Active Listening: Techniques, Benefits, Examples

Active listening is a communication skill that involves going beyond simply hearing the words that another person speaks. It’s about actively processing and seeking to understand the meaning and intent behind them. It requires being a mindful and focused participant in the communication process.

Active listening techniques include:

  • Being fully present in the conversation
  • Showing interest by practicing good eye contact
  • Noticing (and using) non-verbal cues
  • Asking open-ended questions to encourage further responses
  • Paraphrasing and reflecting back what has been said
  • Listening to understand rather than to respond
  • Withholding judgment and advice

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD explains, “Active listening requires de-centering from one’s fixed position to be fully present with another. It helps people feel more understood and strengthens relationships as it signals a willingness to sit with the other’s perspective and empathy for their situation instead of singular focus on oneself.”

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In communication, active listening is important because it keeps you engaged with your conversation partner in a positive way. It also makes the other person feel heard and valued. This skill is the foundation of a successful conversation in any setting—whether at work, at home, or in social situations.

Romanoff continues, “Ultimately, it shows respect and value for the other person’s needs, concerns, and ideas as the listener is actively signaling the other person matters to them.”

When you practice active listening, you are fully engaged and immersed in what the other person is saying.

7 Active Listening Techniques

The word “active” implies that you are taking some type of action when listening to others. This involves the use of certain strategies or techniques. Here are seven active listening techniques to consider.

1. Be Fully Present

Active listening requires being fully present in the conversation. This enables you to concentrate on what is being said. Being present involves listening with all your senses (sight, sound, etc.) and giving your full attention to the speaker.

“Being fully present involves the skill of tuning into the other person’s inner world while stepping away from your own. This is a power skill in deeply connecting and sitting with another’s emotions,” says Romanoff.

To use this active listening technique effectively, put away your cell phone, ignore distractions, avoid daydreaming, and shut down your internal dialogue. Place your focus on your conversation partner and let everything else slip away.

2. Pay Attention to Non-Verbal Cues

As much as 65% of a person’s communication is unspoken. Paying attention to these nonverbal cues can tell you a lot about the person and what they are trying to say. If they talk fast, for instance, this could be a sign that they are nervous or anxious. If they talk slowly, they may be tired or trying to carefully choose their words.

During active listening, your non-verbal behaviors are just as important. To show the person you’re truly tuned in, use open, non-threatening body language. This involves not folding your arms, smiling while listening, leaning in, and nodding at key junctures.

It can also be helpful to pay attention to your facial expressions when active listening so that you don’t convey any type of negative response.

3. Keep Good Eye Contact

When engaged in active listening, making eye contact is especially important. This tells the other person that you are present and listening to what they say. It also shows that you aren’t distracted by anything else around you.

At the same time, you don’t want to use so much eye contact that the conversation feels weird. To keep this from happening, follow the 50/70 rule. This involves maintaining eye contact for 50% to 70% of the time spent listening, holding the contact for four to five seconds before briefly looking away.

4. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Asking “yes or no” questions often produce dead-end answers. This isn’t helpful during active listening as it keeps the conversation from flowing. It also makes it difficult to truly listen to the other person because there isn’t much you can gain from a short, non-descriptive response.

Instead, ask open-ended questions to show that you are interested in the conversation and the other person. Examples of open-ended questions you may use when active listening include:

  • Can you tell me a bit more about that?
  • What did you think about that?
  • What do you think is the best path moving forward?
  • How do you think you could have responded differently?

The key to open-ended questions is to have a framework of curiosity about the other person. It signals genuine interest – making the other person feel valued and enables you to better understand them,” adds Romanoff.

Open-ended questions encourage thoughtful, expansive responses, which is why they are often used by mental health therapists.

5. Reflect What You Hear

After the person has spoken, tell them what you heard. This active listening technique ensures that you’ve captured their thoughts, ideas, and/or emotions accurately. It also helps the other person feel validated and understood while keeping any potential miscommunications to a minimum.

One way to reflect what you’ve heard is to paraphrase. For example, you might say, “In other words, what you are saying is that you’re frustrated” or “I’m hearing that you’re frustrated about this situation.” Summarize what you’ve heard and give the person the opportunity to say whether you’ve captured their meaning or intent.

If you’d like to better understand something the person has said, ask for clarification. But don’t focus so much on insignificant details that you miss the big picture.

6, Be Patient

Patience is an important active listening technique because it allows the other person to speak without interruption. It also gives them the time to say what they are thinking without having to try to finish their sentences for them.

Being patient involves not trying to fill periods of silence with your own thoughts or stories. It also requires listening to understand, not to respond. That is, don’t prepare a reply while the other person is still speaking. Also, don’t change the subject too abruptly as this conveys boredom and impatience.

During active listening, you are there to act as a sounding board rather than to jump in with your own ideas and opinions about what is being said.

7, Withhold Judgment

Remaining neutral and non-judgmental in your responses enables the other person to feel comfortable with sharing their thoughts. It makes the conversation to a safe zone where they can trust that they won’t be shamed, criticized, blamed, or otherwise negatively received.

Ways to be less judgmental when listening include:

  • Expressing empathy for the person or their situation
  • Learning more about different people and cultures
  • Practicing acceptance of others
  • Recognizing when you may be judging the other person, then stopping those thoughts

Active Listening Example

What does active listening look like? Here is an example of a conversation in which several different active listening techniques are used.

