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Active Listening Skills & Examples for Better Communication

Active listening is one of the most important communication skills we can develop to get along with others, deepen our relationships, and feel more connected and at ease in the world.

You know the feeling when you're talking with someone and you realize they’re not really listening to you? Maybe they keep looking around the room or at their phone, fidget in their seat, or constantly interrupt?

It can be maddening. Even worse, it can make you feel pretty lousy, like what you have to say isn’t interesting or important enough for them to just … listen.

What is Active Listening?

Active listening is an important interpersonal skill that involves keeping your focus on the person speaking, with the intention of understanding both what’s being said and the other person’s perspective. Considered one of the “soft skills,” it’s actually a key people skill, signaling acknowledgment and respect and conveying to someone: I see you, I hear you, I’m interested in your experience, what you think, and what you have to share.

Active Listening vs. Passive Listening

Active listening is an interactive technique whereby the listener has the goal of understanding what the other person is saying, and uses verbal and nonverbal messages to convey interest. It involves paying attention, making eye contact, asking questions and seeking clarification, and then reflecting back the key points of what you’ve heard and responding thoughtfully.

Passive listening is listening without providing feedback or asking questions. It’s a form of one-way communication, what might happen when listening to a presentation, for example. It is also sometimes also used in therapeutic applications.

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Examples of Active Listening Skills

Encouraging the speaker

Use gestures, such as nodding or leaning forward; expressions, such as smiling or raising your eyebrows in surprise; or brief verbal acknowledgments (“I see,” “Oh no,” “How interesting!”) to show that you’re listening and interested, and to encourage the speaker to continue.

Of course, your reactions should be natural to you. This isn’t about acting and pretending to listen; it is about being a good listener.

Asking for clarification

If the speaker says something that you don’t understand, gently interrupt, if appropriate, to seek clarification.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know that area well. Where exactly were you?”

Importantly, once you have the answer, encourage the person to continue.

“Got it. You were saying?”

If the speaker is in the middle of something and it doesn’t seem like a good time to interrupt, wait until there’s a natural pause. You might even use your hand or a facial expression to signal your confusion, and when they notice, ask for clarification.

“Earlier, you mentioned that your sister came with you. Does she live nearby?”

Paraphrasing what you’ve heard

When the speaker finishes, it can be helpful to reflect back any key points that you’ve heard, either using similar language or your own ideas.

“So, you felt relieved when this happened.”

“Wow, that would have made my day!”

Responding thoughtfully

Frame your response to show that you’ve been listening and that you heard what the person wanted to share. Offer your perspective or your own opinion if it’s useful, but you might also simply acknowledge their experience.

“Something similar happened to me once. I remember feeling really conflicted about it. It sounds like that was what it was like for you, too.”

Or simply: “That must have been really strange for you.”

Asking questions

Asking someone questions lets them know that you’re interested in what they have to say, and encourages them to share more about themselves. Try to ask open-ended questions rather than those that can be answered with just “Yes” or “No,” or a combination of both.

“I bet that’s not what you expected. What did you think might happen instead?”

“You sound pretty on the fence about this. What would be a better fit?”

“How did you deal with that?”

Pausing before responding

When we’re mentally preparing our response and simply waiting for someone to stop talking so we can jump in and finally add our .02, we can miss a lot of what’s been said. Pausing before you speak can help you become more aware of your own urges to turn the conversation back to you.

During this pause, look at the speaker and notice how they left off. Is what you wanted to say still relevant? Tune into your body, and take a full breath. Then respond thoughtfully from this place of self-awareness.

Why is Active Listening Important?

Active listening is one of the best people skills you can develop to get along with others and to deepen trust and understanding. This is true for personal relationships and professional relationships alike. Being an active listener can even make interactions with strangers richer and more enjoyable. It’s amazing what you learn when you really listen to other people!

It’s not a stretch to say that if we could all listen with the intention of understanding and being curious about others’ perspectives and experiences, there would be far less division in the world.

For Relationships

Active listening in your relationships allows you to really hear what someone is communicating to you, which might be very different than what you expect. It encourages you to stay open and to ask questions in order to understand the other person’s perspective.

  • It is caringly holding space for someone to express what they want to say and at their own pace.
  • It’s not trying to jump in and fix a situation, “finishing” their sentence for them, or pivoting the conversation to yourself and your perspective before the person is done speaking.

Listening matters in any relationship, and especially with those who we care for and want to be close with. Being truly listened to makes us feel heard and seen. It creates a sense of safety, where we can drop our defenses and be more honest and vulnerable.

And it’s often reciprocal. When we feel heard and understood, we’re more receptive to listening to someone else.

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At School

For Teachers

Actively listening to every child in a classroom isn’t always easy, but research suggests that it's worth educators’ effort to practice (and model) active listening skills and techniques whenever possible.

Listening to students:

  • Establishes trust and emotional safety, and makes students feel more connected and motivated.
  • When they feel that their thoughts and opinions matter, students are more likely to remember and to learn from the conversation.
  • Feeling encouraged to express themselves helps kids develop self-confidence and pro-social skills.
  • Research finds that young children who are asked questions and encouraged to talk and engage in conversation show greater brain activity when they listen.
  • Helps teachers gauge how well students are learning.
    Provides valuable information about what may be going on with a student outside of the classroom.

How to do it:

  • Establish and keep eye contact.
  • Ask questions to help clarify meaning.
  • Watch for nonverbal messages that might convey additional information.
  • Summarize what you’ve heard, using the student’s words as often as possible.
  • Make opportunities to interact with and listen to students in non-teaching moments.

