Work and social discussions needn't be frustrating time wasters. Active Listening is the number one skill for transforming them into productive dialogues. In this 'Active Listening How To' article I strip the process right back to its fundamentals in five easy, immediately usable steps with examples - what it is and how we can use it in all our conversations to listen better.
15 Minute Read
A Very Simple and Effective Approach
“Active Listening” is often used as a nebulous catch-all phrase for anything related to paying attention to a person speaking and their message.
But at its core, Active Listening is a very specific and simple approach that can have a surprisingly transformative impact on most of our verbal interactions: social conversations, sales and business, doctor-patient discussions, negotiations, conflict resolution, coaching and mentoring, etc.
An Active Listening Definition
Active Listening was initially developed by clinical psychologist Dr. Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago and then extended by his students Richard E. Farson,  and Dr. Thomas Gordon (later a well-respected, licensed clinical psychologist as well).  Although the method was developed in the 1940s, the term "Active Listening" wasn't coined until the late 1950s.
In a nutshell, when a person speaks with us, the purpose of Active Listening is to help us adequately understand the information that they’re trying to share with us. The idea is that, by better understanding the other person’s message, we’re able to respond in an informed and appropriate manner, and avoid costly misunderstandings.
In a 1957 article, Rogers and Farson described Active Listening as a collection of things that we must do (as opposed to laying out some prescriptive process).  But if we boil down the article to its essence, Active Listening does involve five basic steps that help us fully understand a speaker’s message:
Keeping an open mind and listening without judgement
Listen for total meaning of the speaker's message.
Seek more information.
Feed back to the speaker what you think they've said.
Utilise your understanding.
End Goal: Cognitive empathy with the speaker
First, let’s explore the end goal of cognitive empathy and how it plays out in our discussions. Then we’ll go through each step, looking at practical examples of how to work them into your conversations.
Our End Goal - Cognitive Empathy
When talking about empathy we more likely think of experiencing the feelings of another - “I feel your [pain, excitement, sadness, hope, etc].” This is called ‘emotional empathy’.
However, there is another distinct type called cognitive empathy, also known as ‘perspective taking’. 
In the context of listening, cognitive empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s place in order to see the discussion topic from their perspective. It’s the ability to understand how they think and how they feel about the topic based on their background.
For example, “Ah, I see… after hearing what you’ve gone through, I now understand your point of view.”
This perspective differs from assuming how they might think and feel about the topic based on our own background. For example, “If I were in their shoes, I’d be doing [x, y, z].”
We must develop cognitive empathy in every discussion that we have. This is because no one's perspective will ever be exactly the same as ours. If we don’t develop it, then the end result will likely be a misunderstanding or even a disagreement.
However, several hindrances make it difficult for us to correctly understand the speaker’s perspective:
- Our own opinions and beliefs about the topic
- Our inability to imagine how they might be feeling
- Preconceived ideas about what the other person is thinking and feeling
- Cognitive biases
- Confusing statements made by the speaker
- Conflicting verbal and non-verbal messages
- Insufficient information shared by them.
Every step in the Active Listening process is designed to help us overcome these hindrances and to correctly interpret what the speaker is telling us. That is, the goal of Active Listening is to help us develop cognitive empathy for the speaker.
I need to point out that the Active Listening process only develops cognitive empathy. However, it does set the foundation for developing emotional empathy (see Step 5 below). This is because we need to understand a bit about the person and their situation in order to experience their emotions.
Have a read of the following article for a deeper dive into cognitive and emotional empathy in the context of listening: Want to Avoid Poor Discussions? Listen With Empathy
Step 1. Keeping An Open Mind
Listening with empathy requires us to withhold judgement.
Here are some ways of doing this:
- Choose to keep an open-mind and just listen.
- Decide to temporarily suspend your opinions and feelings about the topic in order to truly hear what the speaker is saying.
- Let go of your preconceived ideas of what they believe and feel about the topic.
I know that this is hard. Everything in us wants to defend our position to the bitter end! But doing this causes you and I to interpret and skew everything that we hear through our own frame of reference.
We end up listening to our own ideas and not those of the speaker.
However, listening without judgement does not mean needing to agree with them.
It only means keeping an open-mind long enough to adequately understand the other person’s perspective. And if you do disagree with something being said, after you’ve listened to the point where you can empathise with them (i.e. see the topic through their frame of reference), then go ahead and tactfully share why you disagree.
Step 2. Listen For Total Meaning
Whenever someone speaks with us, their message is conveyed in two ways: the literal content of the message, and their underlying feelings and attitudes. 
