Active Listening: The Art of Empathetic Conversation

active listening

Julian Treasure claims that we are losing our hearing. Maybe he has a point.

With personal broadcasting replacing the art of conversation, and silence becoming a scarce resource, we have forgotten how to listen.

It is time to focus again and practice the skill of mindful listening. Not only because we owe our full attention to others when we converse, but also because the positive emotions of a truly good conversation can help us find meaning. 

 

 

Active Listening Increases Well-being

The need for connectivity and belonging is fundamental in humans, not only when we are born but also in adult life (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

We all want to be liked, even if we do not like to admit it. It makes sense: human evolved as social beings who needed to connect with others in order to strategize and survive. Research has found that we mimic others with words and gestures, just to show them that we are just like them (Van Baaren et al., 2004).

Positive psychology research highlights how pleasant social interactions increase our personal well-being and provide greater life satisfaction. One of the easiest ways to increase our well-being is via listening—actually listening. 

Sonja Lyubomirsky (2008) claims that social relationships are 1 of 10 key “happiness-enhancing” activities, largely because the sense of belonging we may experience when being with others.

Spending time with friends or colleagues builds positive emotions, a key component of happiness (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002). If social relationships are vital for a happy and fulfilling life, and a vital element of social interaction is good conversation, then we are lost without the skills of active listening.

Active listening is a skillset we can practice, and for our own well-being, a skillset we need to practice. 

 

Learning to Listen

Communication theory talks about the sender, the receiver, the message, and the noise.

Unfortunately, the noise has become the most prominent sound in our lives. This noise includes physical noise, such as a car driving by, as well as physiological noise, such as what we are thinking while the other person speaks to us.

Listening is more than the passive act of receiving or hearing. It is the “conscious processing of the auditory stimuli that have been perceived through hearing” (West & Turner, 2010).

Thus, listening is an active process. There is a balance found in active listening, between being passive versus being overly-active.

Have you ever “listened” to someone, only to realize you were planning your response the entire time? Or been in a situation where the conversation deteriorates to a sequence of statements and stories?

Often, our own agenda gets in the way of being a good listener.

Where do we go wrong? Let’s have a look:


Our Most Common Listening Mistakes 

“We may believe that we are good listeners, but listening is more than waiting for your turn to interrupt.”

Here is a list of the most common mistakes we make when listening to other people:

  1. Daydreaming or thinking of something else (even something as simple as your list of groceries) while another person is speaking;
  2. Thinking of what to say next;
  3. Judging what the other person is saying;
  4. Listening with a specific goal/outcome in mind.

 

These mistakes are simply signs that we are not hearing what another person is saying. And without active listening, it is difficult to explore a person’s actual feelings and thoughts, and by doing so, have an engaging conversation where people feel respected—because you listened. 

So how can we overcome the pitfall of mindless communication and become good active listeners?

 

The Art of Active Listening

There is limited empirical evidence on the topic of active, emphatic or mindful listening. For now, a usable definition for a therapist may be to:

“attempt to demonstrate unconditional acceptance and unbiased reflection” (Weger et al., 2010).

AEL is an acronym for Active-Empathetic Listening. Traditionally, it is as a form of listening practiced by salespeople. One study looked into the reliability and validity of an AEL scale, which measures the client’s perceptions of the listener and includes a self-assessment of the listener.

AEL is easily transferred to the field of psychological therapy and counseling, where the therapist is required to understand the client’s message and their context without focusing on their own experiences and feelings.

This way, therapists can serve their clients and also form a meaningful therapeutic relationship.  

In an interpersonal context, active listening aims to minimize the effect of our biases and to practice mindful patience whilst bypassing our own agenda (Dollinger, Comer & Warrington, 2006).

“No message is ever decoded without bias.”

In order to understand the need for active listening, we need to be aware that we receive and evaluate everything through our personal lens, through which we interpret the world.

 

Six Specific Tips

Here are a few steps on how to overcome your own agenda and become an active and empathetic listener.

  1. Nonverbal involvement

Look at your counterpart instead of studying people passing by. Show your attention by nodding your head or raising your eyebrows. Make sounds that indicate attentiveness. Remember that even by listening, we are communicating non-verbally (Weger et al., 2010).

  1. Pay attention to the speaker, not your own thoughts

Devote your whole attention to the speaker. Being mindful means being present in the moment and paying attention to what is happening right now (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). In a conversation, this means observing the speaker while they are sharing their story.

Be aware of subtle changes in their voice, the way they mimic you, the words they use and the emotions they are experiencing. Try to truly understand the thought process of your conversation partner (Ucok, 2006).

Observe your own thoughts, but from a distance, and resist the temptation to engage in them.

  1. Practice Non-Judgment 

Being mindful means practicing non-judgment (Kabat-Zinn, 2014). There is no need to agree or disagree with what is being said or evaluate the statements being made.

Remember that offering your active presence is more important than having their deeper question answered (Rogers & Farson, 1957). A skillful active listener is able to simply receive the message without the need to judge or respond with their own bias.

  1. Tolerate silence

Resist the urge to fill moments of silence. There are different types of silence. Respecting quiet moments can a powerful tool for a deep conversation. It gives the speaker and receiver a chance to reflect and continue with this process. So often we rush to “fill” silence, right before someone has a breakthrough thought to share. 

If you find silence difficult, you can encourage the person to continue by asking open questions such as “What do you make of this?” or “Tell me more about what happened.”

Do not underestimate silence for a potentially rich conversation.

