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What is Active Listening?

communication social skills social-awareness Mar 08, 2021

What is active listening?

Did you know that we only remember about 20% of what we hear and about 50% of what we see and hear? Does this little factoid shed light on your interactions with your boss, partner, and children? Think about all of the interactions we have in our life that involve hearing and/or seeing (hint: most of them). What would life look like if your boss, partner, or kiddo remembered (and understood) more of what you said?

Enter active listening. Yes, active listening is different than listening, which is just hearing what someone says. Active listening is a commitment that involves full attention and concentration, using all of the senses to absorb, understand, and thus, retain the communicator's complete message. This sets you up for more productivity, closer relationships, and less social conflict. 

Active listening skills

Active listening is complex and has a skill set. There are 6 general skills that facilitate effective active listening. 


Attention and thus, concentration, are key when being an active listener. Pay attention with all of your senses. What are the facial expressions of the speaker? Are there underlying tones in the communicator's way of speaking? What is the speaker's body language communicating? The aim here is to give your undivided attention to the speaker. You can also show your undivided attention through coordinating your eye contact, nodding, and maintaining an open body posture (facing the speaker). This communicates interest and respect. 

Listen without judgment

If the goal is to fully understand the speaker's message, it is imperative to keep an open mind. The reason someone is communicating with you is to share their ideas or perspectives. Even when the message is strong, opposing, or uncomfortable, hearing the speaker's complete message (sans argument or criticism) is necessary for addressing the immediate situation with a productive outcome. Giving a person a platform for expression without judgment allows for all of the information to be gathered. Remember that listening or giving space for someone to express themself doesn't mean that you agree with what they are saying. It also helps to remember that there can only be one speaker and one listener when communicating.


Don't be fooled by your intention for neutrality as a listener. You bring your own set of biases and filters because of your personal experiences. These are bespoke to you. All the information you hear, despite your intentions, will inevitably be filtered. This is why reflection is important. Think about reflection as a check-point. Reflect on what you understood and check to see if this is what the speaker intended. 

Said: "I'm so tired of doing everything myself. No one helps me and no one cares that I also have work to do."

Reflected: "I hear that you are overwhelmed and need help." 

Calibrate and clarify

If you can't quite land on a reflection because the message is confusing or unclear, ask for clarification ("What do you mean by...?" or "Can you help me understand...?"). Using open-ended questions not only shows that you are listening and motivated to understand the speaker, but it also promotes collaboration, which improves productivity. 

Clarification: "What do you mean by needing help? What does that look like?" 


After reflecting and clarifying, summarize everything you understood in a nice little package. This restatement confirms that you understood the message and leads to more focused problem-solving. It also has a relational effect, reassuring the speaker that they were fully heard and understood, thus resulting in closer and stronger connections (which leads to greater trust in the future).

Summary: "I understand that you are overwhelmed and need help. You don't want to ask for help all the time because this is just adding to the stress. Rather, you want family members to pitch in and contribute without being asked so that we can have a less-chaotic household." 

 Collaborate and problem solve

Now that you have a solid understanding of the speaker's message, collaborate and problem solve. Together, identify solutions to the problem to try. 

Problem solving: "How can we help each family contribute or help without being asked?" "Are there any strategies we can use to promote a routine or schedule of completing household tasks?" "What strategy can we try this week?" 

It's a human skill

Active listening is a universal skill that all humans need. Being able to fully understand others and to be fully understood allows us to connect and communicate, especially when life gets hard or messy.

If you're a parent looking for a step-by-step guide to teach your kid how to rock active listening, check out CleverParent

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