How to actively listen?

We all deal with the process of communication every single day. Communication between people can happen on different levels. Communication is often referred to as a set of messages embedded within a group of symbolic signs. These signs are decoded by the

We all deal with the process of communication every single day. Communication between people can happen on different levels. Communication is often referred to as a set of messages embedded within a group of symbolic signs. These signs are decoded by the receivers of a given message. It must be said that the most important feature of communication is that it works both ways, i.e., one passes information to somebody, e.g., by talking, and the other receives the given piece of information, in this case, by careful listening.

Not every person is a good listener. Some of us are unable to focus when someone is speaking. In consequence, a person fails to meet the requirements necessary for active listening. Active listening is essential to maintain good relations with other people. It proves to be particularly useful during business meetings. It is good to hone this skill if we are involved in any business related activities. So, how to actively listen? We discuss this issue in the following lines.

What is the basis for active listening?

Firstly, the skill is based on constant encouraging our receiver to speak openly.

Secondly, we need to prepare ourselves to entirely accept the feelings and points of view of our speaker. Only in this way can we achieve mutual trust between us and our speaker. This, in consequence, leads to a more open conversation.

Thirdly, we have to be good at controlling and managing our nonverbal cues which are being sent towards our speaker. At the same time, we should carefully observe his gesticulations and facial expressions in order to properly decode the full message that is being sent to us.

Lastly, we should allow our speaker to talk freely, i.e., we should not comment upon individual sentences. It is unkind to interrupt someone anyway.

The rules of active listening

Listening seems to be an easy skill, however, active listening proves to be difficult. Many of us have problems to truly make effective use of the messages we receive. Luckily, there are some effective methods that help improve the skill of listening. It is enough to follow a number of rules we mention below.

Rule no. 1 – concentrate on your speaker

It is quite logical that while speaking to a given person we should maximally radiate with interest and focus on what he or she says and in what manner. Unfortunately, this proves to be really difficult in the long run. This is, however, the first important step on the way to active listening. Sometimes, we have the impression that we do listen to our speaker, but our body betrays us and sends totally different signals. We show whether or not we are interested in the topic of a conversation by means of our approach to the speaker, our facial expressions and gesticulations. In consequence, our body language can create serious obstacles on the way to hear and understand what others wish to tell us. It is imperative to always focus solely on our speaker during a conversation and not to shift our attention to something or someone different. We should at least try to maintain our body language as open as possible during the process of communication. It is unadvisable to keep our arms or legs crossed, or to have our hands curled into fists. Such an approach is regarded as aggressive and, obviously, this is not how we want to be perceived while communicating with other people. Small gestures, subtle motions, and certain stances have a much bigger influence on active listening than we think. Very often, however, we unconsciously take up a negative approach. We should strive to control not only what we say, but also how we behave during a conversation.

Rule no. 2 – an approach that shows understanding

It is imperative that our speaker is convinced that we are interested in what he is saying and that he is well understood. The easiest way to emphasize our understanding of the messages we receive from others is to make good use of certain words or sounds that serve as confirmation. The words include: yes, exactly, I understand, true, right, precisely, etc. Our facial expression can also show understanding. Nodding and looking into our speaker’s eyes are just some of the many methods that we can use to show that we listen.

Rule no. 3 – keeping up with our speaker

It is important to constantly encourage others to keep an open discussion with us on every subject. We can achieve this level of conversation by asking questions, encouraging our speakers to elaborate on certain topics, or looking at a given issue from a slightly different point of view. We always have to emphasize the fact that we are interested in our speaker’s point of view. It is good to repeat our speaker’s message in a short summarized version in order to see if we understood him properly. Whenever possible, it is good to ask some open questions, so that our speaker might freely elaborate on them. If we do not stick to this rule, most probably our speaker will provide answers with monosyllabic words – yes or no. We have to make sure that we understand correctly.

We can also paraphrase the messages we receive. Paraphrasing is repeating the sense of our speaker’s messages, but in our own words. It leads to a kind of summary of what the speaker said, but from our own perspective. At the same time, it is advisable to express that we are thoroughly interested in what he or she feels and thinks. If we do not understand something, we should not be afraid to ask. He that nothing questioneth nothing learneth.

Obstacles on the way to active listening

Most people process the information they receive in a selective way. Every day, from every direction, we are bombarded by hundreds of thousands of pieces of information which we are unable to analyze thoroughly simply because we lack the time and means. Active listening to everything and everyone is far beyond our mental capabilities. Therefore, it is necessary to make thorough and extensive selections of data. This means that our mind takes note only of those stimuli that seem to be important. Our attention tends to be selective, and this fact can lead to problems in certain communicative situations.

There is no doubt that active listening is a difficult skill to master, and that it requires a lot of time and effort to be good at it. We have to radiate patience and learn the ability to stimulate on demand our interest in what other people are saying. Empathy, delicateness, and diplomacy, so the skills that help us step into other person’s shoes, are essential to achieve this.

The most common factors that inhibit the process of communication and render active listening impossible can be listed in a few points. They are as follows:

arriving at early and inadequate conclusions


hasty comments and suggestions

thinking about other things which are totally unrelated to the present conversation

changing the subject of a conversation

rude interrupting – It is improper to express our opinion when other people are still talking. A person can lose his or her idea due to our impertinence. Interrupting is a distorting activity that can ruin the course of our speaker’s mental reasoning process. We must not speak when others are speaking. It is also unkind because our speaker does not get the chance to clearly and accurately express his or her thoughts and emotions. When talking simultaneously, neither person fully understands what the other is saying. It is important not to finish a sentence for our speaker. Such behavior can prove to be discouraging. A person might refrain from expressing opinions if he considers that his communicative partner knows better what he is about to say.

taking up a disrespectful approach which shows that we are uninterested in what our speaker is saying

interrogating or aggressive questioning – Not everyone may like to express personal feelings. Surely, we will not help such a person in formulating a statement if we flood him or her with questions. Some topics might prove to be embarrassing or inconvenient. A constant stream of questions makes our speaker feel hard-pressed, embarrassed, or shocked. Our behavior can be considered insolent.

making somebody believe that they have said something while they did not – we should leave personal interpretations to ourselves only. We cannot make somebody believe that he said something when, in fact, he did not.

We can come to a conclusion that active listening is based mainly on a set of verbal and nonverbal behaviors. It is essential to learn to perfectly control these behaviors. It happens sometimes that it is the receiver who has to stimulate the speaker in order to acquire as much information as possible. The receiver has the ability to encourage the speaker by means of emotions, especially when such a person has difficulties in focusing on the essence of his speech. By asking questions, calming our speaker down, and pointing him to an appropriate subject, we receive the answers we seek and acquire the necessary knowledge.

Generally speaking, the idea behind active listening is to create a sort of bond of trust between us and our speaker. The speaker must feel full support and sincere involvement radiating from the listener. Sometimes, the speaker has to be asked some specific questions in order to emphasize that we listen actively. Also, it is a good thing to repeat certain elements of what he said. What is more, thanks to such an approach, we can be certain that we truly understood the message.

Sometimes it is enough to simply remain silent and listen to what others have to say. There might be no need to ask questions. We can express our sincere involvement by our open body language. The nonverbal cues can easily express our interest and show that we would like to hear more. Active listening proves to be useful not only during work. It is even more useful in private life. A good listener is highly valued whenever people face personal dramas. If somebody wishes to speak out his problems, such a listener turns out to be invaluable.