What Is Active Listening?

Man listening attentively

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Active listening is 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 judgment and advice.

When you practice active listening, you make the other person feel heard and valued. It's a solid foundation for any successful conversation in any setting, whether at work, at home, or in social situations.

How to Practice Active Listening

Active listening involves more than just hearing someone speak. Here are some active listening techniques to master.

Pay Attention (and Show It)

Concentrate fully on what is being said. Listen with all your senses and give your full attention to the speaker. Put away your phone, ignore distractions, avoid daydreaming, and shut down your internal dialogue.

To show the person you're truly tuned in, look at them and be mindful of nonverbal behaviors. Use open, non-threatening body language. Avoid folding your arms. Smile, lean in, and nod at key junctures. Consciously control your facial expressions, avoiding any that convey negative impressions.

Making eye contact is especially important. In general, aim to maintain it for 60% to 70% of the time you spend listening.

Reflect What You Hear

Paraphrase what the person has said, rather than offering unsolicited advice or opinions. 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. Mirroring what the person has said helps them feel validated and understood.

Withhold Judgment

Remain neutral and non-judgmental in your responses so that the person feels safe enough to continue sharing their thoughts. Make the conversation a safe zone where the person can trust they won't be shamed, criticized, blamed, or otherwise negatively received.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Avoid "yes or no" questions; they often produce dead-end answers. Instead, ask open-ended questions about the person to show you are interested in them and to encourage thoughtful, expansive responses.

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.

Be Patient

Don't interrupt, fill periods of silence with speech, finish the person's sentences, or top the story (for example, saying "that reminds me of the time I..."). Similarly, listen to understand, not to respond. That is, don't prepare a reply while the other person is still speaking; the last thing they say might change the meaning of what they've already said. Don't change the subject abruptly; this conveys boredom and impatience.

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 to jump in with your own ideas and opinions about what is being said.

What Active Listening Sounds Like

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.

Benefits of Active Listening

Establishing the habit of active listening can have many positive impacts in key areas of your life.

Relationships

In all kinds of relationships, active listening helps you understand a person's point of view and respond with empathy.

Being an active listener in a relationship means that you recognize the conversation is more about your partner than about you. This is especially important when your partner is distressed.

Your ability to listen actively to a partner going through a difficult time is a valuable skill. It helps keep you from offering opinions and solutions 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 interact frequently with colleagues. It helps you understand problems and collaborate to develop solutions. It also showcases your patience, a valuable asset in any workplace.

Social Situations

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

Active listening skills can help improve your conversational ability, but if you have social anxiety, it won't eliminate the symptoms. Getting professional help for your anxiety can help your active listening skills shine.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

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

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How to Encourage Active Listening

We all have been in situations where our "listeners" were distracted or disinterested. Here are a few ways to deal with this situation:

  • Find a topic that interests you both. This works particularly well for small talk as you get to know one another.
  • Model good listening skills. Be a good listener yourself. By seeing you demonstrate active listening, that person might just become a better listener.
  • Exit the conversation if the other person is clearly uninterested in hearing you speak.

A Word From Verywell

Active listening is an important social skill that has value in many social settings. Practice it often, and it will become second nature. If you find the techniques difficult, consider what might be getting in your way, such as social anxiety or problems with inattention. If you find that you struggle with listening, you might benefit from professional treatment, social skills training, or self-help books on interpersonal skills.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the purpose of active listening?

    Active listening helps you build trust and understand others 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 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 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?

    Watch skilled interviewers on talk and news shows. Research active listening techniques online and try them often in your everyday conversations; note the speakers' reactions and look for areas that need improvement.

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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Topornycky J, Golparian S. Balancing openness and interpretation in active listening. Collected Essays on Learning & Teaching. 2016;9:175-184.

  2. Bodie G.D, Vickery AJ, Cannava K, Jones SM. The role of "active listening" in informal helping conversations: Impact on perceptions of listener helpfulness, sensitivity, and supportiveness and discloser emotional improvement. Western Journal of Communication. 2015;79(2):151-173. doi:10.1080/10570314.2014.943429 

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