How to Practice Active Listening

Man listening attentively
Morsa Images/Taxi/Getty Images

Active listening refers to a pattern of listening that keeps you engaged with your conversation partner in a positive way. It is the process of listening attentively while someone else speaks, paraphrasing and reflecting back what is said, and withholding judgement and advice. When you practice active listening, you make the other person feel heard and valued. In this way, active listening is the foundation for any successful conversation.

What Are the Features of Active Listening?

Active listening involves more than just hearing someone speak. When you practice active listening, you are fully concentrating on what is being said. You listen with all of your senses and give your full attention to the person speaking.

Below are some features of active listening:

  • neutral and nonjudgmental
  • patient (periods of silence are not "filled")
  • verbal and nonverbal feedback to show signs of listening (e.g., smiling, eye contact, leaning in, mirroring)
  • asking questions
  • reflecting back what is said
  • asking for clarification
  • summarizing

In this way, active listening is the opposite of passive hearing. When you listen actively, you are fully engaged and immersed in what the other person is saying. Much like a therapist listening to a client, you are there to act as a sounding board rather than ready to jump in with your own ideas and opinions about what is being said.

What is the Purpose of Active Listening?

Active listening serves the purpose of earning the trust of others and helping you to understand their situations. Active listening comprises both a desire to comprehend as well as to offer support and empathy to the speaker. It differs from critical listening, in that you are not evaluating the message of the other person with the goal of offering your own opinion. Rather, the goal is simply for the other person to be heard, and perhaps to solve their own problems.

Active listening means not engaging in bad listening habits such as the following:

  • being stuck in your own head
  • not showing respect for the speaker
  • only hearing superficial meaning (not hearing underlying meaning)
  • interrupting
  • not making eye contact
  • rushing the speaker
  • becoming distracted
  • "topping" the story (saying "that reminds me of the time...")
  • forgetting what was said in the past
  • asking about unimportant details
  • focusing too much on details and missing the big picture
  • ignoring what you don't understand
  • daydreaming
  • only pretending to pay attention

What Are the Benefits of Active Listening?

Relationships

Active listening has many benefits. It allows you to understand the point of view of another person and respond with empathy. It also allows you to ask questions to make sure you understand what is being said. Finally, it validates the speaker and makes them want to speak longer. It's not hard to see how this type of listening would benefit relationships.

Being an active listener in a relationship means that you recognize that the conversation is more about your partner than about you. This is especially important when a relationship partner is distressed. Your ability to listen actively to a partner going through a difficult time is a valuable skill. In addition, active listening helps relationships in that you will be less likely to jump in with a "quick fix" when the other person really just wants to be heard.

Work

Active listening at work is particularly important if you are in a supervisory position or must deal with colleagues. Active listening allows you to understand problems and collaborate to develop solutions. It also reflects your patience, a valuable skill in any workplace.

Social Situations

In social situations, active listening will benefit you as you meet new people. Asking questions, seeking clarification, and watching body language are all ways to learn more about the people whom you meet. When you listen actively, the other person is also likely to speak to you for a longer time. This makes active listening one of the best ways to turn acquaintances into friends.

Tips for Practicing Active Listening

The following tips will help you to become a better active listener:

  • Make eye contact while the other person speaks. In general, you should aim for eye contact about 60-70% of the time while you are listening. Lean toward the other person, and nod your head occasionally. Avoid folding your arms as this signals that you are not listening.
  • Instead of offering unsolicited advice or opinions, simply paraphrase what has been said. You might start this off by saying "In other words, what you are saying is...".
  • Do not interrupt while the other person is speaking. Do not prepare your reply while the other person speaks; the last thing that he or she says may change the meaning of what has already been said.
  • In addition to listening to what is said, watch nonverbal behavior to pick up on hidden meaning. Facial expressions, tone of voice, and other behaviors can sometimes tell you more than words alone.
  • While listening, shut down your internal dialogue. Avoid daydreaming. It is impossible to attentively listen to someone else and your own internal voice at the same time.
  • Show interest by asking questions to clarify what is said. Ask open-ended questions to encourage the speaker. Avoid closed yes-or-no questions that tend to shut down conversation.
  • Avoid abruptly changing the subject; it will appear that you were not listening to the other person.
  • As you listen, be open, neutral, and withhold judgment and stereotypes.
  • Be patient while you listen. We are capable of listening much faster than others can speak.
  • Learn to recognize active listening. Watch television interviews and observe whether the interviewer is practicing active listening. Learn from the mistakes of others.

Example of Active Listening

Below is an example of active listening.

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?

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

Jodie: Oh that's tough. You must feel upset that you're not speaking because of it.

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?

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.

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

Research on Active Listening

In a 2011 study, it was found that active listening was primarily associated with verbal social skills rather than nonverbal skills, suggesting that being an active listener has more to do with being an effective conversational partner rather than an ability to regulate nonverbal and emotional communication.

What does this mean if you live with social anxiety?

People who are active and empathic listeners are good at initiating and maintaining conversations. If you develop your active listening skills, you will improve your conversational ability—however, don't expect that to help reduce any symptoms of anxiety you normally feel. You will need to address your anxiety separately, through therapy or another form of treatment, in order for your active listening skills to shine through.

What If Someone Isn't Actively Listening?

What if you are the one speaking and the other person isn't being an active listener? All of us have been in a situation where the person listening to us was distracted or disinterested. Below are some tips to help you with this situation.

  • Find a topic that interests you both. This works particularly well during small talk as you try to get to know one another.
  • Model good listening skills yourself. Instead of trying to speak to someone who just isn't a good listener, become the listener yourself. In doing so, you might help that person learn how to become a better listener.
  • Exit the conversation if it's clear the other person is only interested in hearing himself speak.

A Word From Verywell

Active listening is an important social skill that has value in a variety of social settings. Practice this skill often and it will become easier for you. If you find it hard to engage in active listening, consider whether there might be something getting in the way, such as social anxiety or problems with inattention. If you regularly find yourself unable to listen effectively, you might benefit from social skills training or reading a self-help book on interpersonal skills.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources