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Active listening

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Active listening is a particular form of listening and is communication technique used in counselling, training and conflict resolution, which requires the listener to feed back what they hear to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words, to confirm what they have heard and moreover, to confirm the understanding of both parties.

When interacting, people often "wait to speak" rather than listening attentively. They might also be distracted. Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others, focusing attention on the "function" of communicating objectively as opposed to focusing on "forms", passive expression or subjectivity.

There are many opinions on what "active listening" is. A search of the term reveals interpretations of the "activity" as including "interpreting body language" or focusing on something other than or in addition to words. Successful communication is the establishment of common ground between two people—understanding. Agreeing to disagree is common ground. Common ground can be false, i.e., a person says they feel a certain way but they do not. Nevertheless it is common ground, once accepted as understood. Dialogue, understanding and progress can only arise from that common ground. And that common ground cannot be established without respect for the words as spoken by the speaker, for whatever reason.

Thus the essence of active listening is as simple as it is effective: paraphrasing the speakers words back to them as a question. There is little room for assumption or interpretation. It is functional, mechanical and leaves little doubt as to what is meant by what is said. "The process is successful if the person receiving the information gives feedback which shows understanding for meaning. Suspending one's own frame of reference, suspending judgment and avoiding other internal mental activities are important to fully attend to the speaker.

Primary elementsEdit

There are three key elements of active listening: comprehending retaining responding .[citation needed]


Comprehension is "shared meaning between parties in a communication transaction".[1] This is the first step in the listening process. The first challenge for the listener is accurately identifying speech sounds and understanding and synthesizing these sounds as words.[citation needed] We are constantly bombarded with auditory stimuli, so the listener has to select which of those stimuli are speech sounds and choose to pay attention to the appropriate sounds (attending).[citation needed] The second challenge is being able to discern breaks between discernible words, or speech segmentation.[1] This becomes significantly more difficult with an unfamiliar language because the speech sounds blend together into a continuous jumble. Determining the context and meanings of each word is essential to comprehending a sentence.[citation needed]


This is the second step in the listening process. Memory is essential to the listening process because the information we retain when involved in the listening process is how we create meaning from words. We depend on our memory to fill in the blanks when we're listening. Because everyone has different memories, the speaker and the listener may attach different meanings to the same statement. However, our memories are fallible and we can't remember everything that we've ever listened to. There are many reasons why we forget some information that we've received. The first is cramming. When you cram there is a lot of information entered into your short term memory. Shortly after cramming, when you don't need the information anymore, it is purged from your brain before it can be transferred into your long term memory.[2] The second reason is that you aren't paying attention when you receive the information. Alternatively, when you receive the information you may not attach importance to it, so it loses its meaning. A fourth reason is at the time the information was received you lacked motivation to listen carefully to better remember it.[1] Using information immediately after receiving it enhances information retention and lessens the forgetting curve (the rate at which we no longer retain information in our memory).[3] Retention is lessened when we engage in mindless listening, where little effort is made to listen to a speaker's message. Mindful listening is active listening.


Listening is an interaction between speaker and listener. It adds action to a normally passive process. The speaker looks for verbal and nonverbal responses from the listener to if the message is being listened to. Usually the response is nonverbal because if the response is verbal the speaker/listener roles are reversed so the listener becomes the speaker and is no longer listening. Based on the response the speaker chooses to either adjust or continue with his/her communication style.


Active listening involves the listener observing the speaker's behavior and body language. Having the ability to interpret a person's body language lets the listener develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker's message.[4] When the listener does not respond to the speaker's nonverbal language, (s)he engages in a content-only response which ignores the emotions that guide the message.[citation needed] Having heard, the listener may then paraphrase the speaker's words. It is important to note that the listener is not necessarily agreeing with the speaker—simply stating what was said. In emotionally charged communications, the listener may listen for feelings.[citation needed] Thus, rather than merely repeating what the speaker has said, the active listener will describe the underlying emotion ("You seem to feel angry," or "You seem to feel frustrated, is that because ... ?").[citation needed]

Individuals in conflict often contradict each other. This has the effect of denying the validity of the other person's position.[citation needed] Ambushing occurs when one listens to someone else's argument for its weaknesses and ignore its strengths.[1] The purpose is to attack the speaker’s position and support their own.[citation needed] This may include a distortion of the speaker’s argument to gain a competitive advantage. Either party may react defensively, and they may lash out or withdraw.[citation needed] On the other hand, if one finds that the other party understands, an atmosphere of cooperation can be created. This increases the possibility of collaborating and resolving the conflict.[citation needed]

In the book Leader Effectiveness Training, Thomas Gordon, who coined the term "active listening,"[5] states "Active listening is certainly not complex. Listeners need only restate, in their own language, their impression of the expression of the sender. ... Still, learning to do Active Listening well is a rather difficult task ..."[6]


Active listening is used in a wide variety of situations, including public interest advocacy, community organizing, tutoring,[7] medical workers talking to patients,[8] HIV counseling,[9] helping suicidal persons,[10] management,[11] counseling and journalistic settings. In groups it may aid in reaching consensus. It may also be used in casual conversation or small talk to build understanding, though this can be interpreted as condescending.