In particular, look out for:
- Verbal Cues. These are pieces of key information in the literal content. Look for repeated words and phrases, common themes, assumed background knowledge, highly specific statements or requests, omitted information.
- Non-Verbal Cues. Underlying feelings and attitudes are expressed via gestures, facial expressions (e.g. serious or light-hearted), abnormal silence, posture (relaxed or leaning forward), tone of voice, volume (calm, nervous, raised), rate of speech, emotions, and others
This verbal and non-verbal information will give you a more complete understanding of the speaker’s message.
Here's a fun example from the television sitcom The Big Bang Theory. It highlights the importance of paying attention to both the literal content and the underlying attitudes. Amy’s tone of voice and various gestures speak a very different message to her literal content! True to form, Sheldon misses all the non-verbal cues...
Click here for a more in-depth look at how to ‘Listen For Total Meaning’.
Step 3. Seek More Information
In many Active Listening articles, ‘listening for total meaning’ and ‘seeking more information’ are combined into a single action. But I prefer to separate them for clarity.
A key action when listening for total meaning is staying quiet - just listening attentively - without interrupting your conversation partner so that they have the freedom to talk. But at times we need to break that silence in order to ask questions.
In general, the speaker will start by sharing a little bit of information assuming that it’s enough for you to understand their point of view - that is, to empathise with them. Typically however, it isn’t enough and we need to seek more information at various points during the discussion.
Each time you become conscious of the need for more information don’t be afraid to ask questions that clarify your understanding or encourage the speaker to elaborate further.
Here are some examples.
Example 1 - Clarifying
You: “What exactly did you mean when you said ‘I most enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever’?” 
Example 2 - Clarifying
Speaker: “It was a great meeting last night. All of the election candidates spoke briefly, much to the delight of the constituents.”
You: “Delighted? Because everyone was able to speak? Or because they all spoke briefly?”
Example 3 - Encouraging Elaboration
Speaker: “We’ve finished evaluating the short-listed software systems and will go with System C.”
You: “Interesting. So, what are the reasons for choosing System C?”
Example 4 - Reflecting Feelings
Speaker: “We’ve finished that design project!” [spoken with a tone of exasperation]
You: “You sound exasperated. What's up?”
Typically, you’ll cycle between listening (Step 2) and asking questions (Step 3) until you sufficiently understand their message from their perspective. Then you can move onto Step 4.
To get lots more practical tips and examples on how to seek more information, read this in-depth article on Step 3: "Follow-up Questions Are The Secret To Meaningful Conversations".
And as a kick-start, you’ll get the free download
"10 Active Listening Questions to Improve Focus and Boost Listening Effectiveness in Your Very Next Conversation".
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And as a kick-start, you’ll get the free download
"10 Active Listening Questions to Improve Focus and Boost Listening Effectiveness in Your Very Next Conversation".
Step 4. Feed Back What You’ve Heard
Assume upfront that you will misunderstand the speaker. Even if you hear perfectly, you may interpret their message from your viewpoint rather than theirs. Also, feelings are notoriously difficult to interpret because our past experiences, cognitive biases and filters skew the way we interpret information.
So, make a habit of regularly confirming your understanding of what you’re hearing (the literal content) and observing (the non-verbal cues).
To do this, feed back to the speaker by rephrasing what they’re telling you. For example:
Also feed back the speaker’s feelings. For example, “You sound [frustrated]. I guess [you don’t want to do anything like that again], huh?” 
Then Ask Them To Confirm Your Understanding
The success of feeding back is in prompting the speaker to either confirm or correct your understanding. Use a follow-up question to do this, such as these ones in the above examples: “Yes?”, “Is this correct?”, “... huh?”
When the speaker says that I haven’t correctly understood them, I find that they usually offer the correct understanding too. But when they don’t, I jump back into steps 2 and 3 in order to seek further clarification and elaboration.
Step 5. Utilise Your Understanding
Once you adequately understand the speaker’s message from their perspective - that is, have sufficient cognitive empathy - the active listening process ends. Now it’s time to utilise your understanding in the ongoing dialogue.
How you use that understanding obviously depends on the nature of the discussion. Here are some ways that you might move forward:
- Ask more questions to further develop the discussion.
- In social conversations it’s important to balance listening with talking in order to come across as an interesting person. So, offer your opinion on the discussion topic, then stop talking in order to see how your conversation partner(s) responds.
- In mentoring, you could utilise your understanding to ask highly specific questions that more effectively guide the speaker along their journey of self-discovery.
- In business and sales, this Active Listening process will have helped you better understand the customer’s needs. So you could now offer them some options specifically tailored to meet those needs that they've told you about.
