​Active Listening: The Most Important Skill for Effective Mentors

a man walking down the street wearing headphones

This is Part 9 of our 10-part series on the 10 Key Qualities and Habits of a Highly Effective Mentor. Read Part 8 here.

The most important part of any relationship is communication, which is why it’s especially important for both mentors and mentees to take note of their own communication styles and ensure that they work for their mentoring partner.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) there are four principal methods that we use to communicate (with the exception of non-verbal behaviour).

a chart describing the four principal methods that we use to communicate: listening (45%), talking (30%), reading (16%) and writing (9%).

via CIPD

It’s curious to note that unlike talking, reading and writing, we are not taught how to listen. CIPD notes that although we spend a lot of time ‘hearing’, experts estimate that only 25-50% of this time is spent actually ‘listening’.

So how do we learn how to listen, and more specifically, become active listeners?

When it comes to mentors specifically, an active listening approach is key; after all, mentors and mentees spend much of their relationship talking and listening to one another. Active listening is a technique in which the listener must fully concentrate in order to understand, respond and remember what is being said. Like any skill, it must be developed. Here are some ways you might notice that your own mentor is an active listener (and how you yourself can become one!).

Quality 7: They’re active listeners

1. They stop talking

This may seem like common sense, but it can be harder than you might think! When some people stop talking, it’s only because they’re thinking about what they want to say next. But not with active listeners! Active listeners suppress the urge to focus on how they want to respond and first actually listen to what you have to say.

2. They approach listening as a learning experience

As we said in Part 7 of our series, the most effective mentors are life-long learners. This goes hand-in-hand with them also being active listeners, as a trademark of active listening is to approach the listening experience as a learning one. Oftentimes, these listeners think of the speaker as someone who can teach them something—no matter who that speaker may be! For them, there’s always something to learn.

3. They guide the conversation

Active listeners are rarely happy with a “yes” or “no” answer. Instead, they avoid close-ended questions and employ open-ended ones, using broad queries to guide their mentees to discover solutions for themselves. Some examples of leading questions may be “What other alternatives have you considered to X?” or “How do you envision your career-changing once you do Y?”

4. They make you think

While active listener-mentors use guiding questions to get their mentees where they need to be, they don’t let them off the hook with lofty responses. Instead, they ensure they pull out actionable items from every conversation. These may be discovered after asking questions like “Tell me how you plan to accomplish X,” or “How did you decide that Y was the best choice?” These direct, specific questions can help focus the conversation while bringing to light important insights and next steps.

5. They take into account more than just what you say

These mentors aren’t just paying attention to the words you’re saying, but how you’re saying it and what your body is doing while you speak. That’s because oftentimes, the real message we want to convey doesn’t take the form of a verbal response, it may be less cerebral and more emotional, expressing itself through our body language. Active listener-mentors know to look for this in order to truly understand what you want to get across.

6. They pay attention, summarise, and provide positive feedback

Ultimately, these mentors will pay attention and respect what you have to say, even if they don’t agree. In order to ensure they understand correctly, they’ll also often summarize what you’ve said by using statements such as “If I’m understanding you correctly, you…” or “Tell me if this is what you’re saying…” Last but not least, they’ll use positive feedback and body language—such as a nod, smile or positive “uh huh”—to encourage you and signify interest and understanding.

It’s important to note that active listening takes energy. People who listen actively don’t simply sit back and allow words to hit their eardrums. They sit up straight, take notes, ask questions, and repeat or “mirror back” what they’ve heard in order to ensure they’ve understood it properly. If you notice this type of behaviour from your own mentor during conversations, you’ve hit the jackpot! Your mentor is fully invested in you, what you’re saying, and helping you grow. The world would surely be a better place if we were all active listeners.

Ready to establish a culture of mentoring at your organisation? Why not start by sharing this series with your HR team?

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Em is our Marketing Manager at Mentorloop. That's a lot of 'm's! | She is passionate about crafting messages, crafternoons and craft beer.

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