A listener can use several degrees of active listening, each resulting in a different quality of communication. The active listening chart below shows the three main degrees of listening: repeating, paraphrasing and reflecting.[citation needed]

The proper use of active listening results in getting people to open up, avoiding misunderstandings, resolving conflict, and building trust.[12] In a medical context, benefits may include increased patient satisfaction,[8] improved cross-cultural communication,[13] improved outcomes,[8] or decreased litigation.[14]

Active listening can be lifted by the active listening observation scale.[15]

Barriers to active listeningEdit

All elements of communication, including listening, may be affected by barriers that can impede the flow of conversation.[citation needed] Such barriers include distractions, trigger words, vocabulary, and limited attention span.[16]

Listening barriers may be psychological (e.g. emotions) or physical (e.g. noise and visual distraction). Cultural differences including speakers' accents, vocabulary, and misunderstandings due to cultural assumptions often obstruct the listening process.[citation needed]

Frequently, the listener's personal interpretations, attitudes, biases, and prejudices lead to ineffective communication.[citation needed]

Shift responseEdit

The first of these is the shift response which is the general tendency in a conversation to affix the attention to you. There is competition between individuals for attention and a focus on self by shifting the topic; it is a me-oriented technique.[citation needed] The listener shifts from a passive position, receiver, to an active role, sender.[citation needed] This is a type of conversational narcissism; the tendency of listeners to turn the topic of conversations to themselves without showing sustained interest in others listening.[17] With conversational narcissism there is a tendency to overuse the shift response and under use the support response.[citation needed] A support response is the opposite of a shift response; it is an attention giving method and a cooperative effort to focus the conversational attention on the other person. Instead of being me-oriented like shift response, it is we-oriented.[18] It is the response most likely to be used by a competent communicator[1]

Overcoming listening barriersEdit

To use the active listening technique to improve interpersonal communication, one puts personal emotions aside during the conversation, asks questions and paraphrases back to the speaker to clarify understanding, and one also tries to overcome all types of environment distractions. Judging or arguing prematurely is a result of holding onto a strict personal opinion.[19] This hinders the ability to be able to listen closely to what is being said. Furthermore, the listener considers the speaker's background, both cultural and personal, to benefit as much as possible from the communication process.[citation needed] Eye contact and appropriate body languages are seen as important components to active listening. Effective listening involves focusing on what the speaker is saying; at times the listener might come across certain key words which may help them understand the speaker.[citation needed] The stress and intonation may also keep them active and away from distractions. Taking notes on the message can aid in retention.[citation needed]

Misconceptions about listeningEdit

There are several misconceptions about listening. The first of these is listening and hearing are the same thing.[citation needed] Hearing is the physiological process of registering sound waves as they hit the eardrum.[citation needed] We have no control over what we hear. The sounds we hear have no meaning until we give them their meaning in context.[citation needed] Listening on the other hand is an active process that constructs meaning from both verbal and nonverbal messages.[1]

Active listening in musicEdit

Active Listening has been developed as a concept in music and technology by François Pachet, researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratory - Paris. Active listening in music refers to the idea that listeners can be given some degree of control on the music they listen to, by means of technological applications mainly based on artificial intelligence and information theory techniques, by opposition to traditional listening, in which the musical media is played passively by some neutral device [20][21][22]

See also Edit


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 (2010) In the Company of Others: An Introduction to Communication, 157–166, New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Wurman, R. (1989). Information anxiety, New York: Doubleday.
  3. Bahrick HP (March 1984). Semantic memory content in permastore: fifty years of memory for Spanish learned in school. J Exp Psychol Gen 113 (1): 1–29.
  4. Atwater, Eastwood (1981). I Hear You, Prentice-Hall.
  5. Segal, Morley (1997). Points of influence: a guide to using personality theory at work, Jossey-Bass.
  6. Gordon, Thomas (1977). Leader Effectiveness Training, New York: Wyden books.
  7. Maudsley G (March 1999). Roles and responsibilities of the problem based learning tutor in the undergraduate medical curriculum. BMJ 318 (7184): 657–61.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Lang F, Floyd MR, Beine KL (2000). Clues to patients' explanations and concerns about their illnesses. A call for active listening. Arch Fam Med 9 (3): 222–7.
  9. Baxter P, Campbell T. (August 7–12, 1994). HIV counselling skills used by health care workers in Zambia (abstract no. PD0743). Int Conf AIDS 10 (390).
  10. Laflamme G (1996). [Helping suicidal persons by active listening]. Infirm Que 3 (4): 35.
  11. Mineyama S, Tsutsumi A, Takao S, Nishiuchi K, Kawakami N (2007). Supervisors' attitudes and skills for active listening with regard to working conditions and psychological stress reactions among subordinate workers. J Occup Health 49 (2): 81–7.
  12. Active Listening. Inspiration. White Dove Books. URL accessed on 19 April 2012.
  13. Davidhizar R (2004). Listening—a nursing strategy to transcend culture. J Pract Nurs 54 (2): 22–4; quiz 26–7.
  14. Robertson K (2005). Active listening: more than just paying attention. Aust Fam Physician 34 (12): 1053–5.
  15. Fassaert T, van Dulmen S, Schellevis F, Bensing J (2007). Active listening in medical consultations: development of the Active Listening Observation Scale (ALOS-global). Patient Educ Couns 68 (3): 258–64.
  16. Reed, Warren H. (1985). Positive listening: learning to hear what people are really saying, New York: F. Watts.
  17. Derber, C. (1979). The pursuit of attention: Power and individualism in everyday life, New York: Oxford University Press.
  18. (1990). Conversational narcissism. Communication Monographs (57): 251–274.
  19. Lama, Dalai Top 3 Barriers to Effective Listening. People Communicating. URL accessed on 19 April 2012.
  20. François Pachet The Future of Content is in Ourselves. The Future of Content is in Ourselves. In M. Tokoro, editor, Open System Science, pages 133-158, IOS Press. 2010.
  21. François Pachet Active Listening: What is in the Air?.In Miranda, E., editor, Musica y Nuevas Tecnologias: Perspectivas para el Siglo XXI, L'Angelot. 1999.
  22. François Pachet Constraints for Multimedia Applications. Proceedings of PACLP 1999, London, March 1999. The Practical Application Company.

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