Active listening: Discovery Service

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U.S. Navy Chief Master-at-Arms
Quincy Jackson, left, assigned to
Joint Task Force Guantanamo,
instructs advocate candidates in
active listening techniques By
MC1 Katherine Hofman [Public
domain], via Wikimedia

Active listening. By: Comstock, Nancy W., Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2018
Research Starters
Active listening
Active listening is a communication technique based on the listener providing feedback to the speaker. While hearing is a physical process, listening
requires attention and focus. In addition to acknowledging that the words have been heard, active listening involves reflecting feelings and meanings to
show understanding. Ideally, the listener also pays attention to body language, tone, and other nonverbal clues regarding the speaker’s message.
The concept of active listening began with the humanistic approach of Carl Rogers, an eminent psychologist of the
twentieth century. Rogers, unlike other theorists of his time, believed that therapy should be interactive and focused on
the needs of the client. His book Client Centered Therapy (1951) stresses the importance of the counselor’s listening
skills and empathy toward the client’s needs. Empathetic listening, sensitivity to nonverbal messages, and
acknowledgement of feelings are part of his approach, which has since become an established component of talk
Active listening is a skill that can be learned and practiced. An active listener focuses on what the speaker says, rather
than his or her own thoughts on what has been said. The listener begins by paraphrasing the speaker’s statement to
ensure that it has been correctly heard and understood. In most situations, the listener also must read the speaker’s
feelings and be prepared to reflect them, especially when the speaker is upset or angry. Reflective statements such
as, “Your friend acts as though he doesn’t trust you,” show that the listener’s understanding is accurate. If an
interpretation is wrong, the speaker can correct it.
Part of active listening is paying attention to nonverbal communication. A person who claims interest in going to a children’s concert but sighs, avoids eye
contact, and uses a bored tone is probably just being polite. The same is true of a person who claims to be fine in the midst of personal loss or high stress,
even as the individual paces and shifts gaze from place to place. The body language of the listener is also important; it should convey attention to and
interest in what the speaker is saying.
Active listening is useful in everyday conversations with friends and coworkers to ensure understanding and appropriate response. However, its use in
specialized communications such as counseling services, training, and conflict resolution has been shown to be especially effective.
Use in Counseling
In a counselor-client situation, it is the therapist’s job to listen. Active listening techniques show that the counselor is paying attention and considering the
client’s statements. The counselor avoids interrupting or direct questioning but still must demonstrate interest and a grasp of not only what the client says
but also what the individual means. Body language is an important element in active listening of this kind. Eye contact is essential and leaning forward,
nodding, and presenting a pensive expression also indicate interest and attention.
Reflecting the client’s words or feelings becomes more important as the client expresses emotion. Encouraging the individual to continue without disrupting
the train of thought helps the client to expand on an experience or feeling in a way that helps the counselor understand the reason behind it. In some
instances, when the counselor is not sure what the client’s point is, phrases such as “it seems that you are saying” or “it sounds like” can allow the client to
either agree with or correct the interpretation. In many cases, the client expresses clear emotions, which the counselor may simply mirror. For example, a
client might express hatred for a boss because the boss threw the client’s report into the trash. The counselor would not ask whether the client was afraid of
losing this job or if the report was completed properly. By reflecting the thought back to the client, the therapist opens the door for further explanation. The
client might then add that the boss had forgotten to say the report wasn’t needed after all, yet the boss chastised the client in front of coworkers because
another important project was now behind schedule.
Use in Training
In school, employee training or other classroom situations, active listening promotes understanding and long-term learning. When a group attends a lecture
or presentation, their listening techniques can be adapted to the situation. While they should maintain eye contact with the speaker when possible, in the
context of a large auditorium or hall listeners might instead have to watch closely. Reflecting or summarizing the speaker’s statements is likely to be done on
paper, as notes, rather than as verbal feedback. Asking questions for clarification is more acceptable in a classroom than in counseling, and instructors
usually encourage students to ask for clarification if necessary. However, as with taking notes, students might ask themselves questions about the material
to ensure they understand what has been presented.
Listen Australian Accent
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Teachers often model active listening to encourage their students to use it both in the classroom and in personal relationships. Asking listeners to review the
steps in an assignment, jot down notes and questions, and discuss main ideas helps sharpen classroom listening skills. Trainers, who have a specific topic
or purpose to their presentations, sometimes provide an outline of what is to come, so listeners know when specific subjects will be covered. That way,
listeners can focus on each section and avoid asking questions about topics appearing later in the presentation.
Use in Conflict Resolution
Disagreements are an inevitable part of living or working among others and are not necessarily bad. When ideas and feelings are discussed openly, with or
without anger, problems can be solved and families or groups can gain a better understanding of the needs of other people. Active listening is an important
element in facilitating reasonable discussion in conflict situations.
Many of the same techniques used in counseling apply to conflict. A participant or mediator listens to the concerns and feelings of those involved. Through
reflection and restating the issues, the listener receives additional information and clarifies the speaker’s position. Active listening helps both parties hear
what the other wants from the situation. After both sides have been explored, it is time to discuss possible solutions. Acknowledging and validating each
other’s points and showing respect for their feelings ideally leads to a resolution.
In a situation in which one person is extremely angry, active listening can help defuse emotions and develop a dialog. Active listening avoids blame and
acknowledges the person’s anger. It also allows the emotional person to be heard without resorting to shouting and to feel as though the listener wants to
A 1984 study by Dr. Kurt Hahlweg of the use of active listening in couples therapy found that it was not effective in the majority of cases. John Gottman’s
2000 book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work also criticized the use of active listening in the context of marital strife, citing Hahlweg’s study.
However, Hahlweg’s study itself has been criticized for cherry-picking data, and other studies, such as a 2015 study by Dr. Graham Bodie published in the
Western Journal of Communication, have had results that contradict Hahlweg’s.
Barrett-Lennard, Godfrey T. “Active Listening and Empathy.” Carl Rogers’ Helping System: Journey & Substance. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE
Publishing, 2005. 93-95. Print. Available online at
“Benefits of Teaching Listening.” Learning Through Listening. Learning Ally. 2014. Web. 16 Jan. 2015.
Bernstein, Elizabeth. “How ‘Active Listening’ Makes Both Participants in a Conversation Feel Better.” Wall Street Journal, 12 Jan. 2015, Accessed 28 Oct. 2016.
“Conflict Resolution.” Student Health Center. North Carolina State University. 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2015.
King, Paul E. “Listening.” The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Ed. Wolfgang Donsbach. Vol. 6. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008. 2718-2722.
Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.
Nelson-Jones, Richard. “Paraphrasing and Reflecting Feelings.” Basic Counselling Skills: A Helper’s Manual. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE
Publications, 2012. Print. Available online at
“Strategies for Business Listeners.” Listening Strategy and Skills. Business Listening. 2005. Web. 16 Jan. 2015.‗skills-2.php
“Take a Listening Stance into the Interaction.” Conflict Resolution. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. 2014. Web. 16 Jan. 2015.
“The Tasks of Active Listening.” Conflict Resolution Network. Conflict Resolution Network. 2014. Web. 16 Jan. 2015.
Wallace, Robin. Take Note: An Introduction to Music Through Active Listening. Oxford UP, 2014.
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cases. Content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express written permission. However,
users may print, download, or email articles for individual use. Source: Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2018, 3p
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