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Time to get curious about active listening

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice

You will have heard numerous times that we should all become better listeners. Listening, and more specifically active listening, is a skill that can be acquired and developed with practice. However, in reality it can be difficult to master and takes time and patience to develop.

Over the last few years, I’ve become more and more curious about what makes working relationships and workplaces thrive. I’ve come to realise that at the heart of everything we do to change our lives and work for the better, it’s the conversations we have with each other that are the smallest units of change. It’s how we relate to one another, how we build trust, how we emotionally connect and engage, how we create safe spaces to be totally honest with each other, how we express our thoughts, feelings and ideas, and how we work together to achieve great things.

“If you can listen well people will say you’re a great conversationalist.”

Stanley Bing

If conversations are so important to us both personally and professionally, it’s worth spending some time being curious about what we can do to make our conversations the best they can be. And what better place to start than with what I call curious listening.

Curious About Listening

Curious listening is active listening with the intention of learning something new. 

Curious listening is about listening:

  • To understand, not to respond
  • To learn something about the situation, the person or ourselves
  • To gain a deeper insight
  • To build a stronger relationship
  • To resolve issues collaboratively
  • To see things from another perspective

Fully concentrating on what is being said rather than passively ‘hearing’ the message of the speaker enhances our communication skills no end. And the truth is, some of us need reminding that listening is more than the pause that happens in between us talking again!

So why is it we don’t always listen properly? Perhaps you can relate to some of the following:

  • You’re thinking of the next question to ask.
  • You presume you know what the other person is going to say.
  • You’re preoccupied with your own thoughts and not completely committed to the conversation.
  • You try to finish someone’s sentences or rush ahead.
  • You selectively listen, either consciously or unconsciously.
  • You don’t pick up on tone, speed, emphasis, pitch and volume.

Developing your skills as an active listener involves paying more attention. Expressing yourself clearly and articulately is one thing. But how do you know what to express or how to express it, if you haven’t truly paid attention to what the other person is telling you? This is not simply about the content of what they are saying, of course. It’s about paying more attention to what all your senses are telling you, especially the eyes and ears. What are they collectively telling you? 

Getting into the habit of paying more attention is crucial to allowing conversations to flourish. 

But what is attention?

Do you always consciously know what you’re attending to?

Or to put it another way, when you’re having a conversation with someone, are you consciously aware of where your attention is focused?

There are two main types of attention, conscious and unconscious. You may have worked alongside people who sometimes seem ‘absent-minded’ or perhaps you have yourself been told to ‘pay attention!’ at times. Despite popular belief, people can’t actually attend to everything at the same time. When there are many competing stimuli people tend to consciously focus on only one or two of them. Additional stimuli are usually missed, as your brain ‘screens out’ what doesn’t have your conscious attention at that moment.

Sustained attention is often needed when we’re having important conversations, yet we’re often distracted by our phones, emails, interruptions and other stimuli in the environment. Such distractions prevent us tuning in to the conversation and giving it the proper attention it deserves.

No wonder results can be compromised and relationships can feel superficial. Attention is a precious resource. 

Donald Broadbent’s influential model of attention describes how our brains can only process a finite amount of information at any one time. Through his experiments, Broadbent actually discovered that we can listen to only one voice at a time, with the first words we hear being the most accurately recalled. If more than one person is talking at the same time our brains cleverly filter what we hear so that we tune in to the person we’re talking to and filter out the rest. (If you’ve ever had a work meeting in a coffee shop you’ll know exactly what I mean.) In order to do it successfully you have to pay sustained attention to the person you’re with, in order to not pay attention to everything else going on around you instead. Give it a try. If you attempt to do both at once you’ll miss parts of each conversation.



“Listening is not merely hearing. Listening is reacting. Listening is being affected by what you hear. Listening is active.”


Michael Shurtleff

So, we know that active listening involves many different facets. How do we translate this learning into real life?

My simple checklist helps me and my clients remember how to be an active listener. It uses the acronym ACTIVE:

Acknowledge what’s being said with verbal and non-verbal cues.


Check your understanding and clarify what you have heard.


Take your time to restate key points and reflect back any areas of agreement or disagreement.


Involve yourself by really being present in the conversation and genuinely responding with interest.


Validate progress as you go and again at the end of the conversation to avoid any misunderstandings.


Encourage dialogue. Make sure the conversation is two-way.

It’s important to remember that being a curious listener doesn’t mean you have to take on the responsibility for other people’s problems and issues. If someone wants things to be different, listening doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with them or taking the task on; the responsibility remains with them. But by listening carefully with curiosity rather than judgement, you can collaboratively come to a consensus and learn much about yourself in the process.

Sarah Harvey (Savvy Sarah), Leadership, Culture and Conflict Coach

Sarah’s book Savvy Conversations: A practical framework for effective workplace relationships’ is Available from Amazon and other retailers.

Visit for more information about Sarah’s work.

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