One conversation skill I've heard about is "Active Listening". What does this mean?

If people don't think that I'm a good listener, is this something I can develop?

What are some specific active listening skills I can learn?

  • You can develop this by practicing and applying this to everyday discussion. You will gain much more insight to why they behave, and how to handle.
    – Vylix
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 8:48
  • I remember reading about how people have 3 ways to process information: seeing, hearing and feeling. (The other two senses, taste and smell, don't apply to conversation.) So, as a starter, you can figure which this person focuses on and say "That looks/feels/sounds right." Obviously that is only a start, but it has helped me get on the same page with other people.
    – aschultz
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 2:33
  • " For instance, the classes I've had on active listening before have not said that saying "yes" or "I see" periodically is a problem. – curiousdannii" Did they not tell you what "Active Listening" means in those active listening classes? Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 14:03
  • 1
    @tycho they did indeed. Not everyone who asks a question asks because they don't know the answer themselves. Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 23:02
  • @curiousdannii Thanks for being honest :) Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 8:36

6 Answers 6


“Active Listening” is a widely used technique in counselling, inter-faith dialogue, and conflict resolution. It focuses on what the other communicant is saying rather than how you want to respond. It takes some practice, but has excellent outcomes in enriching communication.

Listen, don’t just hear, and be sure to give the speaker positive reinforcement without too many verbal intrusions such as “yes,” and “I see.” This is better done non-verbally, through nods, smile (where appropriate), and posture. Eye contact is also important. It not only allows you to see the non-verbal cues of the speaker, but it gives them a sense of being followed and understood.

Your posture as already mentioned, is an important conveyer of meaning. An active listener tends to lean slightly forward. While a distracted or bored listener may shift positions or pull away from the speaker. An inattentive listener may also “clock watch” or fidget with a pen or other convenient object. So, keep in mind the messages you are sending.

Again, the goal is to actively take-in what is being communicated. Periodically you may want to ask some questions of clarification. These shouldn’t be too frequent, and ideally should not be attempts to direct the conversation. You may also want to use some reflection and summary of what has been said. For example, “so you are saying . . . .” This allows the speaker a chance to correct any misapprehensions, and reassures them that you are on the same general wavelength.

It is really useful in these exchanges to remember and feedback some exact points the speaker has made. It shows that you have understood, and that their message was important to you.

Summarising what the speaker has said is also a good technique, before moving any dialogue along. By restating the main points of the message and reiterating them gives the speaker chance to reflect on what has been said, and if needed to correct the received message.

  • Can you add references for any of your points? For instance, the classes I've had on active listening before have not said that saying "yes" or "I see" periodically is a problem. Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 10:40
  • kent.ac.uk/careers/sk/communicating.htm : "You can't keep saying "uh-huh" or "yes" for too long without it sounding false." ;skillsyouneed.com/ips/active-listening.html : Casual and frequent use of words and phrases, such as: ‘very good’, ‘yes’ or ‘indeed’ can become irritating to the speaker.
    – r m
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 10:50
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    This is a verbatim match to a post on Facebook; are you the original author? If not, you may want to attribute that source. Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 15:03
  • Yes, I wrote the original Brandon Speakers piece on Facebook
    – r m
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 15:43

Active Listening is just one listening technique.

It means you actively trying to read the message the speaker really wants to convey, by understanding, memorizing, and responding ("Got any question?" "Yes, ..."). In one on one, you might want to interrupt a bit, confirming what has been said (or the actual message).

A must-have skill for active listening is the ability to observe and interpret speaker's behavior and body language. This is important because sometimes the speaker is hiding the real intention, or simply lying.

You must also show your interest in the discussion to gather more subtle cues. (People tend to slip when they are excited)

It is contrasted by Passive Listening which requires little to no response at all ("Hm hm", "Yeah", "..." nodding head in interest).


First of all, you can start to pay attention what person in front is saying. Give your undivided attention to that person and acknowledge the message you receive.

Remember, non-verbal communication is also important during a face-to-face conversation. Therefore, you must show that you're listening by nodding, giving a facial expression such as smile, and giving small comments such as yes.

During the conversation, you must avoid distracting thoughts and look at speaker, not continuously though. Also provide feedback and ask questions without interrupting. Interruption must be avoided because it may frustrate speaker.


A "passive" listener "hears the other person out." That is an important, and underrated skill, and you can make a good start by doing this.

An "active" listener not only hears the other person out, but responds to, or "plays back" what the person is saying. If done properly, it is conducive to "interaction."


I think a wider awareness of how conversations tend to progress is the first thing needed to break normal habits and become an active listener.

Most conversations are not a process of people listening and responding. They are most often a process by which people are waiting for their turn to speak.

Many people will listen to the general topic of a conversation, it will hook an anecdote or personal reference in their brain and then they will wait for a gap in the conversation to relay that reference/anecdote 'adding' to the conversation.

In many situations there is nothing wrong with this as it is expected behaviour and if you are entertaining can add to a good feeling.

However if you wish to be an active listener then you must recognise this pattern in order to break it. Check yourself from waiting for your turn to speak and instead clarify your understanding of what is being said in order to ask relevant questions ensuring that you understand the content.


One thing that was a barrier to me being an active listener was that I worried too much about overactive listeners who would just seize on a point and be a bit nasty, and I did not want to be like them.

I suspect you already know things not to do, like making an annoyed noise or rolling your eyes or saying "WHAT" or anything like that. But it's tough to find positive stuff to do.

To a certain extent, some people aren't worth actively listening TO. This sounds harsh, but there are people who talk badly about other people or use gratuitous profanity or tell you what you need to think. Giving them too much energy (and some people WILL be a drain) means you may not have the energy to actively listen to other people that deserve it. So knowing when people are using me as someone to talk at instead of someone to talk with helped me. I don't know if I can give advice how to tell people to back off if they are gossiping or badmouthing others or taking 15 minutes to complain about their day, but I was relieved to know I didn't have to put up with it.

More positively, certain gestures work for me, for instance, putting my finger up at the end of someone's sentence, so I can say "I followed you until then, but I didn't understand that last bit." And letting people know they can do the same for/to me. I find even saying something like "I'm not good at small talk, but when you have something important to discuss, I want to give you my full attention" helps provide trust for later conversations.

I also have certain neutral stock interruption phrases like "Should I google/already know (term X)?"

If you want to be more active with someone you work with, maybe you can email them afterwards to ask what sort of interruptions they're comfortable with, because they had a lot of interesting stuff to say, but you still had questions. It seems like a bit of awkwardness at the start, but it will avoid a lot later. If they make fun of you for it, you have a right to go to HR or a manager and explain things.

And I think one thing that helped me participate better was not to frame things as "how do I make active listening/jumping in the least awkward it can be" and instead "how do I say something to avoid a lot of awkwardness later?" Treat it as an investment of time and energy, instead of avoiding doing something stupid.

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