Art of Communication | Active Listening

Tin can telephoneWhat is Active Listening? It’s not a term commonly used or heard, at least not in my circle. What I can tell you though is that communication is tough! Whether it’s listening or talking, or two people doing both at the same time. More often than not both leave confused. Or even worse, thinking they understood but really didn’t.

What is Active Listening?

Active Listening is a social skill that creates a true sense of rapport with others. It results in a true understanding of what the other person is trying to communicate.  A partner in communication will feel truly accepted, appreciated, and will build trust when someone is active listening. In this way, a person is able to open up and discuss any problems. Through this they sometimes tend to solve their own dilemma or problem. The active listener was only a listening ear.

How is it done?

One might think that listening is a passive skill. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to be an effective listener, it is essential to practice active listening skills. Active listening involves becoming completely engaged in a conversation, placing complete focus on the other person who is involved in communication, and not allowing any distractions to get in the way. Paying attention is a problem for many individuals because of so many external distractions; television, activity, and noise, disrupt focus. Internal distraction is a problem as well, as the mind begins to mull over personal thoughts, opinions, and problems. In order to be an active listener who is truly receptive, everything else must be ignored except the present conversation and the one speaking.

Benefits of Being An Active Listener

Help a Friend or Loved One

Someone in trouble can ride out a tough period in life when an active listener is there to help. An active listener will have deeper, more satisfying relationships with others. Active listening is a way of showing absolute respect for another human being.

Don’t Be A Problem Solver or “Fix It” Guy

In order to engage in active listening, it is important to remember that the other person is the main focus. It’s time to forget about “I” and think about “You.” Complete concentration is needed, providing the speaker with undivided attention. This is not a time to be a problem solver, provide personal insights, or negotiate a truce. The goal is to prod the speaker into opening up and sharing any concerns or topics of interest. Only provide solutions when they are requested.

Let Them Talk and Feel Validated

Stress is placed on that person’s conversation, showing that the speaker is important and what is said truly matters. Attempt to draw out details, to be silent while the other person is speaking, and to avoid interruptions. Don’t try and give advice at this point. Often times when someone is talking, the only intention is to have validation from another individual. Ask questions that will clarify the problem and provide better understanding, without interjecting a personal opinion.

By being an active listener, the lines of communication will be opened, providing much more give and take between two individuals.

Find the Solution

Because they do all the talking, sometimes they are able to talk themselves through the solution. All you have to do is listen and provide an occasional “uh huh” or “I see”. Something along those lines to show you’re actively listening and do find what they’re saying important. Many feel unheard and react in a way that confuses others. This is why trying to “fix it” is not a good idea.

How do I become better at Active Listening and prod the speaker into opening up?

It’s certainly not easy and will probably take some practice. We’re not all naturals like Raymond (See video below). But here’s an excerpt on 13 strategies that the expert, Dr. John Grohol, says will help. If you can master but a few you’ll be doing great.

1. Restating

To show you are listening, repeat every so often what you think the person said — not by parroting, but by paraphrasing what you heard in your own words. For example, “Let’s see if I’m clear about this. . .”

2. Summarizing

Bring together the facts and pieces of the problem to check understanding — for example, “So it sounds to me as if . . .” Or, “Is that it?”

3. Minimal encouragers

Use brief, positive prompts to keep the conversation going and show you are listening — for example, “umm-hmmm,” “Oh?” “I understand,” “Then?” “And?”

4. Reflecting

Instead of just repeating, reflect the speaker’s words in terms of feelings — for example, “This seems really important to you. . .”

5. Giving feedback

Let the person know what your initial thoughts are on the situation. Share pertinent information, observations, insights, and experiences. Then listen carefully to confirm.

6. Emotion labeling

Putting feelings into words will often help a person to see things more objectively. To help the person begin, use “door openers” — for example, “I’m sensing that you’re feeling frustrated. . . worried. . . anxious. . .”

7. Probing

Ask questions to draw the person out and get deeper and more meaningful information — for example, “What do you think would happen if you. . .?”

8. Validation

Acknowledge the individual’s problems, issues, and feelings. Listen openly and with empathy, and respond in an interested way — for example, “I appreciate your willingness to talk about such a difficult issue. . .”

9. Effective pause

Deliberately pause at key points for emphasis. This will tell the person you are saying something that is very important to them.

10. Silence

Allow for comfortable silences to slow down the exchange. Give a person time to think as well as
talk. Silence can also be very helpful in diffusing an unproductive interaction.

11. “I” messages

By using “I” in your statements, you focus on the problem not the person. An I-message lets the person know what you feel and why — for example, “I know you have a lot to say, but I need to. . .”

12. Redirecting

If someone is showing signs of being overly aggressive, agitated, or angry, this is the time to shift the discussion to another topic.

13. Consequences

Part of the feedback may involve talking about the possible consequences of inaction. Take your cues from what the person is saying — for example, “What happened the last time you stopped taking the medicine your doctor prescribed?”

Definitely watch this video below. It’s a great example of active listening.

We all have “funny” stories of when we could have used some active listening, but instead it became a shouting match. What do you think? Let us know your thoughts and any personal strategies in the comments below.

Everybody Loves Raymond Uses Active Listening

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  1. Good post John! Active listening is huge and can communicate a lot to the one you’re speaking with. I am guilty, all too often, of not actively listening to my wife. Apparently, she does not like my “skill” of being able to work on the computer and “talk” with her at the same time. 😉 I can certainly understand why though.

  2. Listening is not a skill at which I an strong. No matter how hard I try, my mind wanders if somebody is taking for more than about a minute.

    That said, my pet peeve is when people just launch into something without trying to get your attention first. I will miss key information about the topic and will need to have it repeated. My wife h thinks I’m half deaf when really all she needs to do is get my attention BEFORE she asks me a question.

    • Haha! Sorry, your comment made me laugh. I just pictured your mind daydreaming about how they’ve gone over a minute…and then having to ask them to repeat.

      Your petpeeve is also something I wish others would heed to. I know I’m not the best listener when in the middle of something. But if they get my attention first than they have all of it.

  3. “I” statements are also a crucial point of active listening, as you point out. No one can contest the way you feel, and it has a good practice of avoiding hypotheticals.

  4. Being an active listener – sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Keeping this as a habit seem difficult when you don’t care at all. Many of us don’t listen well as we could.

  5. Personailty has a lot to do with being an active listener. Someone that has a type A personality will need to struggle to be quiet and listen to the to the other. Being able to say just enough to motivate someone else to open up is an art!

    • You have an interesting point. Some of us bulldoze over others and some of us get run over by others. Both sides have to practice “Active Listening” to make communication effective.

  6. Great post John! I completely agree when you said not to be a problem solver or ‘fix it ” guy. This is where most of us goes wrong and fail to put ourselves in her/his shoes.

    • It’s really tough to not be a “fixer” when it’s engrained in us to do that. I’ve learned that sometimes the wisdom is knowing when the right time and place.

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