Active listening may be the most under-appreciated skill of a political candidate.

Let’s say a candidate has a half-hour available at a campaign event. A typical politician might spend 20 minutes speaking and 10 minutes shaking hands. A more effective one would spend five minutes speaking and the rest of the time engaged in active listening.

Active listening provides you with two great opportunities.

It helps you learn what the other person has to say. And it gives you a chance to say something without uttering a word: that you value the other person enough to listen.

Hearing is passive, while active listening means giving the other person the gift of your full attention.

Here are some tips on how to engage in the kind of active listening that helps you to learn more and demonstrate your respect.

How to Cultivate Strong Active Listening Skills

Hold space

Whether you are a candidate, campaign staff, or local leader, you cannot represent your community without first listening to it.

To be an active listener, you need to create an environment where people feel their words are valued. To “hold space” means to create an environment conducive for the other person to have their say without interference.

Some tips to make this happen:

  • Note your own feelings and thoughts in your head, but don’t formulate a response while listening
  • Let the speaker know you won’t be judgemental
  • Act as a sounding board rather than a “splainer” ready to jump in with your own ideas and opinions about what’s being said
  • Withhold your own comments until asked

Show Respect

Showing respect makes people feel comfortable opening up because they know you care about them. It’s a two-way street: if you respect your constituents, they will respect and support you.

  • Be present. Put away the phone. Use direct eye contact. Do not look at your computer screen (or don’t look at other things on the screen if on a video call)
  • Listen more than talk. A good ratio is 80/20
  • Have patience: Silence does not need to be filled
  • Don’t interrupt, abruptly change the subject, or rush the speaker

Engage in Response

Let the speakers know you are actively listening by engaging directly with their points.

Instead of responding with your own anecdotes or opinions, respond with ways to ensure and assure that you understand.

One problem people often have is instead of actually listening they formulate responses in their head while the other person is talking. Don’t do this. It’s ok to take some space to respond and easier to respond in a valuable way if you stop and just listen.

  • Ask questions: You learn more, and they hear that you are interested and care
  • Paraphrase what you heard: This clarifies for both of you that you understand. “What I’m hearing is…” is a great way to reflect back
  • Ask for feedback: If you express a view or a point, ask what they think and wait to listen to their response. If time is limited, let them know you would love to hear more later or encourage them to follow up with your staff.

Show You Are Actively Listening

Use verbal and non-verbal cues to show active listening. These little details are signals to the other person.

Dos:

  • Make eye contact
  • Nod and smile
  • Have an open posture
  • Vocally affirm to signal that you are paying attention (Mhmm, okay, yes, etc)

Don’ts:

  • Fidgeting with objects (a pen, necklace, earring)
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Negative body language (slumped, arms crossed)
  • Rolling your eyes
  • Back-channel and paralanguage (huffing or sighing, clicking with teeth)
  • “Topping” the story (saying “that reminds me of the time…”)
  • Spiritual bypassing (refusing to engage with their point, instead of saying general phrases such as “Just stay positive”)
  • Offering unsolicited advice or opinions

Be Open to Another Perspective

Just because you are knowledgeable about an issue doesn’t mean you know everything about it. Learning additional information and seeing things from a new perspective makes you even more knowledgeable. Listening is a valuable opportunity to learn about your constituents.

  • Defer judgment
  • Don’t assume the other person’s perspective
  • Leave rigid ideologies at the door while listening
  • Empathy is crucial. Try to understand their reality. Denying someone’s truth is not only invalidating, it also forces them to conform to yours or start a conflict. If you at least hear them out, you might be able to understand each other better.

Sense Emotions

Having an “ear” for emotions can help you navigate emotionally charged conversations appropriately. Use these tips to stay attuned and open.

  • When you become aware that someone is emotional, pause, convey that you understand how they feel (from their perspective, even if you disagree with their point)
  • Parse out the point from the emotion
  • Avoid responding with your own emotions

Active Listening Online

With COVID, we are all having to adapt to online communication, which makes active listening more difficult, but also more important than ever. You’ll need to boost some aspects, and adjust others to show you are listening through a screen. If you are connecting by Zoom or a similar platform, remember these tips:

Zoom:

  • Look at the camera instead of the images of you or the other person
  • Amp up verbal communication or engage with the chat
  • Include your hands in the frame so it is clear you’re not typing something else
  • Boredom, daydreaming, and distraction shows: make sure you set up an environment for yourself in which you can stay engaged and not easily distracted

Social media:

Listening can be a vehicle for receptivity in online communication. Often your constituents will be posting their positions and values online, especially now, during COVID-19

  • Respond to comments
  • Modify auto-generated messages
  • Check messages and inbox often
  • Provide an online forum or inbox where people can get in touch with you directly

All political candidates know how to make speeches, but not all know how to be active listeners. If you can engage in two-way conversation, you create a stronger bond than if you make a one-way speech.

Don’t overlook the importance of active listening. Think of speaking skills as “silver” and listening as “gold”!

Active listening is an important piece of conveying your personal story. What’s the point in crafting a perfect personal story, when you aren’t prepared to listen to your audience? Take our Online Course “Using Personal Stories to Connect” to craft your own story and make meaningful connections.

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Shea Seery

Shea Seery is an artist, storyteller, and people person. She recently graduated from Reed College and has been active on political campaigns for almost a decade now. Additionally, she runs artistic programs for underserved youth and houseless individuals. Shea is currently based in Portland, Oregon.