How Freelancers Can Use Active Listening to Improve Business


Imagine we’re having a conversation, and I’m telling you about where I live. I might describe how Eagleby is located between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, and mention the names of important roads. I might explain that Eagleby is situated between twin rivers, and the bird life in our wetlands—including eagles—attracts bird watchers from around the world. I might also mention that the reputation of some parts of Eagleby is summed up by the name given it by the locals: “Illegalby”.

While I was talking, most likely you were only half-listening. Perhaps you were also thinking about lunch, organizing three things you need to get done this afternoon, daydreaming about how cool you think eagles are, evaluating some ideas for a new website, and wishing I would change the subject.

Now imagine that the context of the conversation was that you were about to drive to Eagleby to meet with me about an important job. You would have listened in an entirely different way. And that’s the difference between passive and active listening. In this article we’ll look at why active listening is an essential skill for freelancers.

What is Active Listening?

First we need to understand active listening a little better. What exactly is active listening? Steve Martin defines it like this:

Active listening is to make a conscious effort to hear and understand what others involved in a conversation [are saying]. In active listening, also sometimes known as empathetic listening, the listener paraphrases what the speaker has said and seeks confirmation that their understanding is correct.

It takes time to learn to listen like that. Here are four techniques that may help:

1. Learn to Hear the Non-verbals. Only 35% of communication is verbal. If you are only listening to words, you miss 65% of the message. Body language, facial expression and tone and rate of speech add to the message being conveyed.

2. Offer Feedback. Feedback lets the speaker know they are being heard. Giving feedback isn’t offering your own point of view, it is checking that you have understood the speaker’s point of view by rephrasing it. For example, “Fred, I hear you saying that you’re concerned I might miss the deadline.” Or, “It sounds like you’re not totally happy with the new design.”

3. The ‘What’ Technique. This technique involves asking questions that start with the word ‘what’. Some examples are:

  • What do you want?
  • What can I do for you?
  • What were you hoping for?
  • What do you see as possible?
  • What is the context of that concern?

David Flack explains the benefit of using ‘what’ questions: “Such questions reveal that the listener is open to any response. The listener has no agenda. He can then be surprised, informed or delighted—even outraged—by the speaker’s agenda.”

4. Don’t Give Advice Too Early. And never interrupt someone to give advice. It gives your client the message that you’re not interested in their point of view. And even if you think you know the right answer before you hear the whole question—after all, you’re a professional—you might be wrong. Or you may need to adjust your answer once you hear all the facts.

The World Needs More Listeners

We live in a fast-paced world. We lead busier and fuller lives than previous generations, try to fit more into our day, are more easily distracted, and are often trying to organize two or three things in the back of our minds. We have less time to listen.

And when we do listen, we multitask. We plan what to say next, or are distracted by unrelated issues. This isn’t healthy. We’re not giving the speaker our full attention, and they notice. And because we only remember 25-50% of what we hear, we’re missing out as well.

Some have identified one of the greatest psychological needs of our time is to be listened to. Active listening helps to address this need. It is a skill that must be learned—and people will notice when we do.

The Business Benefits of Active Listening

Active listening has proven very effective in counseling and conflict management, but it is also a very effective business tool:

  • It helps you clarify issues early. With active listening you are more likely to pick up on a different point of view or some misconceptions your client has. By hearing them, clarifying them, and offering some ‘what’ questions, you can stay on track and better a more satisfactory solution.
  • It helps you catch new opportunities. If you’re really listening to the needs of your client, you may pick up on specific needs they have that you can help them with.
  • It improves long-term client relationships. Chase Sagum explains: “Listening will set the tone for the rest of your communication. It will direct your efforts. By actively listening to clients, you’ll know the best way to communicate with them. Whether through email or phone, listening skills will foster the next steps in client relations. This can not only help businesses fine-tune their sales and implementation techniques but it will also help to create a long term client relationship, increasing visibility, referrals and market share.”

Where Can I Learn More?

Active listening sounds so easy, but it’s difficult to master. If you’d like to learn more, check out these detailed articles:


This author has published 17 post(s) so far at FreelanceSwitch. Their bio is coming soon!

  1. PG Dan Ronken

    I can appreciate this entire article. There is also a sense of relief knowing that humans generally only remember 25 – 50% of what we hear. True, that statistic is very broad and generalized, but I would certainly like to be near the higher end, and one way to do that is confirming ‘out loud’ what I perceive the speaker to be saying. This part of the listening process is an art form, because if done in an unmindful manner, you may be perceived as condescending; and of course that would not be a good thing. Thank you for a message this morning.

  2. PG Tony

    I agree. I am as guilty as the next person at not “actively” listening. One thing I noticed helps is to look where the person speaking is looking.