Lisa: I’m sorry to dump this on you, but I had a fight with my sister, and we haven’t spoken since. I’m upset and don’t know who to talk to.

Jodie: No problem! Tell me more about what happened. (open-ended question)

Lisa: Well, we were arguing about what to do for our parents’ anniversary. I’m still so angry.

Jodie: Oh that’s tough. You sound upset that you’re not speaking because of it. (reflecting what was heard)

Lisa: Yes, she just makes me so angry. She assumed I would help her plan this elaborate party—I don’t have time! It’s like she couldn’t see things from my perspective at all.

Jodie: Wow, that’s too bad. How did that make you feel? (another open-ended question)

Lisa: Frustrated. Angry. Maybe a bit guilty that she had all these plans, and I was the one holding them back. Finally, I told her to do it without me. But that’s not right, either.

Jodie: Sounds complicated. I bet you need some time to sort out how you feel about it. (withholding judgment)

Lisa: Yes, I guess I do. Thanks for listening—I just needed to vent.

Why Active Listening Is Important

Getting into the habit of active listening can have positive impacts in many key areas of your life. It can affect your relationships, your work, and your social interactions.

In Relationships

Active listening helps you better understand another person’s point of view and respond with empathy. This is important in all types of healthy relationships, whether with a spouse, parent, child, another family member, or friend.

Being an active listener in your relationships involves recognizing that the conversation is more about the other person than about you. This is especially important when the other person is emotionally distressed.

Your ability to listen actively to a family member or friend who is going through a difficult time is a valuable communication skill. It helps keep you from offering opinions and solutions when the other person really just wants to be heard.

At Work

Active listening at work is particularly important if you are in a supervisory position or interact frequently with colleagues. It helps you understand problems and collaborate to develop solutions. It also showcases your patience, a valuable asset in the workplace.

In some cases, active listening while on the job can help improve workplace safety. For instance, if you are in the healthcare field, engaging in active listening can help reduce medical errors and prevent unintentional patient harm.

During Social Situations

Active listening techniques such as reflecting, asking open-ended questions, seeking clarification, and watching body language help you develop relationships when meeting new people. People who are active and empathic listeners are good at initiating and maintaining conversations.

Active listening helps others feel more emotionally supported. This can be beneficial when interacting with a person who has social anxiety. According to research, emotional support impacts the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain, resulting in decreased feelings of distress for socially anxious individuals.

Press Play for Advice on Active Listening

Hosted by therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares the value of listening to others, featuring psychiatrist Mark Goulston.

Follow NowApple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts 

Ways to Improve Active Listening

We’ve all been in situations where our “listeners” were distracted or disinterested. Or maybe you want to improve your own active listening skills so you don’t do this to others.

Here are a few ways to be a better active listener yourself, or to encourage others to do the same:

  • Encourage your own curiosity. The more curious you are about something, the easier it becomes to want to know more. This naturally causes you to ask more questions and to seek to understand, which are two of the core foundations of active listening in communication.
  • Find a topic that interests you both. This works particularly well when engaging in small talk as you get to know one another. If you both have passion for the topic, it becomes easier to stay fully engaged in the conversation.
  • Practice your active listening skills. Like with any skill, being good at active listening takes some practice. Be patient with yourself as you go through the learning process. Continuing to practice these skills may just inspire the person you’re conversing with to do the same. By seeing you demonstrate active listening, they might become a better listener too.
  • Understand when exiting the conversation is best. If you’re talking with another person and they are clearly uninterested in the conversation, it may be best to end that conversation respectfully. This can help keep you from feeling annoyed and unheard.

If you find that you are having trouble with listening, you might benefit from professional treatment. Other options include engaging in social skills training or reading self-help books on interpersonal skills.

Keep in Mind

Active listening is an important social skill that has value in many different settings. Practice its many techniques often and it will become second nature. You’ll start to ask open-ended questions and reflect what you’ve heard in your conversations without much (if any) thought.

“Ultimately, active listening helps the speaker feel more understood and heard—and helps the listener have more information and understanding. On both ends of active listening—people feel more connected and collaborative which is why it is such a vital tool when it comes to communication,” says Romanoff.

If you find active listening techniques difficult, consider what might be getting in your way. Are you experiencing social anxiety during conversations or do you struggle with attention? Getting help for these types of issues can help you improve your active listening skills, making you a better listener overall.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the purpose of active listening?

    Active listening helps you build trust and understand other people’s situations and feelings. In turn, this empowers you to offer support and empathy. Unlike critical listening, active listening seeks to understand rather than reply. The goal is for the other person to be heard, validated, and inspired to solve their problems.

  • What are the 3 A’s of active listening?

    The three A’s of active listening are attention, attitude, and adjustment. Attention entails being fully tuned in to the speaker’s words and gestures. The proper attitude is one of positivity and open-mindedness. Adjustment is the ability to change your gestures, body language, and reactions as the speaker’s story unfolds.

  • Which active listening technique involves empathy?

    Reflection is the active listening technique that demonstrates that you understand and empathize with the person’s feelings. In mirroring and summarizing what they’ve said, they feel heard and understood.

  • How can I improve my active listening skills?

    There are numerous ways to improve your active listening skills. One is to watch skilled interviewers on talk and news shows. Another is to research active listening techniques online and try them often in your everyday conversations, noting the speakers’ reactions and looking for areas that need improvement.

By Bury