Active listening is a technique that involves processing the speaker’s words, absorbing their meaning intently and responding thoughtfully.
It also involves carefully observing the speaker’s nonverbal cues to enhance understanding their statements.
By engaging in active listening, it demonstrates a deep interest in the speaker’s thoughts and feelings instead of just passively listening to what is being said. This shows the speaker that you have a genuine concern for what they are saying.
It is a technique that can be learned with training and practice. It is often used in counseling sessions between a psychologist/counselor and client, in the workplace where a person in a leadership position wants to help an employee, or just between two caring friends.
Active Listening Definition
Carl Rogers and Richard Farson coined the term “active listening” in 1957. At that time, and even today, most people consider listening to be a passive act that simply involves allowing another person to speak.
However, Rogers and Farson argued that listening can be a highly interactive process whereby the listener engages in many actions that encourage the speaker to elaborate and explore their thoughts and feelings in greater detail.
This results in both the listener and the speaker developing a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the speaker and will facilitate growth.
(Rogers is also the father of Humanism Theory).
Active Listening Examples
1. Verbal Affirmations
There are many ways to show that you are taking someone’s opinions seriously during a conversation. Making short comments will show to the speaker that you are following along with every word that they are saying.
This can be accomplished by saying: “I see”, “I understand”, or “That makes sense”.
Making these comments, called verbal affirmations, helps keep the conversation moving without interrupting the speaker or taking them off the point they are trying to make by disrupting their train of thought.
The comments are non-evaluative as well, which lets the speaker know that you are not passing judgement on their views or feelings.
2. Ask Probing Questions
A “probing” question is designed to get more information. It can be used to learn more about what happened in a given situation to help you have a better understanding.
Or, it can be used to get the speaker to talk more about their thoughts and feelings in a particular situation.
Some examples of probing questions include: “Tell me more about how you felt when ___ said that to you”, or “What happened when_____?”
This encourages the speaker to continue speaking, which some may be reluctant to do. It can also be applied during key points in the conversation that you may believe are critical to understanding the speaker’s point of view.
Paraphrasing is restating the main statements that a speaker has shared. This can be done for several reasons.
First, it can show the speaker that you understand what they have said and that you are sincerely interested in hearing their views.
Secondly, if a speaker tends to speak very fluidly without maintaining a clear line of thought, it can help keep them on track. Third, if you are having trouble fully understanding what has been said, paraphrasing gives the speaker a chance to clarify their meaning.
Examples of paraphrasing are: “So, you were ready to do the presentation”, or “So, after the meeting you said _____.”
4. Reflecting Emotions
Reflecting emotions is like being a mirror of the speaker’s emotions. When they express a feeling about something, either through their tone of voice or with explicit statements, you simply reflect those sentiments back to them.
For example, if the speaker has just described a situation which made them upset and you can hear that in their tone of voice, you can respond by saying: “And this made you angry”, or “So, that upset you.”
This gives the speaker a chance to elaborate on their feelings about that situation. It can also be used to help the speaker put their emotions into words, which will help them understand their feelings better.
A lot of people have trouble speaking in a way that is highly organized and presents a coherent story.
For this reason, it is often necessary to take several of the statements that a speaker has made, which may seem loosely connected, or perhaps not at all connected, and summarize the key points.
By restating the major ideas or feelings expressed, it can ensure that you have understood clearly. It also helps the speaker keep their focus on the important elements of a situation.
If the story they are telling is difficult to understand fully, summarizing will give them a chance to clarify any misunderstandings or even add key details that they omitted earlier.
6. Seeking Clarification
Asking a question about a particular situation the speaker is describing is another way to make sure you thoroughly understand.
It also shows the speaker that you are deeply involved in the conversation and following along intently as they are speaking.
Clarifying can simply be encouraging the speaker to rephrase what they have just said and admitting that you did not fully understand, such as: “I am not sure I understand.”
If the sequence of events in a story are unclear, then this can be clarified by asking, “did you react immediately, or was that later?”
Seeking clarification can also involve purposely restarting the wrong interpretation of what was just said, so the speaker will correct that confusion on their own.
7. Disclosing Similar Experiences
It is important to build rapport with the person you are speaking with, especially in the beginning of the relationship.
This helps create an atmosphere of trust and openness, which will facilitate communication and encourage the speaker to reveal key information about a situation or their feelings.
One way to accomplish this is by disclosing personal information about yourself that is similar to what the speaker is talking about. For example, if the speaker is describing a situation in which they felt embarrassed, then you can also say a few words about a time in which you too felt embarrassed about something that happened.
It is important that what you are saying comes from a real experience and your statements are sincere. Otherwise, the person you are speaking with will be able to tell that your story is not real. This can destroy rapport and trust.
8. Validating Feelings
It is extremely important not to pass judgment on the speaker’s actions or feelings.
Disagreeing with someone’s opinion during a conversation will throw the communication off-track and lead to uncomfortable disagreements. This can completely destroy trust and rapport and will be counter-productive to your goal of helping the speaker.
Therefore, it is important to offer validation of their feelings. Letting them know that they have a right to feel the way they do is a way of showing respect for their opinion and emotions.
This can be accomplished by making statements such as: “I would feel the same way,” or “I don’t blame you at all.”
9. Observing Non-verbal Cues
Active listening not only involves listening to the words spoken, but it also involves paying attention to a person’s body language and non-verbal behavior.
This can give you an insight into what the speaker is feeling and how the conversation is going.
For example, when people feel uncomfortable, they will sometimes display a closed posture. This can include slumping the shoulders or torso, crossing of the arms, or turning their body to one side or the other with their knees placed together. Literally, their body attempts to close.
