going on and being said.

An active listener on the other hand is seeking to move beyond passive listening to actively engage in the message. An active listener doesn’t necessarily have to engage with the speaker, but they must at least engage their mind and dichotomize the message, reword the message in their own words, formulate questions, and build on the information to create their own understanding.

Imagine a mouse creeping across the field and then all of a sudden, it stops, sticks its head in the air, its nose is twitching and ears are wiggling. You can feel it straining to hear or smell something. On the other side of the field you see a cat trying everything it can to stalk the mouse. At this point, the mouse is actively listening for a predator. What do you call a passive-listening mouse? Dinner.

Think back to those individuals that you connected with at networking events and other professional get-togethers. Did you connect with them because they talked a lot, or was it because they seemed genuinely interested in hearing what you had to say? Chances are it was the latter.

In today’s modern information age, the large amounts of data we are inundated with every day affects our ability to truly actively listen. Whether our cell phones distract us, emails suck us in, or we watch the latest cat and mouse videos, we must not let this information overload our minds or bleed into our personal interactions. Challenge yourselves to take a break from electronics for at least 30 minutes (an hour would be better) every day. Take that time to read a book, mediate, or have a real conversation with a colleague.

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