Why you need active listening in the workplace: A toolkit

Nicole Lowenbraun

Written by

Nicole Lowenbraun

Active listening has long been a popular method for improving listening in the workplace. And with good reason. Components of active listening include advice like:

  • Pay attention
  • Avoid judgement
  • Don’t give advice
  • Ask questions
  • Provide feedback

These components of active listening seem like great things to do in the workplace, but they’re not always the right thing to do for the person speaking. Active listening in the workplace can be tricky. The fact is there is not one right way to listen to people at work. While we always need to pay attention – that’s the bare minimum to ensure you’re actively listening – sometimes we should avoid judgement and advice. Sometimes we should ask questions. Sometimes we should provide feedback. But there are many cases in the workplace when there are barriers to active listening. That’s why we created a better way to listen in the workplace that goes beyond active listening. We call it Adaptive Listening™.


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What are some barriers to active listening?

Barriers to active listening include a lack of understanding of what the person speaking truly needs from you as a listener in that moment. If you follow the components of active listening, you might find yourself using the same listening principles and techniques in every situation with every person. A barrier to active listening is that it misses the mark on the empathy front. But Adaptive Listening is highly empathy focused because it ensures the person speaking gets what they need.

Adaptive Listening often works better than active listening in the workplace because it teaches you:

  • When and how to ask the right questions
  • When and how to give advice
  • When judgement is warranted and how to give it
  • When and how to provide feedback

1. When and how to ask the right questions

The barriers to active listening stem from a lack of actionable and memorable models. One component of active listening says, “ask questions.” But how do you know what kinds of questions to ask? Depending on the situation, you might ask:

  • Leading questions
  • Clarifying questions
  • Or questions to gain more information

While active listening says, “ask questions,” Adaptive Listening gives you specific questions to ask across a variety of situations. After all, you’ll ask different questions when you’re trying to guide someone, versus gather more information, versus lead them to an answer you know to be true.

2. When and how to give advice

Another barrier to active listening has to do with this component: “don’t give advice.” I bet you can think of many times in the workplace when you were asked to offer your expertise. In case you weren’t aware, active listening wasn’t purpose built for the workplace. It was originally designed for the therapeutic setting.

It makes total sense for a therapist or counselor to avoid giving unwarranted advice. Their goal is to encourage the client or patient to reach their own conclusions. But in the workplace, “don’t give advice” isn’t the best approach. Imagine if your CEO asks your opinion on a new marketing strategy or a new product idea. Are you really going to following the active listening component of “don’t give advice” in that situation?

With Adaptive Listening, you’ll learn when the person speaking needs advice. More importantly, you’ll learn how to tactfully and honestly deliver that advice in a way that builds trust and avoids unwanted conflict.

3. When judgement is warranted and how to give it

Another barrier to active listening is this component: “avoid judgment”. Now judgment and criticism are not always welcome at work. Especially when it’s delivered in the wrong place, wrong time, or directed to the wrong person. But there are appropriate situations where offering judgment is warranted.

Duarte experts have made a living evaluating clients’ communication. That’s right, some of us get paid to critique presentations and other high-stakes communication. We uncover what’s working and what’s not, identify risks and rewards, and find red flags. Clients see tremendous value in our judgement. We help them avoid the tension that can result from inaccurate or inappropriate messaging.

Unlike active listening in the workplace, Adaptive Listening does not discourage judgement. It says, “judge away!” But only in situations where that’s what the speaker needs you to do.

4. When and how to provide feedback

The last component of active listening, “provide feedback” is vague. Like some of the other components, this advice is hard to follow without specific guidance on how, when, and with whom. Suppose your CEO was delivering their vision keynote for the new year. It’s possible they might want you to provide feedback on their vision, but most likely, they’re not looking for your feedback. They simply want you to understand and remember what they were saying. Likely they’re looking for you to take either immediate or delayed action on that vision. But it’s unlikely they’re looking for you to say, “hmm, I’m not so sure about that vision!”

Adaptive Listening, unlike active listening, tells you it’s OK to provide feedback in the workplace, but encourages you to find the right situations and people to provide that feedback to.

Adaptive Listening™ is based on the idea that active listening in the workplace doesn’t necessarily help the person speaking meet their goals because different people need different things at different times and in different contexts. To combat the barriers to active listening, consider using Adaptive Listening.


Active listening worksheet

If you’re someone who knows they need to work on paying attention at work, an active listening worksheet might help. But hopefully after reading this, you’ve realized that active listening in the workplace isn’t going to cut it in all situations.

If it’s helpful listening resources you’re looking for, consider the following:


SAID adaptive listening


Take the S.A.I.D. Listening Style Finder™

Another barrier to active listening is that it’s sort of an off or on deal. When it comes to active listening in the workplace, you’re either being an active listener or you’re not. But Adaptive Listening recognizes listening differences.

The truth is, we don’t all listen the same way, and we all have a S.A.I.D. Listening Style™ – the way we prefer to process and respond to information. S.A.I.D. is an acronym that stands for Support, Advance, Immerse, and Discern.

  • Support Listeners™ prioritize the speaker’s emotions
  • Advance Listeners™ prioritize forward momentum
  • Immerse Listeners™ prioritize the content they’re hearing
  • Discern Listeners™ prioritize evaluating the information they’re hearing

By default, you’re either one or more of these styles. And if you’re not sure which style you are, we have a quiz for that! Take the S.A.I.D. Listening Style Finder™ to uncover your style. As an added bonus, you might also recognize the listening styles of the people you work with. Understanding that we all have listening differences can help you be more tolerant of the other listeners you work with.

Read the Adaptive Listening book

In addition to the S.A.I.D. Listening Styles listed above, there are also S.A.I.D. Listening Goals™. The person speaking to you either wants you to Listen to Support, Listen to Advance, Listen to Immerse, or Listen to Discern.

  • When speakers need you to Listen to Support™, they’re looking for you to validate their emotions
  • When speakers need you to Listen to Advance™, they’re looking for you to help them move projects, processes, and people forward
  • When speakers need you to Listen to Immerse™, they’re looking for you to understand and remember the content
  • When speakers need you to Listen to Discern™, they’re looking for you to evaluate the information

Unlike active listening in the workplace, Adaptive Listening contains memorable and actionable models that help you know exactly what the person speaking to you needs, when they need it, and how they need it. To learn more about S.A.I.D. Listening Goals, order a copy of the book!

Take the Adaptive Listening workshop

If you’re ready for a more hands-on alternative to an active listening worksheet, consider taking the Adaptive Listening workshop. You’ll get a chance to learn more about the differences between active listening in the workplace and Adaptive Listening. With a combination of lecture, small group exercises, and hands-on practice, you’ll be able to adapt your listening in your very next workplace interaction.

Now, if you’ve uncovered an active listening worksheet that works for you, great! Keep using it. But make sure you extend your learning beyond the components of active listening. Try Adaptive Listening instead. Take the S.A.I.D. Listening Style Finder, read Adaptive Listening: How to Cultivate Trust and Traction at Work, and take the Adaptive Listening workshop!

You likely find that Adaptive Listening helps you build more trusting connections and gain traction at work beyond what active listening can offer you in the workplace.


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