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.

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.

Active Listening Increases Wellbeing

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 wellbeing, a skill set 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 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.

Still not sure how? Besides the six tips below, you can also read our article providing Active Listening Techniques and examples.


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).


2. 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.


3. 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.


4. 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.


5. 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).


6. 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.


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:


A Take-Home Message

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:


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.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free.

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


What our readers think

  1. Kristin

    Excellent read! Thank you!

  2. Amber Seaman

    It was very helpful and I learned new things about listening I didn’t know thank you!

  3. Travis Glasford

    Grrat topic and an even breakdown of how to listen to others ..

  4. chelsea chavarria

    Very useful for future reference.

  5. Angela Pellegrini

    Very helpful article for work, and ever day living!
    Thank you!

  6. Teresa Huckaby

    Excellent and very helpful information.

  7. Ernestina Bangura

    Ernestina Bangura 10 August 2021@14:08

    Thank you, to everyone for the information and giving me the opportunity to read some of your amazing books in different topic.

    This is the kind of books l like to read. I have enjoy reading lots of them and learned from them, good and positive things.

    Once again thank you.
    Thank you

  8. Kym Jost

    Very much to the point and I’m sure others were like me…. ‘ I do that! Oh no!’ Trying to not have my agenda interrupt or to be formulating my response before others have finished speaking, I am grateful that I was able to understand how to stop doing this and how much it will help on my day to day interactions with patients. thank you.


    Listening is a very much helping tool that we all need to practice more to better understand one another.. Great and very much important information.

  10. Charlotte Thomas

    My husband told me once don’t listen to reply but to understand. I truly get what he was saying now and will make every effort to becoming a better listener. This teaching was extremely insightful and informative. Thank you.

  11. Carlos Martins

    Very useful information, and necessary to develop a good service and support work. thank you so much

  12. Nasra Al Adawi

    I came two days and read this article , and then I came back again today to read once again and watched Julian Treasure . Your article gave me assurance that a session that we moderated with mothers and their teen girls was a great step towards building powerful relation begins with conversation and it felt it made a small difference out there and home we can increase it further

  13. carrie latham

    that was very helpful thank you

  14. Maggie Grande

    Great Ted talk.

  15. Alexis

    Learned so much by reading this, very good!

  16. Laura beth

    This will help anyone that will be working in a call center setting thank you for the information

  17. Sara Rocha

    Listening is very hard to do, it’s something we need to practice more and be more attentive. Distraction is a simple thing that we do all the time.

  18. Rosette

    Very helpful information. Because I am in contact with patient everyday I needed to know the best way to listen and understand them. Making me work better.

  19. Angela Jody

    Very Informative and helpful when dealing with the public in a call center setting. I am so glad I got to watch this. Thank you.

  20. jessica gonzalez

    it makes sense that we choose to ignore the signs coming from conversations we have because they are there thank you for this information

  21. Bridget

    All is so true! Great training !

  22. Matthew Kow

    very informative. learn a lot in this article. thank you!

  23. Keletso Dudu Talakasi

    This was very fruitful..

    • Birgit Ohlin

      Thanks Keletso, good to hear that you found the article useful.
      Warm regards,
      Birgit Ohlin

  24. luis

    very useful

  25. Tiffany callahan

    TY for the useful info

  26. Donny

    Wow I’ve been doing things so wrong for a very long time I do not work in mental health but felt like I could learn more and wow , did I ever ! I’m so glad I looked into developing myself into a better person I still have a ways to go but this is Incredible , really good information .

  27. Ashley Stanley

    very informative

  28. Brandi Turner

    Thank you for your consideration in the social fulfillment and connectivity of others. This is an excellent perspective that I’ve not thought much about until now.

  29. Omar Herrera

    Great information for all aspects of every day communication.

  30. Phiilips, Bobby

    Excellent tool to read to help get better understanding

  31. Desirre Jones

    Very helpful information really provides a great stand and guide on how listen and respond

  32. sylvia gray

    This was very helpful thank’s

  33. Brendan

    Very helpful article with information especially useful to me as a CSR!

  34. Cassandra Chan

    Gained knowledge in this article.


    Very nice! Bonnie was great at getting everyone to participate to make it very interactive and, therefore, people are able to take more with them.

  36. Toby Hormell

    If you want to improve your knowledge only keep visiting this website and be updated with the most recent news update posted here.

  37. Ruby Sukhdeo

    Very helpful post! Thank you!

  38. Maria Leonard

    I loved these simple reminders on how to be an active listener. No matter how hard I try I do slip into many of the pitfalls listed above. I am going to use RASA as a reminder, to be more mindful in my conversations.

  39. Bernice BETH Harris

    I appreciate the “juice” or essence of a conversation and understand how important it is to effective listening.

  40. britney wolfe

    this was so helpful!!

  41. Stephen Taylor

    Good content.

    • Flordelyn Ellacer

      I’m always struggling to deliver my Empathy statement.
      This is really helpful .

  42. Justin Runyon

    Good post!

  43. Samantha Botts

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

  44. yojan

    What is R.A.S.A.?

    • Craig Smith

      Hi Yojan, RASA (meaning “juice” or “essence” in Sanskrit), is a simple acronym for active listening.
      RASA stands for:
      I hope this has been helpful!

  45. Jim

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

  46. 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.

    • Birgit

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

  47. mathew sohtun

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


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