- Sometimes our conversation partner shares a happy or distressing event with us. Often this is because they’re hoping that we can and will experience their emotions with them. Listening to understand their situation better enables us to emotionally empathise with them and create the deeper connection that they’re seeking.
Scenario - Discovering Client/Stakeholder Needs
Although this example relates to engineering, Active Listening can be used anytime you need to gather stakeholder or client requirements. Or whenever you just want to figure out what your loved one actually needs.Each time I start an engineering project the first step is always to understand the scope and deliverables. Active listening is invaluable for:
- identifying exactly what the client/stakeholder wants to achieve (i.e. project deliverables)
- separating critical information from background knowledge
- exposing any roadblocks
- establishing deadlines
Engineer: So tell me about what you’re wanting to achieve. [Encourage elaboration]
Client: We need to understand the impact of this generator on the local power system.
Engineer: When you say ‘impact’, what specifically do you need to focus on? [Clarifying a loosely defined word]
Client: Circuit loadings, voltage drop and fault currents.
Engineer: M-hm, great. Thanks for that. [Feeding back that the client has been heard]
Engineer: You sound frustrated though. Why’s that? [Reflecting feelings]
Client: A number of setbacks have delayed the project.
Engineer: So I’m hearing that my engineering studies will need to be delivered in a compressed time frame. Is this correct? [Feeding back and seeking confirmation]
Client: Yes. Is this possible?Engineer: Maybe. Let’s discuss your priorities. Some studies may not be needed. [Utilising understanding and moving into a second cycle of Active Listening]
Putting It All Together
Summary - Active Listening How To
- End Goal: Understanding the speaker’s message from their perspective (aka. cognitive empathy)
- Step 1. Empathy - keep an open mind by listening to the speaker without judgement
- Step 2. Pay attention to their verbal and non-verbal cues in order to obtain the full meaning of their message
- Step 3. Seek more information from them by clarifying, encouraging them to elaborate and reflecting their feelings
- Step 4. Feed back what you’ve heard and then ask them to confirm your understanding
- Step 5. Utilise your understanding in the ongoing discussion
Active Listening is helpful in every stage of a discussion. We can use it anytime we need to confirm our understanding of what we’re being told:
- At the start when you’re trying to come up to speed with what the speaker is telling you.
- Throughout the discussion to clarify any vague or ambiguous comments.
- At pivotal moments to deepen or expand the topic of discussion.
- When closing out the discussion, confirming that everyone participating in the discussion have the same understanding of what’s been discussed, and summing up any key conclusions and actions.
I believe that Active Listening is the key skill to getting the most from our discussions.
Persist with using it until each step becomes second nature to you. It'll take some conscious effort to listen actively until the process becomes habitual. But that effort will pay off with much greater depth of understanding of what people share with you - that is, much fewer frustrating misunderstandings!
Which step will you start practising this week? Tell us in the comments below. And remember to sign-up for weekly listening tips and get your 6 bonus Active Listening questions (click here).
- 1Rogers, C., Farson, R. E., "Active Listening", Gordon Training Inc., www.gordontraining.com/free-workplace-articles/active-listening/, Extract from 1957 article.
- 2Gordon, Thomas, Ph. D, "Origins of the Gordon Model", Gordon Training Inc., www.gordontraining.com/thomas-gordon/origins-of-the-gordon-model/, Referenced Jan. 2019.
- 3The definition of empathy is somewhat grey. Some researchers split empathy into distinct categories. Namely, affective (or emotional) empathy, cognitive empathy (aka perspective taking) and somatic empathy. This is because studies show that different parts of the brain are used for each form of empathy. Other researchers however, have rejected emotional and cognitive empathy as distinctly separate forms of empathy. They argue instead, that “true empathy” integrates both.  Confusingly, some popular reference literature loosely define empathy in terms of feelings only.  For descriptions on each form see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathy#Classification_and_types_of_empathy
- 4Thomas, Chris A., "Emotional Empathy and Cognitive Empathy", blog.teleosleaders.com/2013/07/19/emotional-empathy-and-cognitive-empathy/, 19 Jul 2013. Thomas has quoted: Staub, E. “Commentary on Part 1.” In Empathy and Its Development, edited by N. Eisenberg and J. Strayer. 103-15. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
- 5Google Dictionary, “Empathy”, referenced 22 June 2019
- 6Thornton, Robert, “The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations (L.I.A.R.)”, 2nd Ed., www.sourcebooks.com, 2003.
- 7Feature image credit: Photo by Lucas Lenzi on Unsplash