Are you a good listener?
Do you wonder if you could be better?
Good listeners can stay present and engaged with what is being said. This article will describe a listening technique called active listening. It’s useful in building therapeutic relationships and creating empathy.
You will learn the benefits of active listening and how it makes you a better communicator. And we will provide a list of the skills needed and techniques to learn exactly how to practice this. Finally, we’ll go over common pitfalls that keep us from being good listeners.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based tools will help you and those you work with build better social skills and better connect with others.
This Article Contains:
- What Is Active Listening? 3 Principles
- Is It Important in Communication? 4 Benefits
- Active Listening Skills You Can Foster
- 7 Techniques to Train Your Active Listening Skills
- 3 Counseling Exercises & Activities
- 3 Worksheets to Practice Active Listening
- Questions to Ask Others: 3 Examples
- Possible Barriers & Psychology Tips to Overcome Them
- 3 Courses for Training on Effective Communication
- Resources From PositivePsychology.com
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Active Listening? 3 Principles
Often, while we are listening, we are thinking of how we will respond. We might get distracted and miss some of what was said. We may not be paying much attention to the nonverbal communication cues of the speaker.
Active listening requires the listener to pay close attention to what is being communicated verbally and nonverbally. The listener is encouraged to interpret not only the content of what is being said, but also the emotions present and the body language.
In order to achieve this, the listener must be willing to devote energy to the task. They will need to have an excellent attention span and honed empathic abilities. Active listening has even been referred to as the “measurable dimension of empathy” (Olson & Iwasiw, 1987, p. 104).
There are three main components of successful active listening (Rogers & Farson, 1987):
- Listen for total meaning
When someone is conveying a message, there are two meanings to gather: the content and the feeling or attitude underlying the message. An active listener is not only tuned in to the information conveyed, but also how it is conveyed and any nonverbal cues present.
- Respond to feelings
After listening, when a response is appropriate, the listener should respond to the feeling of what was said. In this way, the speaker feels understood and empathy is established.
- Note all cues
Nonverbal cues include tone of voice, facial or body expressions, and speed of speech. All of these taken together can convey a much deeper meaning than merely the content of what was said.
Carl Rogers’s take on active listening
Psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson (1987) are responsible for defining the concept of active listening. They describe the skill as vitally important for effective communication. For Rogers, the ultimate goal of active listening was to foster positive change (Rogers & Farson, 1987). This change can occur in the context of a client/helper relationship or in the context of a group.
Rogers described three important principles in effective counseling: empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. Active listening is a tool that fosters and supports these principles.
Empathy is demonstrated in active listening by the listener reflecting the thoughts and feelings of the speaker. These thoughts and feelings are believed, supported, and respected. They are not dismissed or challenged.
Rogers stresses that in order to be successful in active listening, the listener must be authentic in their care. This reflects the principle of genuineness. Active listening can’t be faked.
Active listening requires true feelings of respect toward the individual speaking. The listener accepts and supports the speaker regardless of the content of their words. This illustrates the principle of unconditional positive regard.
Is It Important in Communication? 4 Benefits
Active listening is often referred to as a “soft skill,” meaning that it is useful in many contexts and beneficial in most professions.
It is also a skill that will benefit the listener in their life outside of work.
Whether at work or in casual conversation, active listening can provide a safe and empathetic space for a speaker, fostering feelings of trust.
Active listening in counseling
Active listening has been shown to be a vital skill in counseling. Empathy and empathic listening foster the therapeutic relationship, and the relationship between therapist and client has been shown to be the one of the most crucial and stable predictors of client success (Martin, Garske, & Davis, 2000).
Another benefit of learning active listening as a counselor is that it may increase self-efficacy. Levitt (2002) examined the impact of teaching active listening to counseling students and found that this skill created greater levels of confidence in the students and helped to reduce their anxiety as new counselors.
Active listening in the workplace
Kubota, Mishima, and Nagata (2004) examined the effects of an active listening training program on middle managers, finding positive results. In workplaces, a large portion of stress experienced by employees comes from interpersonal relationships.
The study showed that teaching managers who learned active listening skills were better able to support employees with mental health issues, providing a safe environment for them to share their difficulties without judgment. This led to calmer behaviors and more success (Kubota et al., 2004).
Can active listening skills even work through text conversations? Perhaps so. A unique and interesting study looked at the application of active listening to written communication online (Bauer & Figl, 2008). This case study was examining soft skills among computer science students and to see if active listening could come across in instant message conversations.
Bauer and Figl (2008) found that all the different techniques of active listening translate well into text conversations and that using these techniques had positive outcomes in communication. Although the students showed skepticism that it would work, they found that all the skills worked well, even online.
Active Listening Skills You Can Foster
Active listening requires a skill set that differs from typical everyday listening. Not only are you using the principles of empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard, but you must also develop certain skillful ways of interacting.
