‘Active’ Listening

Active listening is wonderfully parodied by the actor Robert Lindsay in ‘The Helping Hand’: “Active listening? How am I supposed to listen ‘actively’? What do you want me to do, waggle my ears?”

Very few people in business would fail to understand ‘active’ listening today. However, active listening is a skill, and done well it is one of the most powerful techniques for developing insight and understanding – for being able to place yourself in the mind of another person. It is a key mechanism for good facilitation of (and participation within) meetings.
As a skill, active listening has a number of different methods by which it can be effected, but many people tend to restrict themselves to a subset of these.
What follows is a series of examples of active listening. It is intended as a prompt for people to review their own approach, and to consider whether it is time that they further developed this skill, perhaps by augmenting their approach with a few of the ideas below:
Paraphrasing, focusing on the speaker’s content – state the essence of what the speaker said in your own words
  • be concise, succinct
  • include only the essential facts and ideas of what the speaker said
  • give the speaker a chance to clarify what is meant until there is a mutual understanding.


Reflecting feelings, focusing on the speaker’s feelings
  • mirror back to the speaker the emotions they are communicating
  • essential part of the listening process, often forgotten
  • identify and summarise the feelings that are being expressed


Use ‘active’ listening when:
  • you get verbal or non-verbal clues that the other person may have a problem or a need which is not being met
  • you genuinely want to help and the time and place are convenient
  • you are not upset or bothered by the person’s problems, cues or clues
  • you feel separate enough from the other person for his or her solution to the problem to be acceptable to you
  • you are able to attend closely to the other person – none of your concerns are so pressing that it will interfere with your concentration on what the other person is saying.


but don’t use ‘active’ listening when:
  • you get no cues or clues
  • you don’t want to help, you don’t care, you’re rushed, you’re busy
  • your own problems are too upsetting and immediate to allow you to focus intently on another’s concerns
  • the other person simply needs information which you have and he does not
  • the person states the problem or feelings so clearly that an attempt to paraphrase would feel redundant and patronising (silence or acknowledgement is better in such cases).


Many people have had the experience of having active listening ‘used on them’ and know how frustrating it is to have someone misinterpret what they said or merely repeat the exact thing they said.  The following list of phrases are helpful ways to rephrase what another has just said and to confirm our own understanding:
  • “From your point of view…
  • “It seems to you…
  • “This is what I think I hear you saying…
  • “As you see it…
  • “What I hear you saying…
  • “Does it sound reasonable that you…
  • “I really hear you saying that…
  • “Could it be that…
  • “I’m not sure if I’m with you but…
  • “Is it possible that…
  • “From where you stand…
  • “Could this be what’s going on, you…
  • “From where I stand you…
  • “I’m picking up that you…
  • “It appears you…
  • “Perhaps you’re following…
  • “I sense that you maybe feel…
  • “Let me see if I understand; you…


Other common listening errors are given below. An example of each type of error is shown as a response to the statement: “I’m pretty upset that the training programme is two days behind schedule.”
over emphasising the intensity of the expressed feelings.
eg   “You’re terribly enraged that the training programme is behind schedule.”
lessening the intensity of the expressed feeling.
eg   “You’re a bit bothered by the fact that the training programme is two days behind schedule.”
generalising or expanding the scope of what the other is expressing.
eg   “You can’t stand the fact that the training is always behind schedule.”
reducing or skipping the pertinent facts expressed by the other.
eg   “You’re pretty upset today.”
anticipating the sender’s next thoughts.
eg   “And so you’d wish to get it back on schedule by the end of the week.’
backtracking or failing to keep pace with the sender’s communication.
eg   “Yes, you said this morning that this wasn’t one of your better days.”
interpreting underlying meaning; psychoanalysing the other.
eg   “You’re just upset because of all the pressure and work at home.”
a near word-for-word repetition of the sender’s communication.
eg   “You’re pretty upset because the training programme is two days behind schedule.”

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