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Active listening

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Active listening is a way of "listening for meaning" in which the listener checks with the speaker to see that a statement has been correctly heard and understood. The goal of active listening is to improve mutual understanding. When interacting, people often are not listening attentively to one another. They may be distracted, thinking about other things, or thinking about what they are going to say next, (the latter case is particularly true in conflict situations or disagreements).

Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding. It focuses attention on the speaker. Suspending one’s own frame of reference and suspending judgement, are important in order to fully attend to the speaker.


It is important to observe the other person's behavior and body language. Having the ability to interpret a person's body language allows the listener to develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker's words.[1] 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. Thus, rather than merely repeating what the speaker has said, the active listener might describe the underlying emotion (“you seem to feel angry” or “you seem to feel frustrated, is that because…?”).

Individuals in conflict often contradict one another. This has the effect of denying the validity of the other person’s position. Either party may react defensively, and they may lash out or withdraw. 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.

In the book Leader Effectiveness Training, Thomas Gordon, who coined the term "active listening",[2] 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..."[3]

A four step process (termed "Nonviolent Communication" or "NVC") was conceived by Marshall Rosenberg which can help facilitate the process of active listening. "When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed [and requested] rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion. Through its emphasis on deep listening—to ourselves as well as others—NVC fosters respect, attentiveness, and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart."[4] Rosenberg further clarifies the intricacy of perception and adaptiveness of what he calls "deep listening" by saying; "While I conveniently refer to NVC as a “process” or “language,” it is possible to express all four pieces of the model without uttering a single word. The essence of NVC is to be found in our consciousness of these four components, not in the actual words that are exchanged."[5]


Active listening is used in a wide variety of situations, including public interest advocacy, community organizing, tutoring,[6] medical workers talking to patients,[7] HIV counseling,[8] helping suicidal persons,[9] management,[10] counseling and journalistic settings. In groups it may aid in reaching consensus. It may also be used in casual conversation 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.

The benefits of active listening include getting people to open up, avoiding misunderstandings, resolving conflict and building trust. In a medical context, benefits may include increased patient satisfaction,[7] improving cross-cultural communication,[11] improved outcomes,[7] or decreased litigation[12].

Active listening can be lifted by the Active Listening Observation Scale.[13]

Barriers to Active Listening

All elements of communication, including listening, may be affected by barriers that can impede the flow of conversation. Such barriers include distractions, trigger words, vocabulary, and limited attention span[14].

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.

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

Overcoming Listening Barriers

In order 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 in order to clarify understanding, and one also tries to overcome all types of environment distractions. Furthermore, the listener considers the speaker's background, both cultural and personal, to benefit as much as possible from the communication process. Eye contact and appropriate body languages are also helpful.

See also


  1. Atwater, Eastwood (1981). I Hear You, Prentice-Hall.
  2. Segal, Morley (1997). Points of influence: a guide to using personality theory at work, Jossey-Bass.
  3. Gordon, Thomas (1977). Leader Effectiveness Training, New York: Wyden books.
  4. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. — Chapter 1; paragraph 3 under "A Way To Focus Attention," (book: page 3).
  5. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. — Chapter 1; paragraph 8 under "The NVC Process," (book: pages 7 and 8).
  6. Maudsley G (March 1999). Roles and responsibilities of the problem based learning tutor in the undergraduate medical curriculum. BMJ 318 (7184): 657–61.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 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.
  8. Baxter P, Campbell T. (1994 August 7–12). HIV counselling skills used by health care workers in Zambia (abstract no. PD0743). Int Conf AIDS 10 (390).
  9. Laflamme G (1996). [Helping suicidal persons by active listening]. Infirm Que 3 (4): 35.
  10. 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.
  11. Davidhizar R (2004). Listening--a nursing strategy to transcend culture. J Pract Nurs 54 (2): 22–4; quiz 26–7.
  12. Robertson K (2005). Active listening: more than just paying attention. Aust Fam Physician 34 (12): 1053–5.
  13. 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.
  14. Reed, Warren H. (1985). Positive listening: learning to hear what people are really saying, New York: F. Watts.

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