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Active listening

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Active listening

One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say. — Bryant McGill

  • 30 minutes
  • Medium



Promoting understanding and improving communication through listening.

Most of us consider themselves to be good listeners, but the reality is that we often listen to our conversation partner without really hearing them. We might worry about what to say next, how to sound smart, how to persuade the other person we are right… or we might be wondering what’s on the telly tonight. In any case, we miss opportunities to connect deeply with the other person – and risk making them feel neglected, disrespected, and resentful. This may generate tensions within teams whereby team-members do not feel heard and valued, and assumptions about others quickly slip in. Active listening is a potent antidote to increase the quality and presence of our listening. We recommend practicing for ~20 minutes each day until you are more comfortable with the practice and can easily incorporate it in your daily conversations.

The following practice is a key tool to succeed in other recipes such as coaching feedback, unlimited empathy, and identifying your goals and resources. The instructions are adapted from: Markman, H., Stanley, S., & Blumberg, S.L. (1994). Fighting for your marriage. San Francisco: Josey-Bass Publishers. Evidence that it works can be found here: Weger, H., Castle Bell, G., Minei, E. M., & Robinson, M. C. (2014). The relative effectiveness of active listening in initial interactions. International Journal of Listening, 28(1), 13-31. You can access this practice at the Greater Good Science Center website: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/active_listening.

Why you should try it: “This exercise helps you express active interest in what the other person has to say and make him or her feel heard—a way to foster empathy and connection. This technique is especially well-suited for difficult conversations (such as arguments with a spouse) and for expressing support. Research suggests that using this technique can help others feel more understood and improve relationship satisfaction.”

Why it works: “Active listening helps listeners better understand others’ perspectives and helps speakers feel more understood and less threatened. This technique can prevent miscommunication and spare hurt feelings on both sides. By improving communication and preventing arguments from escalating, active listening can make relationships more enduring and satisfying. Practicing active listening with someone close to you can also help you listen better when interactive with other people in your life, such as students, co-woders, or roommates.”

*Image © Greta Rossi




Find a quiet place where you can talk with a conversation partner without interruption or distraction. Invite them to share what’s on their mind. As they do so, try to follow the steps below. You don’t need to cover every step, but the more you do cover, the more effective this practice is likely to be.



Once the other person has finished expressing a thought, paraphrase what they said to make sure you understand and to show that you are paying attention. Helpful ways to paraphrase include “What I hear you saying is…” “It sounds like…” and “If I understand you right….”


Asking questions

When appropriate, ask questions to encourage the other person to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings. Avoid jumping to conclusions about what the other person means. Instead, ask questions to clarify their meaning, such as, “When you say_____, do you mean_____”?


Expressing empathy

If the other person voices negative feelings, strive to validate these feelings rather than questioning or defending against them. For example, if the speaker expresses frustration, try to consider why they feel that way, regardless of whether you think that feeling is justified or whether you would feel that way yourself were you in their position. You might respond, “I can sense that you’re feeling frustrated,” and even “I can understand how that situation could cause frustration.”


Using engaged body language

Show that you are engaged and interested by making eye contact, nodding, facing the other person, and maintaining an open and relaxed body posture. Avoid attending to distractions in your environment or checking your phone. Be mindful of your facial expressions: Avoid expressions that might communicate disapproval or disgust.


Avoiding judgment

Your goal is to understand the other person’s perspective and accept it for what it is, even if you disagree with it. Try not to interrupt with counter-arguments or mentally prepare a rebuttal while the other person is speaking.


Avoiding giving advice

Problem-solving is likely to be more effective after both conversation partners understand one another’s perspective and feel heard. Moving too quickly into advice-giving can be counterproductive.


Taking turns

After the other person has had a chance to speak and you have engaged in the active listening steps above, ask if it’s okay for you to share your perspective. When sharing your perspective, express yourself as clearly as possible using “I” statements (e.g., “I feel overwhelmed when you don’t help out around the house”). It may also be helpful, when relevant, to express empathy for the other person’s perspective (e.g., “I know you’ve been very busy lately and don’t mean to leave me hanging…”).

Greta Rossi

Chief Empathy Officer at Akasha Innovation. Co-founder of ImpactAimers and Recipes for Wellbeing. Regional Coordinator for Ashoka's ChangemakerXchange. Youth coach and FRSA.

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