How to Practice Active Listening

“The most basic of all human needs is to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

-Ralph Nichols

Of all our communication skills, listening is one of the most important ones—and is often the most neglected.  We all know what listening is, but have we ever considered what it really means and takes to actively listen? Giving someone your undivided attention isn’t easy. However, it’s a skill we can practice in order to improve communication and connection.

What is Active Listening?

“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson (1987) defined active listening, using it to establish empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard in client relationships. Although this practice began in psychology, the same principles can be applied to everyday interactions in the workplace. By practicing Active listening, you can foster more effective communication, connection and clarity at work.

“Many situations simply need an ear, not action. Oftentimes, problems don’t need solutions — they need presence and time.” 

Gabrielle Thompson, Senior Vice President at Cisco

Active Listening begins with Awareness

Active listening involves not only hearing what someone is saying, but also being aware of their thoughts and feelings. Active listening is about being fully present when interacting with others. Instead of giving into distractions, active listening requires us to cultivate understanding and respond with clarity, calm and care.

In fact, Robin Abrahams and Boris Groysberg from Harvard Business School describe active listening as having three aspects: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. Here’s how they define each aspect in their article, “How to Become a Better Listener”:

  • Cognitive: Paying attention to all the information, both explicit and implicit, that you are receiving from the other person, comprehending, and integrating that information
  • Emotional: Staying calm and compassionate during the conversation, including managing any emotional reactions (annoyance, boredom) you might experience
  • Behavioral: Conveying interest and comprehension verbally and nonverbally

How to Practice Active Listening

“Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet.”

Krista Tippett

So how can we practice active listening and become more present, compassionate and connected listeners?

Active Listening Essentials


Active listening hinges on being fully present—attentive, engaged, and in the moment—allowing for a meaningful, effective conversation. Are your mind and body at the same place at the same time? Are you actively listening to the person’s struggles, needs and wants? A great way to tap into a more present state is to practice vagus nerve breathing before your next conversation, exhaling for twice the duration of your inhale.

Open Heart, Open Mind

Communication is most effective when delivered and received with an open heart—empathetically and compassionately—and an open mind, embracing curiosity and not rushing to judgement.


Cultivating a relaxed environment through body language and tone fosters openness and encourages a receptive dialogue. When you are relaxed, or in an alpha brain state, the person you’re talking to will mirror your actions, emotions, and mental state due to mirror neurons in the brain. Before going into a conversation, try practicing Progressive Muscle Relaxation.

The 5 Stages of Listening

Once you’ve established the Active Listening Essentials, the listening process can then be broken up into five distinct stages: receiving, understanding, remembering, evaluating, and responding. This is the model most commonly referred to when analyzing good communication, because it helps isolate the necessary skills required at each individual step in the process.

1. Did I receive the message, verbally and nonverbally? 

The key at this stage is to pay attention. Focus all of your energy on them, by following these three simple tips:

Avoid distractions.

Multitasking is a huge barrier to good listening. In this day and age, when we are constantly connected to everyone at once, it’s so tempting to allow ourselves to be distracted. You might think you’re good at multitasking, and perhaps you are, but demonstrating a commitment to the act of listening will make you a more respected person and leader.

Don’t interrupt the speaker.

You might want to make an assumption about what the speaker is saying, or what they’re about to say – please don’t. You may find that your assumptions are wrong which ultimately don’t benefit your conversation in anyway and can be considered rude. You can, however, practice nonverbal feedback cue, such as nodding, to demonstrate your attention.

Don’t rehearse your response.

Within this stage, your primary responsibility is to listen. If you start to plan what you will say next while the other person is sharing, you’re going to miss certain points and not be able to respond to their larger message when it’s your turn to talk.

2. Did I understand the Message? 

This is the stage in the listening process where you’re able to plan your response. Understanding takes place after you’ve received the information from the person sharing, and begin to process its meaning.

You can do this by asking questions, or rephrasing parts of what the person shares with you during the conversation. This allows you to demonstrate your active engagement with their words, and help you better understand their key points.

3. Can I remember what they said? 

What good would it do in a conversation if you forgot everything the person had just said? This stage of the listening process might seem very similar to the first two, but it goes beyond absorbing and processing information.

Remembering is about retaining that information, and the most effective way to do so is to move the key elements of a message from your short-term memory, and into your long-term memory.

Here are a couple of methods for doing this:

Identify the main points.

By converting a collection of small details into a theme, you’re able to create something potentially complicated into an easy-to-grasp general concept. The details will remain in your short-term memory, but isolating the main ideas will help you understand them better, and remember them longer.

Make the message familiar.

Relate that main idea to something you already know. This should be easy to do – there aren’t many new ideas out there, and chances are the discussion you’re having will trigger old memories and past experiences. Use those to help you retain incoming information.

4. Can I evaluate the best path? 

It’s at this stage where you can begin to prepare for your response, but remember: you’re still a listener, not a speaker. After the message has been absorbed, processed, and remembered, you can begin to sort the information into pieces.

  • What is fact, and what is opinion?
  • Was the person demonstrating any particular prejudice with their message? 
  • What portions of the message, if any, were exaggerated?
  • What parts of their message were interpreted, and which parts were unbiased? 
  • What was the person’s intent with their message?

After interpreting the person’s message, through a combination of understanding, retention, and evaluation, you’re ready to form a response.

5. How will I respond? 

If you’ve completed the receiving, understanding, remembering, and evaluating portions of the listening process, responding should be easier than ever. You’ll be prepared to address the person’s most important points, with an awareness of the circumstances and context surrounding their words.

It’s important to understand the transition between listening and speaking though, and be aware of the ways responding is still a part of the active listening process.

Don’t complete the person’s sentences.

This is a presumptuous and not the most effective way to segue into your own response during a coaching session. It impedes on the receiving process, and will make the person want to listen to you less.

Address the person’s points.

While each stage seems like a lengthy process, this all happens in a very short amount of time, and should feel natural during a conversation. All you’re doing by practicing these tips is making yourself more conscious of the way you communicate.

Active Listening Tools

Here are additional science-backed tools to support the five stages outlined above. (Bauer & Figl, 2008)

ToolPurposeTo achieve itExamples
ParaphrasingConvey interest
Encourage the speaker to keep talking
Restate the information just received with your own words.“So you showed up at the meeting on time.”
Verbalizing emotionsShow that you understand
Help the speaker to evaluate their own feelings
Reflect the speaker’s basic feelings and emotions in words.“And this made you really angry.”
AskingGet more informationAsk questions.“And after that, John did not react?”
SummarizingReview progress
Pull together important ideas Establish a basis for further discussion
Restate major ideas expressed, including feelings.“These seem to be the key ideas you’ve expressed:”
ClarifyingClarify what is said
Help the speaker see other points of view
Ask questions for vague statements. Restate wrong interpretations to force further explanation.“You said that you reacted immediately. Was this still on the same day?”
EncouragingConvey interest
Encourage the speaker to keep talking
Disagree. Use varying intonations. Offer ideas and suggestions.“Then your manager approached you. How did they behave?”
BalancingGet more information
Help the speaker evaluate their own feelings
Ask questions.“Did you perceive the inconvenience to be worse than not being taken seriously?”
Source: How to Practice Active Listening, Positive Psychology (Bauer & Figl, 2008).

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