For Kids

It's clear that learning to be a good listener is an essential interpersonal skill that benefits us throughout our lives. For children, the importance can’t be overstated. The ability to listen well increases language acquisition, critical thinking skills, the ability to communicate their own ideas, and empathy.

One study found that students who are better listeners retain more information and feel less frustrated in school. It also improves kids’ belief that they can succeed academically.

Active listening takes practice, so the more opportunities kids have to work on their listening skills, the better.

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In the Workplace

People have very different communication styles, which can make miscommunication and its partner, misunderstanding, all too easy. In the workplace, active listening is one of the highly valued soft skills that helps us navigate different communication styles and personalities. This matters for building relationships, working in teams, managing others, problem solving, and working toward common goals.

Active listening at work:

  • Signals to our colleagues that we care about their perspective, which goes far in fostering mutual respect and a sense of psychological safety.
  • Extends the benefit of the doubt, withholds judgment, and leaves room to cultivate a deeper level of understanding and cooperation.
  • Reminds us to pay attention both to what someone is saying and to any nonverbal messages they may be communicating, which can provide useful information to help us assess a situation before we react or respond.
  • Gets us out of our own heads and storylines, and allows us to witness our urges, reactions, interpretations, and expectations. Importantly it also provides an opportunity to understand how we may be showing up and perceived by others.

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For Parents

As any parent knows, there is often more going on than what your child tells you. Sometimes this is due to kids not yet having the language or emotional skills to express what they mean. Sometimes they may not want to say too much out of fear or worry about the outcome.

Using the tools and techniques of active listening can give you insight into what’s happening in your child’s world at the moment and lays the groundwork for future communication.

  • Active listening builds trust and creates a sense of safety in children, which is vital to healthy development.
  • It nurtures positive self-esteem by conveying the sentiment that their thoughts, opinions, and experiences matter to you.

Importantly, listening doesn’t mean fixing. A key principle of active listening is to withhold judgment and to let the conversation flow organically instead of trying to guide it to meet an agenda.

Like anyone, kids sometimes need to express themselves aloud to sort out their feelings. Through active listening, your role is as a sounding board, affirming their experience and allowing them to process. Of course, by listening critically, you’ll also gain a better understanding of when you do need to step in to help and when it's OK to let them work it out for themselves.

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How to Practice Active Listening

  1. Listen to understand—not to respond or to be understood. It is about the other person, their perspective and experience.
  2. Keep your attention on the person speaking. Make eye contact. Tune out any distractions (including your own inner dialog) and show your interest through verbal and nonverbal cues such as encouraging or affirming sounds, open body language (uncrossed arms, leaning forward), and facial expressions (surprise, agreement, disbelief, amusement, etc.).
  3. Ask questions to help clarify anything you don’t understand. When you have your answer, encourage the speaker to continue where they left off.
  4. When they’ve finished speaking, reflect back any key points you’ve heard before offering your own opinion or responding.

14 Tips & Techniques for Improving Active Listening

Learning to be a better listener may take some time, but with practice, you will get there!

It can help to remember the following tips:

  1. Listen with the intention of understanding, to come away from the conversation with greater insight or knowledge about the other person and their perspective.
  2. Be curious about the person speaking and about their experience.
  3. Pay attention to what’s being said and also how it’s being said. People relay nonverbal messages in the form of facial expressions, body language, and also the tone of voice or pace of their words. This is all information that can help you better understand what’s being communicated.
  4. Ask questions seeking clarification about what’s being said and also to let the other person know that you’re listening. Open-ended questions can encourage someone to say more.
  5. Bring the conversation back. If a question has caused the conversation to veer, make sure to bring it back to the speaker, allowing them to continue what they were saying.
  6. Make eye contact. Kindly meet the speaker’s eyes—aim for 60-70% of the time—to let them know you’re right there with them.
  7. Don’t assume you know what someone is going to say. The context or message being communicated might be different than what you expect; it may also change as the speaker continues.
  8. Keep your attention on the other person instead of drifting into your own inner dialog or to crafting your response. This may take conscious effort!
  9. Don’t interrupt, unless it’s to ask a question for clarification.
  10. Get comfortable with silence. Sometimes it takes a minute to gather our thoughts and decide how we want to express something. If the speaker pauses and seems to be trying to figure out what they want to say next, resist the urge to jump in and fill the silence or to “find” their words for them.
  11. Let the other person finish what they’re saying before responding. Humans think far faster than we speak, so, as a listener, you often need to wait for someone to finish making their point. When we’re interrupted or sense someone “hovering” for their turn to talk, it can make us feel rushed, self-conscious, or even cause us to shut down.
  12. Reflect back what the person has said, paraphrasing in your own words to make sure you understand.
  13. Pause before responding. Check in with yourself to notice any physical sensations or urges that can signal your own emotional state, take note, and then respond thoughtfully from this place of self-awareness.
  14. Find a conversation partner. Active listening takes practice! Critical listening doesn’t come naturally for many people; working on it is really the only way to improve. It can help to find a partner to practice with, taking turns being the speaker and the listener. It may feel stilted at first, but the more you do it, the easier it will become. And you’ll likely find you’ll soon enjoy conversations with just about anyone more than ever before.
Listen with the intention of understanding

Frequently asked questions

Can Active Listening be Taught?

Yes. Anyone can learn to be a better listener at any time in their life. But it’s not something you just read about and then do. It takes time to change behaviors, and critical listening is a behavior.

It may feel strange or even uncomfortable to try and do something you’ve done your entire life—like listen—differently. But it gets easier with practice. Consider getting a conversation partner, and start practicing these active listening techniques with each other.

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