It’s useful to begin with the body language of the listener (Robertson, 2005). How do you know when someone is listening to you? Maintaining eye contact and appropriate facial expressions is important to convey empathy and attention. As with all aspects of active listening, these indicators shouldn’t be forced or faked. They are simply a reflection of your genuine attentiveness.
It also helps to remove distractions from the environment. Depending on the context, you may desire to set up an environment that conveys peace and quiet. If you are in a public place, putting away distractions or moving to a quieter location can also be helpful.
Another skill is following (Robertson, 2005). To actively follow what the speaker is conveying, you allow space for them to speak, reducing or eliminating questions and giving space for silence.
In a non-active listening situation, there may be quick back and forth, many rapid questions, or people may talk over one another. With active listening, the speaker is given the time and space to speak as much as they want. And they are encouraged to continue.
A third skill is reflecting (Robertson, 2005). This is the skill of repeating what you heard the speaker say, but avoiding parroting it back verbatim. You are trying to capture the essence of what they said and reflect it back to them. You may also try to capture the feelings that are conveyed.
This is always done without expressing judgment and with the goal of understanding. It may even be useful to ask if you have it right before asking them to continue.
7 Techniques to Train Your Active Listening Skills
Here are seven common active listening techniques (Bauer & Figl, 2008).
Each technique is listed with an example and an explanation of the use.
|Technique||Purpose||To achieve it||Examples|
||“So you showed up at the meeting on time.”|
||“And this made you really angry.”|
||“And after that, John did not react?”|
||“These seem to be the key ideas you’ve expressed:”|
||“You said that you reacted immediately. Was this still on the same day?”|
||“Then your manager approached you. How did they behave?”|
||“Did you perceive the inconvenience to be worse than not being taken seriously?”|
3 Counseling Exercises & Activities
Practicing with a partner
For counselors in training, it is important to practice active listening with a partner. One partner shares a story of something emotional that happened, and the listener will practice the following techniques:
- Demonstrating listening through body language and nonverbal responses
- Reflecting back the content of what the partner shared
- Reflecting back the emotions that the partner shared
It’s important to check in with your partner after you’ve reflected to be sure that it’s accurate.
Mindful listening group practice
In many ways, active listening is a mindfulness practice. The listener is trying to stay focused on the present, with what is being shared. And they are working to accomplish this without judgment.
Here is an excellent activity to practice mindful listening in a group.
- Have the group sit in a circle.
- Offer an ice breaker question or prompt, such as something they are grateful for today.
- Rather than go around the circle, ask participants to share spontaneously when they feel ready.
- Invite them to notice if they are thinking about their answer, rather than listening.
- Ask them to be present with the person who is sharing.
- Challenge them to notice if they are uncomfortable with the silences.
Mindful listening alone
At any moment, you can drop in and practice mindful listening. Simply stop what you are doing, close your eyes, and try to see how many sounds you can hear around you and within you. Notice if there are judgments arising and try not to attach to them. Stay with the flow of sounds for as long as you can.
3 Worksheets to Practice Active Listening
This worksheet offers a five-step process to improve your communication skills with another person. It would be a useful tool for working with couples or anyone who would like to hone their listening skills.
The five steps are:
- Step in their shoes.
- Fact-check your interpretation.
- Give your full attention.
- Clarify what they’ve said.
- Clarify what you’ve said.
500 Years Ago
This creative exercise helps both the listener and the speaker develop their empathy by imagining themselves in someone else’s place.
The listener is instructed to pretend that they have come from the past, 500 years ago. The speaker is trying to explain something to them and must use language that they can understand.
Using Small Rewards
In working to create a therapeutic alliance, nonverbal communication is key. This worksheet lists some “small rewards,” subtle but powerful nonverbal gestures that the therapist can use to let their client know that they hear them and are following along.
The worksheet invites the practitioner to listen to a five-minute segment of their session and see how often they were using these nonverbal cues. There is space to reflect on how better to incorporate them and consider why there may have been trouble.
Questions to Ask Others: 3 Examples
Start with reflection
Active listening starts with refraining from questions. It’s important that the stage be set by allowing the speaker enough time and space to speak. Begin with reflections and try to capture the feeling of what was said. A reflection mirrors back what the person just said and tries to capture the meaning or the tone.
For example, let’s say a friend comes to you about a fight she had with her husband. She describes how the argument got heated, and they ended up sleeping separately. She is feeling worried about the state of their marriage.
A reflection restates what she said:
“Things got really heated last night – so bad you didn’t even want to be in the same room.”
“You’re feeling really worried because this fight felt so intense.”
The first example is a reflection of the content of what was shared. The second reflects the emotions. These types of reflections validate the speaker and help them feel heard and understood.
Only after reflection has been done will it be time to ask questions. The types of questions are important. The purpose of questions during active listening is to continue to move the individual toward self-discovery.