    If they are looking you in the eyes, look them in the eyes. If they are looking at a document, look at the document.

    This keeps you up to speed and forces you to stay alert. Causing you to think about the conversation and not something else.

  3. PG Petr Konůpek

    Nice post again ;)

  4. Nice article, here and a pretty original one too :-)

    At client meetings I find myself listening more to what they are saying rather actually taking notes at the same time. I find it allows me to watch the clients body language, and yes I agree a large percentage of the communication is non-verbal.

    Emphatic listening is always a winner with clients, because you get to understand their needs in a far better light.

    Thanks for this article :-)

  5. PG Jason Wietholter

    Great post. I’m glad to know that I am not the only one who thinks that active listening is a great way to improve your relationships and build your reputation.

    I tackled the same issue, but approached it from an online/SEO standpoint.

  6. PG Fyon

    Its a good reminder! :)

  7. PG Anthony

    Everyone can benefit from reading this.

  8. PG Jaden

    “The fool speaks, the wise man listens.”
    —A favorite African proverb of mine.
    The more you think about this and the more you observe it, the more marvelous it becomes of a proverb.

    People who don’t talk so much look smart and inquisitive, while people who blather on and on appear to be ignorant and self-absorbed. It’s a perception of which to be aware during your conversations.

    Listening is soooo important. It is extremely important to building friendships and business relationships. A good listener on a first encounter can make a lifetime friend. It shows respect and interest in the person, which of course makes us all feel good: to be respected and heard. Of course, you don’t want to be dead silent, otherwise you come across as boring. Let’s say, be an interactive listener.

    Most importantly, don’t you want to learn? By asking questions and listening, I find out the most interesting things about human nature and the world.

    As a writer, listening is extremely valuable. The stories I hear can actually be directly profitable for me!

    By culture and good manners, Europeans, are generally great listeners and questioners. They are also direct and honest: when I was a boisterous American youngster, I learned the hard way that I talked too much and I ought to shut up. It was embarrassing, but they were right. …. so I am going to shut up now.

    Adrian, what an excellent article! I am so glad you wrote it and in such a thorough and useful way. Thank you. Hope people take it to heart.

  9. PG Kat Eden

    Over the past 10 years the most valuable skill I have gained is the ability to listen in to what my clients are really saying. Usually this is quite far removed from the original message that they give me. I’ve been fortunate to have some great mentors along the way and the techniques they’ve shared with me about digging deeper are nothing short of amazing. Truly the difference between forging a long-term relationship or not, in many cases.

    It’s all about digging beneath the surface. Paraphrasing the client is one way to do this, but questions such as ‘why is that important to you’ and ‘how do you mean’ are also extremely useful. Never accept the clients words at face value – you’ve no chance of hitting the true emotional reason for their need.

    And although I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms, blogging success is also greatly dependent on being tuned in to the clients needs. Of course it’s tough to ask your readers at large what is important to them and get a truly honest answer, but using face-to-face experiences as a foundation for blog posts is definitely a great start and one that I’ve found pretty successful.

  10. PG Mayur Jobanputra

    Super article! In other circles it’s also called “be with listening” which loosely means to “be with the other person(s)” when they speak. Become tuned into what they are saying and drop your own agenda or inner voice. It’s hard to do at first, but once you understand they “why” the “what” becomes straightforward.

    Steven Covey talks about something related called the “Indian Talking Stick” which you can learn more about here:

  11. PG Alavri Web Design

    Great article!

    I think these are excellent techniques, and I try to use them during my initial style meetings with my clients. Asking a few extra questions and actually ‘really’ listening well can help you get to know exactly what your client wants and needs. It can also save both of you lots of time later on in the design and development process. Taking a few extra minutes to ‘listen’ in the beginning can save hours in the revisions process later on.

  12. Great Post. We have two ears and one mouth – that should say something about the ratio between listening and speaking.

  13. PG Rashid Rupani

    Very good post.

    I like to add two 3 more points here. You also need to ask following question.

    2 – What are you trying to achieve?
    3 – What are your ultimate goals here?
    4 – How much do you think this is going to cost?

  14. PG Andrew

    I think the human kind can benefit from this idea.

    It boils down to being attentive and caring. It’ll help you everywhere not just on the job.

  15. PG Mark Ridgwell

    Thanks for the post on this important topic.

    Listening is one of the most valuable skills people can have. The fact is though, people aren’t good at it at all!

    In case it’s of interest to your readers, I wrote an article on this too – in model form for fast absorption –

    Best regards,

  16. PG Patricia Price

    I was reading this for an assignment in college. I think of my parents, they were great listeners. My daughter and grandchildren are great listeners. I am getting better. I use to be a very good. I am doing so much better now. I want to get better with my husband. I’m sure he will appreciate it!

Leave a Comment