Non-verbal cues also include facial expressions and eye-gaze. If the person looks away a lot it may mean that they feel uncomfortable. Facial expressions where the eyebrows are furrowed together can mean the person is very displeased or disapproves with what you have said.
10. Avoid Distracting Movements
It is important that during the conversation, the speaker knows that they have your undivided attention.
This means avoiding movements that are distracting and indicate that your attention is elsewhere.
For example, looking at your watch, or phone, doodling on paper, or tapping a pen can indicate that you are not interested in understanding what they speaker is saying.
Taking a phone call, being interrupted by a secretary or other person, or even shifting one’s body posture or legs frequently during the conversation are all disruptive to the flow of communication.
Any of these actions can make the speaker feel uncomfortable, even disrespected.
11. Maintaining Eye Contact
Looking someone straight in the eyes sends a clear message that they have your undivided attention.
It shows that you are interested in taking part in the conversation and listening.
Therefore, it is best to always keep your eyes on the speaker. You should not be glancing around the room or looking at others while that person is speaking. Keeping your gaze natural is important.
The occasional nod or appropriately timed smile ensures that the other person knows you are concerned about their views and want to hear what they have to say. It is a way of conveying respect for the other person and their opinion.
12. Not Passing Judgement
One of the most crucial aspects of active listening is that it takes place in a trusting and open environment.
However, many times during a conversation we may hear opinions or perspectives that are vastly different from our own values and beliefs.
This might make us inclined to pass judgement or disapprove of the speaker. It is certainly natural to want to express our own views and disagree with what we are hearing.
If you start defending your own values, then in a way, you are denying that person’s right to be different. When a person’s understanding of reality is argued with it is invalidating their opinion and placing your own values above theirs. This will often lead to conflict, which is counter to what active listening is trying to accomplish.
It is important to remember that the purpose of the conversation is centered on the speaker and trying to help them in that moment. Starting a debate is not conducive to that goal.
13. Providing Feedback
Expressing your opinion on the speaker’s actions or feelings is acceptable during active listening, if it is done carefully.
First and foremost, the speaker must be a willing recipient of the feedback. This means that they will have asked for your opinion directly. Providing an unsolicited option can destroy the moment and all of your efforts to build trust and rapport. That is a bad thing.
Giving a person feedback can create an opportunity for growth and allow the speaker to hear an objective opinion. Often, our judgement can be clouded by our emotional connections to a situation, but hearing the opinion of someone that is not so directly involved in the matter can give us a fresh point of view. That can be a good thing.
14. Ask Open-ended Questions
There are two types of questions: closed and open-ended. A closed question only requires a “yes” or “no” response.
Usually, a closed-ended question does not help move the conversation along or add to any deeper understanding.
An open-ended question requires responding with a statement that elaborates on an issue or situation. For example, if wanting to know more about a recent team meeting that the speaker was upset with, you could ask, “So, how do you think the meeting could have been handled better?”.
This question gives the speaker an opportunity to elaborate on the situation and will reveal more about their thoughts and feelings than a simple closed question such as, “So, the meeting didn’t go well?”
The term “active listening” implies that the person doing the listening engages in behavior that facilitates communication and understanding.
And that is true. There are many actions the listener can engage that will encourage the speaker to elaborate and keep the conversation moving forward.
However, one of the most effective techniques in active listening is silence. When the listener is overly involved in the communication process it can actually be disruptive to the flow.
Sometimes it is best to just be quiet and let the speaker continue. Just tilting one’s head to the side at a key moment in the conversation can indicate interest and at the same time, encourage the speaker to continue.
Go Deeper with our list of over 60 communication skills.
Full List of Active Listening Strategies
- Verbal Affirmations
- Ask Probing Questions
- Reflecting Emotions
- Seeking Clarification
- Disclosing Similar Experiences
- Validating Feelings
- Observing Non-verbal Cues
- Avoid Distracting Movements
- Maintaining Eye Contact
- Not Passing Judgement
- Providing Feedback
- Asking Open-ended Questions
- Eye contact
- Looking face-on
- Touch (haptics)
- Summarizing and Simplifying
- Affirmative Facial Expressions
- Debating and Rebutting
- Asking for Clarification
- Minimizing Interruptions
- Taking Notes
- Providing Space for the Speaker
- Expressing Empathy
- Encouraging Elaboration
- Using Minimal Encouragers (e.g., “uh-huh”, “go on”)
- Staying Present
- Avoiding Rehearsing Responses
- Acknowledging Understanding
- Offering Feedback Gently
- Respecting Pauses
- Repeating Key Words
- Leaning In Slightly
- Using Open Body Language
- Avoiding Premature Advice
- Adjusting Your Posture
- Reflecting Back Content
- Asking for Examples
- Confirming Understanding
- Putting Aside Personal Biases
- Creating a Safe Space for Speaking
- Showing Patience
- Avoiding Assumptions
- Practicing Curiosity
Active listening is a great way to obtain a deeper understanding of another person’s thoughts and feelings. There are many techniques that can be applied during a conversation that will help the speaker feel comfortable enough to reveal more meaningful information about a given situation they have experienced.
The examples of active listening listed here can help indicate that you are genuinely interested in what the speaker is saying, are sincerely concerned about their perspective, and want to help. Some of these techniques include nodding in agreement with what the speaker is saying, asking questions that are open-ended or seek clarification, and paraphrasing and reflecting the speaker’s comments and feelings.
The primary objective is to create a judgment-free atmosphere that will allow the speaker to feel comfortable discussing unpleasant events and provide deeper insights into their perspective.
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