  1. Paraphrase

Paraphrasing is another powerful communication tool. Starting with sentences such as “So you are saying that…” or repeating in your own words what you believe the other person said, are ways to show that you followed the conversation and understand. 

You can also paraphrase by asking the speaker a question, such as, “So are you saying that you felt uncomfortable in that experience?” or “What did you do after this happened?”

A recent study found that while paraphrasing does not necessarily make people feel understood, it does create a greater sense of closeness and intimacy in a conversation. This is a key part of building trust and possible friendships (Weger et al., 2010).

  1. Ask questions

When you finally do respond, try to not simply hammer your own point. Refuse the impulse to tell your story on the topic. Ask open questions such as “How do you interpret this?” , they are powerful tools to deepen a conversation and uncover hidden reasoning. (Weger et al., 2010).

For example, if someone is sharing how they are sad about a lost pet, do not respond by talking about when this last happened to you. Instead, ask them a follow-up question to show that you care about their experience. 

Show your attentiveness using sentences such as “I can imagine how sad you must have been,” or in a happy update, “I hope you are impressed with yourself!”

By showing respect in your response, you show the speaker that they are worthy of respect. The more you practice these tips, the entire process of active listening will feel more fluid. 

 

In Conclusion

With the lingering thought that we may be terrible and distracted listeners, we can see why Julian Treasure claims that we are losing our hearing.

Treasure uses a simple acronym, RASA (meaning “juice” or “essence” in Sanskrit), to relay his steps for active listening, RASA stands for:

Receive
Appreciate
Summarize
Ask

Becoming a skilled active listener requires practice. And if the benefit of fulfilling friendships doesn’t provide enough motivation to get practicing, here is another reason:

“Active listening is a powerful growth technique!”

As we listen more sensitively to people, they start to listen to themselves more carefully and pay attention to their thoughts and feelings (Rogers & Farson, 1957).

Thus, by practicing your listening skills, you can help your friends and colleagues become more self-aware too. You are also far more likely to develop and deepen these connections, which can feel good for our need to belong. 

Next time you are talking to someone, make sure to dive into the “essence” of good conversations. Start being an active listener today. 

And if all these tips seem overwhelming, pick one for now. Try it this week, at work or during errands.

Which tip are you practicing and how is it going? We would love to hear your thoughts in our comments section below. 

 

Want to Know More about Active Listening?

In his TED talk that is 8-minutes long and 100% worth your time, Julian Treasure offers 5 more tips to help you improve your conscious listening.

We hope you enjoy the gift of active listening: 

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

Dollinger, Comer, Warrington (2006). Development and Validation of Active Empathetic Listening Scale. Psychology & Marketing. Vol. 23(2): 161–180. DOI: 10.1002/mar

Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive Emotions Trigger Upward Spirals Toward Emotional Well-Being. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 13(2), 172.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 144-156.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2014). Meditation Is Not for the Faint-Hearted. Mindfulness, 5(3), 341-344. doi:10.1007/s12671-014-0307-1

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want: Penguin Press.

Rogers, C. R., & Farson, R. E. (1957). Active Listening. Chicago, USA University of Chicago. Industrial Relations Center.

Ucok, O. (2006). Transparency, communication and mindfulness. Journal of Management Development, 25(10), 1024-1028. doi:doi:10.1108/02621710610708676

Van Baaren, R. B., Holland, R. W., Kawakami, K., & Van Knippenberg, A. (2004). Mimicry and prosocial behavior. Psychological science, 15(1)(71-71).

Weger, H., Castle, G. R., & Emmett, M. C. (2010). Active Listening in Peer Interviews: The Influence of Message Paraphrasing on Perceptions of Listening Skill. International Journal of Listening, 24(1), 34-49. doi:10.1080/10904010903466311

West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2010). Understanding Interpersonal Communication (Vol. 2nd Edition). Boston, USA: Cengage Learning.

About the Author

Birgit Ohlin is a passionate Life Coach and Leadership Consultant who believes in the flow of life. This former Marketing Manager came across Positive Psychology during her Master’s degree and it had a profound effect on her. She since studied Coaching and has turned her focus to innovation, transformation and change.

Comments

  1. Justin Runyon

    Good post!

    Reply
  2. Baba selma

    what year did you write this article

    Reply
  3. Samantha Botts

    Very Informative and helpful when dealing with the public in a call center setting.

    Reply
  4. Lola Alexander

    Absolutely agree with the author. I realized that this is a pretty big problem in my life when I chose to myself an https://edureviewer.com/top-online-tutoring-websites/ online tutor. I realaized from the first lesson that I needed to learn to listen. Then she transferred this observation to everyday life.

    Reply
  5. yojan

    What is R.A.S.A.?

    Reply
    • Craig Smith

      Hi Yojan, RASA (meaning “juice” or “essence” in Sanskrit), is a simple acronym for active listening.

      RASA stands for:

      Receive
      Appreciate
      Summarise
      Ask

      I hope this has been helpful!

      Reply
  6. Jim

    Thank you for the informative and valuable post. Correction: Julian says we are losing our “listening”, not our “hearing”.

    Reply
  7. Nayaswami Nityananda

    Excellent and very helpful. The premise is right: We need to study, practice, and learn how to do a better job listening. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Birgit

      Hi Nayaswami,
      You are welcome, thanks for stopping by and leaving your feedback 🙂
      Cheers, Birgit

      Reply
  8. mathew sohtun

    Can you describe the psychological aspects in the process of listening.?

    Reply

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