The technique of active listening isn’t a new one. It has been around since 1957 and even then, it was clear that this practice was much more involved than simply lending an ear to someone. It was more than just hearing the person speaking to you.

Any yet, so many years later we still struggle to grasp its importance. Active listening is a great buzz-phrase in business, but a lot of people fail to differentiate it from the more casual type of listening we do everyday. And I would argue that we don’t even do that very well.

We’re often so distracted by everything buzzing and beeping around us that even hearing another person’s words becomes a struggle. When you really actively listen to someone, though, you benefit the speaker and yourself deeply – in ways you can’t really see unless you clear up the common misconceptions people have about this critically important communication technique.

If you want to unlock the true value of active listening, clear your mind of these three misconceptions:

Misconception 1: I can just turn it on

While everyone agrees that actively listening to others is a good idea, not everyone understands that it takes effort and intentionality to even put yourself in a position (sometimes literally) to do it. Choosing to actively listen isn’t like flipping a switch. You can’t sit at your desk feverishly typing away at an email and then suddenly become the world’s best active listener when someone suddenly interrupts you with, “Got a sec?” Transitioning into an active listening mindset is active. It’s not magical. To do it, there are a few things that must (and should never) happen:

  1. You must make focused and consistent eye contact with the speaker.
      • Never glance at your cell phone while you’re actively listening!
  2. You must position yourself in a comfortable position that’s conducive to listening.
      • Never have conflicting posture with the speaker. If they’re sitting, sit.
  3. You must suspend judgement.
      • Never enter the conversation with a predetermined agenda.

It’s called active listening for a reason. It’s active. It requires effort and preparation. If someone demands your time with, “Got a sec?” you can choose to let them know you’re not in a position to give them your full attention at the moment. They’ll appreciate it.

Misconception 2: It’s just eye contact and “uh huh’s”

I’ve heard people describe active listening this way. And while eye contact and acknowledgement are important, active listening is so much more than looking at someone and nodding. The listener’s responses must be calculated and meaningful, not frivolous. Learning the art of effective questioning is critical here. Questions can be powerful, not only for getting more information, but also for helping the speaker feel important. Here are some must-do’s (and don’ts) that go far beyond making eye contact and nodding your head:

  1. You must reflect back by paraphrasing with statements like, “What I’m hearing you say is…”
      • Never label something you hear with a judgmental statement like, “So you’re a…”
  2. You must clarify points that aren’t clear with questions like, “What do you mean when you say…”
      • Never assume you know what something means. Some people have very different ways of interpreting seemingly self-explanatory concepts or ideas.
  3. You must summarize what you’ve heard from the speaker periodically with statements like, “Let me make sure I’m tracking with you so far…”
      • Never assume the speaker is going to remember all the things he/she said during the entire conversation.

Because it’s an active process, you can’t put your responses on autopilot and simply nod and look in someone’s general direction. You must be attentive with your ears but also responsive with your tongue. Great active listeners reflect, clarify, and summarize.

Misconception 3: I can multitask

I’m guilty of this, for sure. I have to stop myself from time to time because I get caught up in the hussle of the day. But just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) make time to actively listen. We are constantly and increasingly expected to be “on” thanks to the multitude of technologies at our fingertips that supposedly help us achieve more efficiency. The trade off, unfortunately, tends to be our focus.

We are quite accustomed to checking email while monitoring our favorite social channels, eating lunch, and even driving….at the same time. The idea of taking time away from those things to sit in a quiet room with someone and just listen to them seems like an oddity. But it’s critical to helping others feel valued and building relationships. You can’t multitask while actively listening to someone. In fact, here are three things you must do to intentionally cut out the temptation to multitask so you’re in a position to focus on the speaker before you:

  1. You must remove distractions.
      • Turn off the music, find a quiet room, and don’t allow others to intrude on your space.
  2. You must unplug.
      • Yes, cell phones and laptops are distractions. But intentionally unplugging from the noise of unnecessary technology warrants its own “must do.” Even if your phone is usually glued to your hip, remove it when you’re going to actively listen to someone. It’s respectful to the speaker and will go a long way to help you focus.
  3. You must speak up.
      • Ironically, in order to be a good listener, you must know when you’re in a mental space to do so. Yes, you can tell the person demanding your time that you’re not in a place to listen right now. Even better, though, you can recognize that building a work culture that supports active listening is important and speak up for it. Ask for a place at work where people can go to have important conversations away from distractions. Such a valuable technique needs outspoken advocates in today’s workspaces.

Multitasking may be part of life, but active listening requires a great deal of effort. It can’t be juggled with other things and still maintain its potency. Focused attention communicates importance and value to the speaker. Wouldn’t you want the same treatment if you had something important to say?

Getting these three misconceptions cleared up in your own mind will help you start to see active listening for what it is – a powerful and highly-participatory communication technique that fosters deeper connection with others and a more healthy and respectful cultures at work. And heck, it absolutely pays off at home, too!