Active listening

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Active listening is a technique of careful listening and observation of non-verbal cues, with feedback in the form of accurate paraphrasing, that is used in counseling, training, and solving disputes or conflicts. It requires the listener to pay attention, understand, respond and remember what is being said in the context of intonation, timing, and non-verbal cues (body language). [1] This differs from other listening techniques like reflective listening and empathic listening.


Reflective listening is a communication strategy involving seeking to understand a speaker's idea, then offering the idea back to the speaker, to confirm the idea has been understood correctly. Empathic listening is about giving people an outlet for their emotions before being able to be more open, sharing experiences and being able to accept new perspectives on troubled topics that cause emotional suffering. [2] Listening skills may establish flow rather than closed mindedness.


Active listening comprises several components by the listener, who must pay attention to what the speaker is attempting to communicate and elicit clarification where necessary for comprehension.

Active listening involves the listener observing the speaker's non-verbal behavior and body language. [3] The listener can observe non-verbal behaviors through kinesics, the study of body motion and posture; paralinguistics, the study of the tone of words; and proxemics, the study of physical distance and posture between speakers. [4] Having the ability to interpret a person's body language lets the listener develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker's message. [5] [ clarification needed ]


Comprehension is a shared meaning between parties in a communication transaction. This is the first step in the listening process. The second step is being able to take breaks between discernible words, or talking segmentation.[ clarification needed ]


Retaining is the second step in the process. Memory is essential to the active listening process because the information retained when a person is involved in the listening process is how meaning is extracted from words. Because everyone has different memories, the speaker and the listener may attach different meanings to the same statement. Memories are fallible, things like cramming may cause information to be forgotten.[ citation needed ][ clarification needed ]


Active listening is an interaction between speaker and listener. [6] It adds action to a normally passive process. [6]


Active listening can be assessed using the active listening observation scale (ALOS). [7]

Barriers to active listening

There are a multitude of factors that may impede upon someone's ability to listen with purpose and intention; these factors are referred to as listening blocks. [8] Some examples of these blocks include rehearsing, filtering, and advising. Rehearsing is when the listener is more focused on preparing their response rather than listening. Filtering is when a listener focuses only on what they expect to hear, while tuning out other aspects of what is being said, and lastly, advising is when the listener focuses on problem solving, which can create a sense of pressure to fix what the other person is doing wrong. [9] Some barriers are due to hunger or fatigue of the listener, making them irritated and less inclined to listen to the speaker. Sometimes it is due to the language the speaker uses—such as high sounding and bombastic words that can lead to ambiguity. Other barriers include distractions, trigger words, vocabulary, and limited attention span. [10]

Individuals in conflict often contradict each other. [11] Ambushing occurs when one listens to someone else's argument for its weaknesses and ignore its strengths. [12] This may include a distortion of the speaker's argument to gain a competitive advantage. On the other hand, if one finds that the other party understands, an atmosphere of cooperation can be created. [13]

Shift response

Shift response is the general tendency of a speaker in a conversation to affix attention to their position.[ citation needed ] This is a type of conversational narcissism—the tendency of listeners to turn the topic to themselves without showing sustained interest in others. [14] 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. [15] It is the response a competent communicator is most likely to use. [12]

Understanding of non-verbal cues

Ineffective listeners are unaware of non-verbal cues, though they dramatically affect how people listen. To a certain extent, it is also a perceptual barrier. Up to 93 percent of people's attitudes are formed by non-verbal cues. This should help one to avoid undue influence from non-verbal communication.[ clarification needed ] In most cases, the listener does not understand the non-verbal cues the speaker uses. A person may show fingers to emphasize a point,[ clarification needed ] but this may be perceived as an intent by the speaker to place their fingers in the listener's eyes. Overuse of non-verbal cues also creates distortion, and as a result listeners may be confused and forget the correct meaning. [16]

Overcoming listening barriers

The active listening technique is used to improve personal communications in organizations. Listeners put aside their own emotions and ask questions and paraphrase what the speaker says to clarify and gain a better understanding of what the speaker intended to say. [17] Distractions that interrupt the listener's attention are one of the major barriers to effective listening. These include external factors such as background noise and physical discomfort, and internal distractions, such as thoughts about other things and lack of focus. Another barrier is misinterpretation of what the speaker is attempting to communicate, including assumption of motives, and "reading between the lines", as is premature judgment of the speaker's point, which can occur as a consequence of the listener holding onto a rigid personal opinion on the topic. This problem can be mitigated by asking the speaker what they mean when it is unclear, though this is not guaranteed to work every time. [18] A strong disagreement hinders the ability to listen closely to what is being said.[ citation needed ] Eye contact and appropriate body languages\ are seen as important components to active listening, as they provide feedback to the speaker.[ citation needed ] The stress and intonation used by the speaker may also provide information to the listener, which is not available in the written word.