Open questions are vital for this step. Open questions can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. They invite introspection. Powerful questions stimulate curiosity in the listener and encourage conversation. They reveal underlying assumptions and invite creativity. They don’t change the subject or close down the conversation.
The point of an open-ended question as part of active listening is to learn more and continue to connect with the speaker. It is not to drive the conversation in a particular direction.
Here are three examples of closed questions vs open questions to ask, given the above situation. Remember, your friend just told you about a terrible fight that she had with her husband, and she is upset.
“Did you make up?”
“How are you feeling about the fight today?”
“Did your kids hear you?”
“How does it feel to share this with me? Have you thought about talking to anyone else?”
“Are you going to leave him?”
“What sorts of responses or solutions are you considering?”
You can see that the open questions invite conversation and show compassion, whereas the closed questions seem more like information gathering.
Possible Barriers & Psychology Tips to Overcome Them
A major barrier to active listening is judgment.
When practicing active listening, practitioners should also self-monitor for judgments that might come up while the person is speaking.
If these judgments aren’t monitored, they may cause criticizing, labeling, diagnosing, or even praising in a way that leads the speaker (Robertson, 2005).
The goal of active listening is to create a safe environment for the individual to speak freely. Any of these responses may lead to defensiveness, distrust, or shutting down.
Another barrier is suggesting solutions (Robertson, 2005). Although it may seem well meaning, the urge to suggest solutions often comes from a discomfort with what the speaker is saying. While it may seem supportive, it creates an imbalance of power in the dynamic. The speaker is left feeling unheard, and they are disempowered to create their own solutions.
A third barrier is avoiding what the person is sharing. This may manifest as diverting the conversation away, logically arguing, or even reassuring. Again, while reassurance seems comforting, it often shuts down or ends the conversation for the other person.
A wonderful example of the comparison of empathetic and other responses can be found in Brené Brown’s video below about sympathy versus empathy.
3 Courses for Training on Effective Communication
Active listening is a straightforward skill, and taking a short course is the perfect way to learn how to do it effectively. While it is possible to learn it simply by reading, it’s always helpful to see it in action and practice with other people.
If you are hoping to learn active listening to improve your workplace as a manager or a leader, these courses would be great for you.
Udemy offers thousands of short courses on everything from programming to cooking, and this course on active listening has over 10,000 downloads.
LinkedIn Learning offers courses for businesses, including one on effective listening. Your team can take a listening assessment, address challenges that they have, and learn effective listening behaviors.
A wonderful course for in-depth active listening training is offered by Voice of Health (VOH). VOH is an online peer-support community that offers free training for anyone interested.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
Our Positive Psychology Toolkit© has excellent resources for learning how to listen more effectively and empathetically. One such tool is the exercise Listening Without Trying to Solve.
This exercise is done with a group. Individuals are paired off with one person as the listener and one as the storyteller. Each listener is given a card with instructions, half are told to listen without trying to solve and half are told to try to solve the problem as best as they can. Each pair is given five minutes for the storyteller to share a problem.
After sharing, the group returns together and discusses how it felt to be on the receiving end of a person who is working hard to solve the problem vs someone who is fully listening and empathizing. This is a powerful activity to show the effectiveness of active listening.
This checklist is a helpful tool for practicing active listening techniques. The checklist lists the techniques and then asks the listener to check back to see if they successfully used each one. There is space to write what worked well, what was difficult, and how to better incorporate unused techniques.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, this collection contains 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
A Take-Home Message
Active listening is a skill that anyone can learn. It’s a vital tool for therapists and counselors to connect empathically with their clients. But it’s also useful for better communication with family, friends, and coworkers.
Practicing active listening can deepen connections in your relationships and help to create stronger and more lasting bonds. Try some of these exercises to improve your communication skills today.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free.
- Bauer, C., & Figl, K. (2008). ‘Active listening’ in written online communication-a case study in a course on ‘soft skills’ for computer scientists. In 2008 38th Annual Frontiers in Education Conference (pp. F2C–1). IEEE.
- Kubota, S., Mishima, N., & Nagata, S. (2004). A study of the effects of active listening on listening attitudes of middle managers. Journal of Occupational Health, 46(1), 60–67.
- Levitt, D. H. (2002). Active listening and counselor self-efficacy: Emphasis on one microskill in beginning counselor training. The Clinical Supervisor, 20(2), 101–115.
- Martin, D. J., Garske, J. P., & Davis, M. K. (2000). Relation of the therapeutic alliance with outcome and other variables: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68(3), 438–450.
- Olson, J. K., & Iwasiw, C. L. (1987). Effects of a training model on active listening skills of post-RN students. Journal of Nursing Education, 26(3), 104–107.
- Robertson, K. (2005). Active listening: More than just paying attention. Australian Family Physician, 34(12), 1053–1055.
- Rogers, C. R., & Farson, R. E. (1987). Active listening. In R. G. Newman, M. A. Danziger, & M. Cohen (Eds.), Communicating in business today. DC Heath & Company.