What is Active Listening?

Man and woman holding megaphones.
When people do more talking than listening not much understanding takes place. Getty / DNY59

Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone else speaks, paraphrasing and reflecting back what is said, and withholding judgement and advice.

Active listening involves more than just hearing what someone else says. When you practice active listening, you are engaged in what the other person says without offering advice or being judgmental. The most important aspect of active listening is reflecting back what the speaker says.

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

  1. Make eye contact while the other person speaks. In general, you should aim for eye contact about 60-70% of the time that 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.

  2. 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...".

  3. Do not interrupt while the other person is speaking. Do not prepare your reply while the other person speaks; the last thing that he says may change the meaning of what he has already said.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  1. 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.

  2. Avoid abruptly changing the subject; it will appear that you were not listening to the other person.

  3. As you listen, be open, neutral, and withhold judgment and stereotypes.


    1. Be patient while you listen. We are capable of listening much faster than others can speak.
    2. 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

    In the following example of a phone conversation, you will notice that active listening makes the speaker feel heard and encourages open conversation.

    Lisa: Hi Jodie... I'm so sorry to dump this on you, but I had a fight with my sister and we haven't spoken since then. I'm just feeling really upset.

    Jodie: Hi Lisa... it's okay, no problem. So you had a fight and you guys aren't talking?

    Lisa: Yes.... we were arguing because I wanted her to come over to our place for the holidays but she said it was too difficult with the kids in tow. I was really mad at the time, but now I feel kind of bad.

    Jodie: I hear you...you got in an argument and it made you mad, but now you feel bad about it.

    Lisa: Yes, she just makes me so angry, assuming that because I don't have children I can't possibly understand what it is like.

    I knew it would be hard for her, but I thought that she would want to spend the holidays at our place anyway. We just couldn't agree at all.

    Jodie: Sounds like you were angry because she was making assumptions and also didn't want to put any effort into seeing you.

    Lisa: Totally. Maybe I should just tell her again that I understand it is hard, but that I really hope she can come. Or maybe they could just come for the day instead of staying overnight. I just don't want to argue with her anymore.

    Jodie: So... maybe you will talk to her and tell her you understand her feelings... and a day visit might not be bad?

    Lisa: Yes, that's what I think I will do. Thanks! I feel a lot better just having a chance to share what I was feeling.

    Research on Active Listening

    In a 2011 study, Gearhart and Bodie 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 suffer 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.


    Gearhart CC, Bodie GD. Active-empathic listening as a general social skill: Evidence from bivariate and canonical correlations. Communication Reports 2011;24:86-98.

    Pennsylvania State University. Active Listening. Accessed May 10, 2010.

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