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Active listening


Techniques Listening > Active listening

Positive encouragement | Attentive listening | Total listening | Reflecting | Summarizing | Testing | Demonstrate respect | See also


Positive encouragement

To listen actively, you should help the other person to speak, using attentive body language and encouraging words. Especially when they are uncertain, supporting them with nods, 'yeses' and eyebrows raised in anticipation can be very effective.

Sometimes encouragement is best with silent attention, given them space in which to find the word they need, quietly sitting through the pauses. If they are emotional, accept their emotional state without criticism and without saying 'please don't cry' when we really mean 'please don't upset me'. If someone is moved to tears, one of the most powerful things you can do is to allow them to cry.

Attentive listening

In attentive listening you pay obvious attention to the other person so they can see that you are interested in what they have to say.

The opposite of attentive listening is inattentive or casual listening, where you are not obviously paying attention to the person but you may (or may not) actually be listening carefully.

Total listening

Rogers and Farson (1979) describe active listening as 'an important way to bring about changes in people.' They recommend three activities:

  • Listen for total meaning: Listen both for content and also for the underlying emotions.
  • Respond to feelings: Sometimes the real message is in the emotion rather than the surface content. In such cases, you should respond to the emotional message.
  • Note all the cues: Not all communication is verbal, so watch for the non-verbal messages.


When you reflect what you hear back to the other person, you are demonstrating that you have heard what they have said. What you reflect should match the key aspects of what the other person is communicating.

You can reflect data and factual information. You can also reflect feelings. Feelings are more difficult to read but are more powerful in the bond that is created with the other person as this indicates empathy and implied concern.


Reflect back what you hear not by parroting back the same words but by paraphrasing, using your own words to rephrase what they have said. A good way of doing this is to summarize what they have said in fewer words.


When a person says something, even with careful understanding you may miss the point. It can help when reflecting and summarizing to add testing questions, asking whether your summary is correct. For example:

So, I think what you are saying is ... Is this right?

This gives them control and hence makes it easier for them to accept what you say.

Demonstrate respect

As Rogers and Farson point out, 'although it is most difficult to convince someone that you respect him by telling him so, you are much more likely to get this message across by really behaving that way...Listening does this most effectively'.

See also

Listen to the inner person

Carl Rogers and Richard Farson, Active Listening, in David Kolb, Irwin Rubin and James MacIntyre, Organizational Psychology (third edition), New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1979


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