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Practice Active Listening to Foster Connection Among Your Remote and Hybrid Teams

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

With many teams working remotely, it is more important than ever for leaders to find ways to model effective communication behaviors that foster a sense of connection and collaboration.

Work relationships are an important part of an employee's well-being, performance and satisfaction at work. These relationships are developed and supported through communication. However, a recent study found that most employees experienced remote work as a challenge for relational communication which is the type of communication that contributes to relationship building and maintenance.

While there are many strategies for strengthening relational communication, in this article we will focus on one evidenced-based communication approach which has been shown to increase the quality of work relationships. This approach is called, Active Empathetic Listening (AEL). AEL is a skill that can be applied during any conversation whether communicating in-person or remotely and when used, has been shown to reduce stress, improve interpersonal relationships and enhance group interactions.

What is Active Empathetic Listening?

Research suggests that listening is made up of a hierarchy of qualitative levels consisting of marginal, evaluative, active listening, and active empathetic listening. As one increases their level of listening in a conversation, their connection with the other person also increases.

When Level 1 or Marginal Listening occurs, one may be hearing the words, however they are often distracted and thinking of what they are going to say next. Since they are receiving incomplete information it is unlikely they will respond appropriately. They will likely proceed with their own agenda for the conversation without truly acknowledging what the other person has said.

Level 2 or Evaluative Listening is a step up from Marginal Listening because the listener is concentrating on what is being said, however, they are not picking up on what the person is not saying, such as their tone of voice or body language. Therefore, they often interpret the message at face value and respond by giving advice or telling a personal story.

When Level 3 or Actively Listening occurs, the listener demonstrates a deeper interest in the other person. During this process the receiver not only shows they are paying attention by acknowledging subtle verbal and non-verbal cues but they reflect back to the person what they have said and ask questions in a way that encourages further communication and a desire for deeper understanding.

Level 4 or Active Empathetic Listening (AEL) is the highest level of listening. AEL goes beyond Active Listening, attempting to assess the underlying meaning behind the speaker’s message by putting themselves in their place throughout the conversation. When a listener demonstrates empathy for the speaker, genuine interest is shown and a deeper connection is made.

Figure: Levels of listening (Comer & Drollinger)

How to Practice Active Empathetic Listening

The first step is to practice moving beyond the first two levels of listening by giving the speaker your full attention, eliminating distractions and avoiding the temptation to give advice or tell a personal story.

As you move into Level 3 listening (Active Listening), practice asking questions in a way that draws the other person out. Strive to be curious instead of judgmental and encourage deeper dialogue by asking open-ended questions such as:

  • Can you tell me more about “x”?

  • What makes this important for you?

  • What else would you like me to know about this?

Try paraphrasing what the speaker has said to show that you are capturing their message and to also give them an opportunity to adjust their message for better understanding:

  • What I’m hearing is…

  • Sounds like this is what is happening…

  • In other words…

As you move to the fourth level of listening (AEL), acknowledge the verbal and non-verbal cues and bring empathy into the picture by starting to imagine yourself in the other person's shoes. Ask yourself:

  • What emotions am I picking up on?

  • What do I notice about their tone of voice or body language?

  • How would I feel if I were in their shoes?

To further demonstrate how to put this into practice, suppose that one of your direct reports says to you, "I'm feeling burned out. I feel like I have more projects than I can handle which makes it hard for me to do a really good job on any of them. I'm nervous something will go wrong." Note how the following responses correspond with the levels of listening:

Level 1: Marginal Listening - "Don't worry, things will slow down soon. Keep up the good work!"

Level 2: Evaluative Listening - "I know it's a busy time right now. Why don't you try this..." or "Here's what works for me when I'm feeling like this..."

Level 3: Active Listening - "It sounds like your plate is full and you're feeling overwhelmed and burned out by it. Tell me more about this." (Allow the person to expand on or adjust their message).

Level 4: Active Empathetic Listening - "Thank you for sharing what you are going through. I'm glad you are bringing this up. It sounds like your workload is causing you to feel burned out and you're nervous that the quality of your work will suffer. What else are you feeling or experiencing right now?"

The goal of engaging at the AEL level is to create a safe environment where the speaker feels heard, acknowledged and a deep sense of interest from the listener. When this exists both parties feel more connected and aligned.

In summary, AEL can help improve relationships, boost empathy and understanding, and create a more positive environment for both in-person and remote teams. For your next conversation or one-one-one, try moving towards Level 3 listening by: 1) eliminating distractions and giving your complete attention to the speaker, 2) avoiding the urge to give advice or tell a personal story and 3) asking thoughtful, open-ended questions to encourage deeper dialogue and understanding.

It is our goal at the Institute of Positive Leadership to help leaders develop effective communication skills and improve their ability to produce positive outcomes. If you are interested in increasing Active Empathetic Listening within your team and organization, please reach out to us at We offer skills training and development in the form of workshops, leadership programs and 1:1 or group coaching.

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