Illustration of an ear listening to a colourful group of speech bubbles

So, what is active listening and why does is matter in human-centred design? 

Mastering the art of engaging conversation

How many times have you found yourself in the “did you have a good weekend?” exchange with someone you’ve just met, receiving a one-word answer, and wondering where to go next?

We’ve posted before about successful research and the importance of building engagement with clients and research participants. But it’s not only in the workplace that you’ll find benefit from building your conversational skills, it’s just as important in social situations and at home as well.

So how does that work? How do you get from ‘did you have a good weekend?’ to an open and friendly conversation about the kids, birthday celebrations, or the latest fishing trip, that builds rapport?

The key is active listening and bringing a healthy dose of interest and curiosity to the conversation. Building your skills takes practice, so here are some strategies that might help.

Start on the right note – engagement and rapport building

At the core of active listening is engagement. From the minute you first interact it’s crucial to set the other person at ease and make them feel comfortable. Rapport building is about gaining trust, and if you’re running a one-on-one session, for example, you have to make the most of the short time available.

Rapport can be built quickly by using a few simple strategies:

  • be friendly and warm

  • be aware of your body language

  • ask some open questions about the person’s day

  • actively listen to the other person’s small talk

  • help a nervous person feel at ease

  • reflect that you are interested in what they have to say.

TIP: Consider the context of the other person when making small talk. Be as general as possible with your open questions and avoid assumptions, for example, ask “What do you do with your day” rather than “How has work been today?”, or “Tell me about your household” rather than “How is your family?”. You may be talking to someone who doesn’t have a ‘traditional’ job, or whose household doesn’t include family members.

Active Listening – key things to work on

Genuinely listen!

The best way to start active listening is to genuinely listen and show an interest in what the person is saying (don’t tune out!).

TIP: If you're finding it difficult to concentrate on what someone is saying, try repeating their words in your mind as they say them. This will reinforce their message and help you to stay focused and recall what they’ve said.

Illustration depicting someone who is distracted using their mobile phone while another person asks "Are you even listening to me?"

Don’t tune out! Monitor your day to day conversations to see if you fall into any ’poor listening’ traps.

Show interest through your body language/posture

  • Lean forward

  • Don’t slouch

  • Face your body toward the person

  • Nod occasionally

  • Smile and use other facial expressions

  • Make sure that your posture is open and interested

  • Put your phone away

  • Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like “yes”, and "uh huh."

Make eye contact

Eye contact helps someone feel that you are listening, however, take your cue from the person you’re talking to so that you don’t make them uncomfortable. Be aware that direct eye contact is not always appropriate for some communities and cultures. Keep your audience in mind and adjust your approach when needed.

Illustration of two pairs of eyes are looking at each other

Eye contact helps someone feel that you are listening, however, take your cue from the person you’re talking to.

Choose your language

The way you contribute to the conversation and the language you use is important. Employing the following tactics will help the conversation flow:

  • Ask open, rather than closed, questions – try “what did you do on the weekend?” rather than “did you have a good weekend?”

  • Use attentive silence – silence is difficult, and sometimes you want to encourage the other person to continue talking – using some ‘minimal encouragers’, such as “I see”, “tell me more about that”, “and then…”, are a nice supplement to silence.

  • Use non-judgemental language

  • Display empathy not sympathy – people don’t want to hear that you have experienced the same situation and how it made you feel. They want to know that you’re listening and understand where they are coming from. Recognising that all experiences are unique and trying to place yourself in their shoes will help you build empathy and rapport.

  • Don’t interrupt

Prompt for more information if you don’t understand, for example:

  • "Why is that?"

  • "Can you tell me more about that?"

  • "What do you think?"

  • "Can you help me summarise that in a sentence?"

Illustration showing the contrast between closed questions (represented by a question mark leading to a Yes or No answer) and an Open question (leading to lots of possible responses such as "It's very..." "It was..." "I think..." "Actually..." "Well..."

Closed questions can be answered with a single word answer such as yes or no, whereas an open question requires more thought and a longer response.


Active listening requires you to give some feedback that you’ve heard and understood the other person’s message the way it was conveyed. You can do this by reflecting back what it is the person has just said e.g. If you hear: “I didn’t like creating a password, it’s always hard to remember” – you could ask: “It sounds like recalling a password is challenging?”

In addition to showing the participant that you have listened, providing feedback this way allows you to check that you have correctly understood what has been communicated to you, thereby validating your conclusions.

Reflecting on what has been said by summarising and paraphrasing is another way to provide feedback. Using phrases like: "What I'm hearing is..." and "Sounds like you are saying..." are great ways to reflect back your understanding.

Watch the 'Big Bang Theory' crew give an active listening performance in this video

How does active listening relate to human-centred design?

Creating a warm and engaging conversational environment through active listening has many benefits in the Human Centred Design (HCD) world. The strategies you employ, such as eye contact, feedback and reflection will help confirm to the other person that you are taking in what they are saying at face value and confirm that you have the right understanding of what they are saying. It shows that you are interested and curious about their point of view, and that their experience is of value.

Active listening also improves your ability to absorb and pass on the data and information provided during the exchange. When we truly design FOR our users, the ability to empathise gives us insight into how they think and feel. It helps us to understand their behaviour which in turn informs our design decisions. If we don’t understand these things about our users, our designs will not benefit them.

Have you employed active listening in your HCD activities? Tell us about what works for you in the comments below.

Learn more about our research services where we apply active listening.

Bonus! Active listening activities

The best way to improve your active listening skills is through practice! Here are some handy activities that break down some key techniques to help you hone your active listening. Try these activities in your work or at home.

Roleplay closed and open questions with a partner

  • Take 1 minute to ask your partner only closed questions

  • Take 3 minutes to ask your partner only open questions

  • Swap over, then provide feedback to each other

Practice by yourself: reflecting on what you've heard

Provide feedback to these statements

  • I’m not really sure if I could do what I needed to do.

  • I’m not sure what I would do now.

  • It was good.

  • I’m finding this difficult.

Roleplay active vs passive listening with a partner

  • Ask one of your colleagues about a current workplace project.

  • Demonstrate passive listening, then repeat and demonstrate active listening.

  • Ask them to compare the two and provide feedback.

Practice by yourself: listening traps

Monitor your day-to-day conversations to see if you fall into any of these ’poor listening’ traps

  • Listening while distracted or thinking of something else (put your phone away!)

  • Using poor body language (facing away or crossing your arms)

  • Doing something else at the same time (screens are distracting!)

  • Asking closed questions

  • Misunderstanding what was said to you

If you catch yourself doing any of these, employ some of the rapport building strategies outlined above to get back on track.

About the author

About the author

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Author photo
Author photo

Marli Gray

Founder and Chief Happiness Officer

Marli is an experienced manager who oversees the day to day operations at Nomat including resource and project management. Marli is skilled in interviewing and has over 10 years experience working in the Victorian Government. Marli is adept at navigating complex stakeholder relationships and brings a pragmatic lens to every project.

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