What Is Active Listening? Psychology Experts Share 5 Steps to Enhance Your Communication Skills

You can be a better colleague and problem solver — and the best shoulder to cry on for loved ones.

illustration of two women sitting by the river
StockRocketGetty Images

If you’ve ever been in the middle of a discussion (read: argument) with your partner and heard the exasperated phrase “Just listen to me,” chances are you were definitely not practicing active listening at the moment. We've all been there!

But that’s not the only time you, or the person you were talking to, tend to get distracted by something else (like the phone!) during a conversation. The truth is, active listening can be hard to do — even if it sounds easy. Our brains are hardwired to notice things —like that alert that pops up, or the passerby with the strange hat — even when someone is talking to us. Not only that, but our minds tend to also be thinking about other things while we’re trying to listen.

“Most of the time, we are listening to a speaker with one side of our brain, while the other side is constantly formulating a response,” explains Susan Whitman, a physician assistant, board-certified life coach, and instructor in the Integrative Health and Wellness Coaching Program at the University of Vermont. “Do we agree? What are we going to say next? How can I get my point across?”

However, if we want to actively listen, she explains, we have to shut down those questions and any other wandering thoughts we might have so that we can be present and truly hear what’s being said to us.

What exactly is active listening?

In short, active listening is being truly present and engaged while someone is talking to you, so that you can actively hear what is being said in the conversation. “[It] involves stepping into someone else’s story, taking out your own judgments and opinions, and really listening to what is being said,” adds Whitman. “A great active listener hears not only the words that are being said but the underlying story behind the words.”

To do that, you, as the listener, have to tune into multiple facets: Facial expressions and body language, as well as the actual words you hear so that you can decipher someone’s true message — and then, effectively process it.

So, active listening is said to require three things, known as the three A’s:

  • An open-minded and non-judgmental attitude
  • Your full attention
  • A willingness to make an adjustment if the conversation takes a turn by not holding onto a preconceived agenda or outcome in mind.

    Active listening is different from other forms of listening. For example, it requires more attention, energy and focus than passive or distanced listening, the kind of listening someone does while multitasking, watching the kids play in the playground or generally being distracted by being absent-minded.

    It’s also different than what is known as self-focused listening, which is where the listener relates everything the speaker says to something they’ve done, seen or have an opinion on. Say you had a bad day at work and you went to your friend about your boss — but every time you finish a sentence, rather than keep the focus on you, this friend responds by telling you about their bad boss and how their boss is even worse. That would be self-focused listening, and can erode at friendships over time.

    With self-focused listening, explains Whitman, “the listener might feel like they are making a connection to the speaker by sharing a similar experience, [but] the conversation often gets hijacked by the listener and the speaker still doesn’t get a chance to tell their story or feel completely heard.”

    What are the 5 active listening skills?

    Broadly speaking, to be a good active listener, you need to hone five key skills:

    1. Paying attention: This might sound obvious, but it’s also the most important. “Focus on the person speaking and nothing else,” explains Natalie Fraize, LPC, a licensed mental health counselor that specializes in communication and relationships. “Silence and put away your phone [and ] look at the speaker’s face, making appropriate eye contact. “Try to focus on what they’re saying and their experience, not whatever you were doing before or have to do next. Work to be in the present!
    2. Showing that you’re listening: There are lots of ways of doing this, both verbally and non-verbally. “One of the most common and well-understood ways of showing that you’re listening is nodding your head,” Fraize explains, but says there are other ways your body language, gestures and facial expressions come into play, too. For example, you can make eye contact, tilt your head, raise your eyebrows, shrug your shoulders, uncross your arms, or lean in and smile. You can also verbally acknowledge what they say by saying things like “mm-hmm” or “right” if and when it is appropriate.
    3. Reflecting on what you hear: This allows you to make sure you are truly understanding what they’re saying and taking in their point of view. “If you’re familiar with the game ‘Telephone,’ then you know that our perspective colors the way we take in information when we are listening,” explains Fraize. That’s why, she continues, “it’s important to periodically summarize what you heard and share your summary with the other person to check your understanding.” Try repeating or paraphrasing things they say back to make sure you understood them correctly. You can also reflect on an emotion they expressed or share how you’re feeling using “I” statements to avoid blame or judgment.
    4. Delaying judgment: If you’re truly listening and are receptive to what they’re saying, you won’t be trying to refute or form an opinion about what they’re saying until they’re finished talking. Try not to judge and avoid interrupting as much as possible unless directly solicited.
    5. Responding appropriately: Ask open-ended questions, such as “How did that make you feel?” or “What happened next?” to encourage them to keep talking. Try also to give thoughtful, well-timed, and considerate responses to what you hear from them. Where you can, try to validate what they say and reflect on the best way to respond, even if you disagree.
      This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

      What are some examples of active listening?

      • At home: Your partner comes home and they are very upset about the fact that a job renegotiation didn't go smoothly at work. If you were to practice active listening, you would give them your full attention and listen to what happened, all while reserving judgment and resisting the urge to give advice or “fix” their situation. “When a listener becomes deeply curious about what the speaker is talking about, they ask open-ended questions to learn more, they reflect back what they are hearing them say, and they don’t insert their own thoughts or judgments into the conversation,” says Whitman. “In response, the person talking feels heard, validated, and respected.”
      • While parenting: Your child gets upset because you have to leave the playground sooner than they want. You can listen to them when they tell you why they’re disappointed or upset and validate and help them name those emotions. You can also avoid telling them how they “should” feel or act. This can help them learn emotional regulation and feel supported, even when they don’t get their way.
      • At work: You’re listening to a colleague who has a different opinion about current events than you do. It can be tempting to get defensive and interrupt to voice your opinion. However, if you opt instead to ask open-ended questions and reserve judgment until the end, you may find you truly hear your co-worker’s point of view. Sometimes, you might even change your mind because you didn’t come into the conversation with preconceived notions about where it was going. This can help you collaborate more effectively with your colleague because you’re not digging in.
      • At school: You’re in a class, learning a subject that is completely open to you. Rather than look down and take notes, try to take breaks to actually listen to your teacher by looking up from the notebook and engaging with the material. By being open, focused and receptive, you can paraphrase what a teacher or instructor says to you to make sure you understand before taking notes. You can also ask clarifying questions. This will help you better understand the material being discussed and better retain the information, even if your notes aren’t as verbatim.

        What are the benefits of active listening?

        “One of the biggest benefits of active listening is the positive impact that it has on relationships,” says Fraize. “Giving your full attention and actively listening to someone shows that you respect them, care about them, and value their opinion.” This can help build trust and mutual support, which in turn helps you forge closer bonds with your friends, family, and partner.

        According to a 2015 study published in the Western Journal of Communication, active listening can also improve your ability to have conversations more generally, even when meeting new people. “You also gain insight into another person’s experience, learn information, and have a better understanding of what is being said than if you were passively listening,” explains Fraize. “This can be important during situations such as work and school where it is important that you process and retain what you hear.”

        That’s why Whitman says she teaches active listening to her students: It can have a big impact on their learning and career, and saves them from obsessing over social exchanges down the road. As a skill, it makes you more empathetic, makes you a problem solver, and makes you an approachable person in all facets of life.

        This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io
        Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
        More From Wellness