The Importance of Active Listening for Clinical Trials Professionals

February 8, 2024
By Ted Marriott

What immediately comes to mind when you think about a clinical trials professional (CTP)? Perhaps it’s an individual in a lab coat, with an academic scientific background, surrounded by tables and tables of data, immersed in their research. They’ll be skilled in data analysis, detail-oriented and a deep critical thinker. However, you might neglect one of the most invaluable skills every CTP and aspiring CTP needs if they’re to succeed in their field: the ability to listen. Or, more importantly, the ability to actively listen. What is active listening, and why is it so important in clinical research? That’s what we’re here to tell you.


  1. What is active listening?
  2. Why is active listening important for CTPs?
  3. 5 top tips to help you with active listening
  4. Develop your active listening skills

What is active listening?

Active listening is simple enough to grasp. It requires a person to pay close attention to what someone is communicating, both verbally and non-verbally, and to play an active role in helping the other person work through and understand their issue. Sounds easy enough, but in practice it is a skill you will continue to develop throughout your career.

When you’re listening to someone, it’s easy to drift off or plan your response to what they are going to say before they even finish saying it. You can neglect to pick up on body language and misinterpret the content and meaning of what a person is saying. Time spent miscommunicating and misinterpreting means time delaying and stalling the progress of your clinical research, which is sure to be a costly endeavour.

There is a deeper history to the term active listening too. It was coined by American psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson, who took the communication principles from counselling and conflict resolution and demonstrated how they could be used in a professional business setting.  

If you want to practise and participate in active listening, you need to understand the total meaning of what someone is saying. That means paying attention to both the information that is said and the way it is conveyed (the tone and intonation), as well as identifying a person’s non-verbal cues and, ultimately, having the empathic skills to respond to how they are feeling, as well as the information they’re providing you.

Why is active listening important for CTPs?

You could be working towards some incredible breakthroughs in your clinical research, but those discoveries simply won’t be possible without the ecosystem of clear and proficient communication. For any field you work in, this sounds obvious enough, but in clinical trials, that ecosystem of communication could span the globe to different institutions and varying levels of management and expertise, as well external stakeholders all invested in different components of your research.

Our communications skills courses leader Jon Gilbert puts it simply: “If you tell someone a telephone number and they write it down incorrectly, how can you even ensure that subsequent results and data are interpreted accurately?” [...] It’s easy to make mistakes in clinical trials where the stakes are high, whilst adhering to tight budget and time constraints. Failure to understand communications and respond appropriately will slow down the trials.” When drug developments can already take between 10 and 15 years before they make it to market, that’s time you cannot afford to lose.

Building on the concept of active listening, Jon also explains why communication is about more than just the information you convey: “Frequent breakdowns in global communications across companies are not solely due to spoken language problems, but could be caused by your tone and intonation…listening difficulties and failing to confirm what you have heard.” This isn’t just relevant for clinical trials administrators (CTAs) at the beginning of their careers, because anyone at any level of management can be capable of neglecting to listen properly.

When you have to absorb and deliver complex information and communicate across cultures, active listening is going to be a fundamental tool for your success as a CTP.

5 top tips to help you with active listening

Whether you’re a clinical project manager (CPM) juggling multiple tasks or a CTA on the first day of your job, you can use active listening to your advantage. Here’s how!

  1. Use active listening to help you focus: you’ve got lots on your mind and you’re already anticipating the next task? Take a moment and pause. Use the principles of active listening to concentrate on what the other person is saying and how you can reply appropriately without interrupting them; this will force you to slow down and focus on one thing at a time.
  2. Use active listening when meeting new people: at a networking conference, you might already be thinking about the next talk you need to attend or the next connection you need to make, but this transactional approach isn’t going to help you foster professional relationships. Apply your active listening ears to attend to the person you’re speaking with more thoughtfully (you may even pick up on an important lead or some information you would have otherwise missed). If you want to find out more about networking at pharma events, you can check out our top tips blog too!
  3. Use active listening when giving and receiving instructions: techniques like repeating back what you have just heard to clarify instructions, stopping yourself from interrupting the other person and asking for certain terminology to be explained will ensure you and your colleague are clear on the tasks ahead; something crucial for the efficacy of clinical trials. As Jon mentioned, you could be working with people in different time zones, where English isn’t their first language and managing an array of people with varying levels of qualification.
  4. Use active listening to pick up on non-verbal cues: intonation and body language convey a lot about someone’s confidence, so if you pick up on any hesitation when you’re talking to the other person, there and then is the opportune time to check they are confident with the task they’ve been given or if you need to provide additional help or clarification.
  5. Use active listening to pick up on subtext: in many ways, active listening is as much about picking up on the things you don’t hear and see and using that to evaluate everyone’s confidence and clarity. Did your clinical research associate (CRA) affirm the actions you gave them? Did external stakeholders who are funding your research show assurance in their tone of voice? Was that task communicated clearly enough? Once again, that high-level communication will be the fabric that ties the channels of your clinical trials together.

Develop your active listening skills

These soft skills are tools we will spend our lifetimes building and honing. As Jon puts it, “even at the top of your profession, you may not realise how boring, demanding, unclear, confusing or overwhelming your verbal or written information sharing might be, not only to CTPs, but also to clients, suppliers, technicians and administrators for whom you may need to adapt your communication style to achieve the results you desire.”

That’s why at CGX we offer a variety of specialised courses in communication skills. These include Communicating Effectively, Writing Expressively, Presenting Fearlessly and Influencing Convincingly. If you’re interested in developing these skills or want to empower your CTPs with professional communication skills, then don’t hesitate to contact us today.

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