Active listening is used in a wide variety of situations, including public interest advocacy, community organizing, tutoring, [19] medical workers talking to patients, [20] HIV counseling, [21] helping suicidal persons, [22] management, [23] counseling [ citation needed ] and journalistic [ citation needed ] settings. In groups it may aid in reaching consensus.[ citation needed ] It may also be used in casual conversation or small talk to build understanding, though this can be interpreted as condescending.[ citation needed ][ clarification needed ]

A listener can use several degrees of active listening,[ clarification needed ] each resulting in a different quality of communication. [24]

The proper use of active listening results in getting people to open up, avoiding misunderstandings, resolving conflict, and building trust. [25] In a medical context, benefits may include increased patient satisfaction, [20] improved cross-cultural communication, [26] improved outcomes, [20] or decreased litigation. [27]

Active listening in music

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 [28] [29] [30]


Carl Rogers and Richard Farson coined the term "active listening" in 1957 in a paper of the same title (reprinted in 1987 in the volume “Communicating in Business Today”). Practicing active listening also emphasized Rogers’ (1980) concept of three facilitative conditions for effective counseling; empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. [31] Rogers and Farson write: "Active listening is an important way to bring about changes in people. Despite the popular notion that listening is a passive approach, clinical and research evidence clearly shows that sensitive listening is a most effective agent for individual personality change and group development. Listening brings about changes in peoples’ attitudes toward themselves and others; it also brings about changes in their basic values and personal philosophy. People who have been listened to in this new and special way become more emotionally mature, more open to their experiences, less defensive, more democratic, and less authoritarian."[ citation needed ]


A Munich-based marital therapy study conducted by Dr. Kurt Hahlweg and associates found that even after employing active listening techniques in the context of couple's therapy, the typical couple was still distressed. [32]

Active listening was criticized by John Gottman's The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work as being of limited usefulness:

Active listening asks couples to perform Olympic-level emotional gymnastics when their relationship can barely walk. . . . After studying some 650 couples and tracking the fate of their marriages for up to fourteen years, we now understand that this approach to counseling doesn't work, not just because it's nearly impossible for most couples to do well, but more importantly because successful conflict resolution isn't what makes marriages succeed. One of the most startling findings of our research is that most couples who have maintained happy marriages rarely do anything that even partly resembles active listening when they're upset. [33]

Robert F. Scuka defends active listening by arguing that:

...a careful reading of the Hahlweg et al. (1984) study reveals that Gottman cites only certain (one-sided) results from the study. He also overlooks several important considerations that call into question his implied dismissal of the RE model as a legitimate therapeutic intervention for distressed couples. [34]

See also

Related Research Articles

Communication is "an apparent answer to the painful divisions between self and other, private and public, and inner thought and outer word." As this definition indicates, communication is difficult to define in a consistent manner, because it is commonly used to refer to a wide range of different behaviors, or to limit what can be included in the category of communication. John Peters argues the difficulty of defining communication emerges from the fact that communication is both a universal phenomena, and a specific discipline of institutional academic study.

Conversation Interactive communication between two or more people

Conversation is interactive communication between two or more people. The development of conversational skills and etiquette is an important part of socialization. The development of conversational skills in a new language is a frequent focus of language teaching and learning. Conversation analysis is a branch of sociology which studies the structure and organization of human interaction, with a more specific focus on conversational interaction.

Listening One is hearing what others are saying, and trying to understand what it means

To listen is to give attention to sound or action. When listening, one is hearing what others are saying, and trying to understand what it means. The act of listening involves complex affective, cognitive, and behavioral processes. Affective processes include the motivation to listen to others; cognitive processes include attending to, understanding, receiving, and interpreting content and relational messages; and behavioral processes include responding to others with verbal and nonverbal feedback.

A microexpression is a facial expression that only lasts for a short moment. It is the innate result of a voluntary and an involuntary emotional response occurring simultaneously and conflicting with one another, and occurs when the amygdala responds appropriately to the stimuli that the individual experiences and the individual wishes to conceal this specific emotion. This results in the individual very briefly displaying their true emotions followed by a false emotional reaction.

Nonverbal communication Interpersonal communication through wordless (mostly visual) cues

Nonverbal communication (NVC) is the transmission of messages or signals through a nonverbal platform such as eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, posture, and body language. It includes the use of social cues, kinesics, distance (proxemics) and physical environments/appearance, of voice (paralanguage) and of touch (haptics). It can also include the use of time (chronemics) and eye contact and the actions of looking while talking and listening, frequency of glances, patterns of fixation, pupil dilation, and blink rate (oculesics).

Sympathy is the perception, understanding, and reaction to the distress or need of another life form. According to David Hume, this sympathetic concern is driven by a switch in viewpoint from a personal perspective to the perspective of another group or individual who is in need. Hume explained that this is the case because "the minds of all men are similar in their feelings and operations" and that "the motion of one communicates itself to the rest" so that as affectations readily pass from one to another, they beget corresponding movements.

Contempt Disgust and anger towards something or someone

Contempt is a pattern of attitudes and behaviour, often towards an individual or group, but sometimes towards an ideology, which has the characteristics of disgust and anger.

Couples therapy attempts to improve romantic relationships and resolve interpersonal conflicts.

Social behavior Behavior among two or more organisms, typically of same species

Social behavior is behavior among two or more organisms within the same species, and encompasses any behavior in which one member affects the other. This is due to an interaction among those members. Social behavior can be seen as similar to an exchange of goods, with the expectation that when you give, you will receive the same. This behavior can be affected by both the qualities of the individual and the environmental (situational) factors. Therefore, social behavior arises as a result of an interaction between the two—the organism and its environment. This means that, in regards to humans, social behavior can be determined by both the individual characteristics of the person, and the situation they are in.

Language development in humans is a process starting early in life. Infants start without knowing a language, yet by 10 months, babies can distinguish speech sounds and engage in babbling. Some research has shown that the earliest learning begins in utero when the fetus starts to recognize the sounds and speech patterns of its mother's voice and differentiate them from other sounds after birth.

Analytical skill

Analytical skill is the ability to deconstruct information into smaller categories in order to draw conclusions. Analytical skill consists of categories that include logical reasoning, critical thinking, communication, research, data analysis and creativity. Analytical skill is taught in contemporary education with the intention of fostering the appropriate practises for future professions. The professions that adopt analytical skill include educational institutions, public institutions, community organisations and industry.

Reflective listening is a communication strategy involving two key steps: seeking to understand a speaker's idea, then offering the idea back to the speaker, to confirm the idea has been understood correctly. It attempts to "reconstruct what the client is thinking and feeling and to relay this understanding back to the client". Reflective listening is a more specific strategy than the more general methods of active listening. It arose from Carl Rogers' school of client-centered therapy in counseling theory. Empathy is at the center of Rogers' approach.

The Gibb categories are elements of a strategy for interpersonal communication. Separated into defensive and supportive techniques, the categories provide a framework for effective communication. The categories are outlined by Jack Gibb.

Music and emotion

Research into music and emotion seeks to understand the psychological relationship between human affect and music. The field, a branch of music psychology, covers numerous areas of study, including the nature of emotional reactions to music, how characteristics of the listener may determine which emotions are felt, and which components of a musical composition or performance may elicit certain reactions. The research draws upon, and has significant implications for, such areas as philosophy, musicology, music therapy, music theory and aesthetics, as well as the acts of musical composition and of musical performance.

Social cues are verbal or non-verbal signals expressed through the face, body, voice, motion and guide conversations as well as other social interactions by influencing our impressions of and responses to others. These percepts are important communicative tools as they convey important social and contextual information and therefore facilitate social understanding.

In linguistics, a backchanneling during a conversation occurs when one participant is speaking and another participant interjects responses to the speaker. A backchannel response can be verbal, non-verbal, or both. Backchannel responses are often phatic expressions, primarily serving a social or meta-conversational purpose, such as signifying the listener's attention, understanding, or agreement, rather than conveying significant information. Examples include such expressions as "yeah", "uh-huh", "hmm", and "right".

Emotional prosody or affective prosody is the various non-verbal aspects of language that allow people to convey or understand emotion. It includes an individual's tone of voice in speech that is conveyed through changes in pitch, loudness, timbre, speech rate, and pauses. It can be isolated from semantic information, and interacts with verbal content.

Language power (LP) is a measure of one's ability to communicate effectively in a given language, specifically one that is not native to the speaker.

Pseudolistening Type of non-listening

Pseudo-listening is a type of non-listening that consists of appearing attentive in conversation while actually ignoring or only partially listening to the other speaker. The intent of pseudo-listening is not to listen, but to cater to some other personal need of the listener. The word pseudo-listening is a compound word composed of the individual words pseudo, and listening. An example of pseudo-listening is trying to multitask by talking on the phone while watching television or completing work. Pseudo-listening is the most ineffective way to communicate because after the conversation one will not have retained much of the information that was said.

The Cascade Model of Relational Dissolution is a relational communications theory that proposes four critically negative behaviors that lead to the breakdown of marital and romantic relationships. This model is the work of psychological researcher John Gottman, a professor at the University of Washington and founder of The Gottman Institute and his research partner Robert W. Levenson. This theory focuses on the negative influence of verbal and nonverbal communication habits on the success and/or failure of marriages and other relationships. Gottman's model uses a metaphor that compares the four negative communication styles that lead to the breakdown of a relationship to the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, wherein each behavior, or horseman, compounds the problems of the previous, leading to the total breakdown of communication in a relationship.


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Further reading