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Active Listening

Connect with a partner through empathy and understanding.

Duration: 10 mins Frequency: 1x/week Difficulty: Intensive

Time Required

At least 10 minutes. Try to make time for this practice at least once per week.

How to Do It

Find a quiet place where you can talk with a conversation partner without interruption or distraction. Invite this person to share what’s on their mind. As they do so, try to follow the steps below. You don’t need to cover every step, but the more you do cover, the more effective this practice is likely to be.

  1. Paraphrase. Once the other person has finished expressing a thought, try to paraphrase what they said to make sure you understand and to show that you are paying attention. Helpful ways to paraphrase include “What I hear you saying is…,” “It sounds like…,” and “If I understand you right….”
  2. Ask questions. When appropriate, ask questions to encourage the other person to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings. Try to avoid jumping to conclusions about what the other person means. Instead, ask questions to clarify their meaning, such as, “When you say_____, do you mean_____?” 
  3. Express empathy. If the other person voices negative feelings, strive to validate these feelings rather than questioning or defending against them. For example, if the speaker expresses frustration, try to consider why they feel that way, regardless of whether you think that feeling is justified or whether you would feel that way yourself were you in that person's position. You might respond, “I can sense that you’re feeling frustrated,” and even “I can understand how that situation could cause frustration.”
  4. Use engaged body language. You can show that you are engaged and interested by making eye contact, nodding, facing the other person, and maintaining an open and relaxed body posture. Try to avoid attending to distractions in your environment or checking your phone. Be mindful of your facial expressions: Avoid expressions that might communicate disapproval or disgust.
  5. Avoid judgment. Your goal is to understand the other person’s perspective and accept it for what it is, even if you disagree with it. Try not to interrupt with counter-arguments or mentally prepare a rebuttal while the other person is speaking.
  6. Avoid giving advice. Problem-solving is likely to be more effective after both conversation partners understand one another’s perspective and feel heard. Moving too quickly into advice-giving can be counterproductive. 
  7. Take turns. After the other person has had a chance to speak and you have engaged in the active listening steps above, ask if it’s okay for you to share your perspective. When sharing your perspective, express yourself as clearly as possible using “I” statements (e.g., “I feel overwhelmed when you don’t help out around the house.”). It may also be helpful, when relevant, to express empathy for the other person’s perspective (e.g., “I know you’ve been very busy lately and don’t mean to leave me hanging.”).

Why You Should Try It

Often we’ll listen to a conversation partner without really hearing them. In the process, we miss opportunities to connect with that person—and even risk making them feel neglected, disrespected, and resentful.

This exercise helps you express active interest in what the other person has to say and make them feel heard—a way to foster empathy and connection. This technique is especially well-suited for difficult conversations (such as arguments with a romantic partner) and for expressing support. It may also help facilitate constructive conversations across political, cultural, or other differences; however, studies have found that, when there's a power imbalance between people of different groups, it's more important for the person with less social power to give their perspective while the person with more social power listens and tries to take their perspective. Research suggests that using this technique can help others feel more understood and improve relationship satisfaction.

Why It Works

Active listening helps listeners better understand others’ perspectives and helps speakers feel more understood and less threatened. This technique can prevent miscommunication and spare hurt feelings on both sides. By improving communication and preventing arguments from escalating, active listening can make relationships more enduring and satisfying. Practicing active listening with someone close to you can also help you listen better when interacting with other people in your life, such as friends or co-workers.

Evidence That It Works

Weger, H., Castle Bell, G., Minei, E. M., & Robinson, M. C. (2014). The relative effectiveness of active listening in initial interactionsInternational Journal of Listening, 28(1), 13-31.

A group of mostly young, white, female college students had brief conversations (about their biggest disappointment with their university) with someone trained to engage in Active Listening, someone who gave them advice, or someone who gave simple acknowledgments of their point of view. People who received Active Listening reported feeling more understood at the end of the conversation.

Bruneau, E. G., & Saxe, R. (2012). The power of being heard: The benefits of ‘perspective-giving’ in the context of intergroup conflict. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 855-866.

One study paired Mexican immigrants with white Americans, while another paired Israelis with Palestinians. In both studies, each member of the pair was asked to share their perspectives on the difficulties of life in their society, and to take the perspective of the other person when they were sharing their views. This dialogue significantly improved participants’ attitudes toward the other group—for instance, they felt greater empathy for their suffering, trusted their intentions more, and felt more warmly toward the group as a whole. However, for members of the pair with less social power (Mexican immigrants and Palestinians), attitudes toward the other group improved more after they gave their perspective than after they took the other person’s perspective.

Who Has Tried The Practice?

Additional research has engaged members of other groups:

  • Straight couples in Switzerland who practiced Active Listening for 16 minutes felt more satisfied with their relationships and used healthier coping behaviors during their conversations.
  • Japanese office workers with supervisors who used Active Listening felt less stressed, more supported, and more in control at work than workers with supervisors who did not use the practice as often. However, Active Listening benefitted younger males more than their older or female coworkers.
  • Incarcerated adolescents in San Francisco who practiced Active Listening as part of a 10-week mindfulness program felt less stressed and improved in self-regulating their emotions.

More research is needed to explore whether, and how, the impact of this practice extends to other groups and cultures.

Keep in Mind

For people with less social power, it is sometimes more important and beneficial to share your perspective than to listen to people with more power. In a study that examined discussions between pairs of ethnic minority people and white people, white partners benefitted more from empathic listening than their minority counterparts. No matter the ethnicity of their partner, white partners improved in their ability to focus, while partners of color worsened in their ability to focus and Black partners reported feelings of disempowerment, when listening.

Sources

Instructions adapted from: Markman, H., Stanley, S., & Blumberg, S.L. (1994). Fighting for your marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

References

Himelstein, S., Hastings, A., Shapiro, S., & Heery, M. (2012). Mindfulness training for self-regulation and stress with incarcerated youth: A pilot study. Probation Journal, 59(2), 151–165.

Kuhn, R., Bradbury, T. N., Nussbeck, F. W., & Bodenmann, G. (2018). The power of listening: Lending an ear to the partner during dyadic coping conversations. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(6), 762–772.

Mineyama, S., Tsutsumi, A., Takao, S., Nishiuchi, K., & Kawakami, N. (2007). Supervisors' attitudes and skills for active listening with regard to working conditions and psychological stress reactions among subordinate workers. Journal of Occupational Health, 49(2), 81–87.

Vorauer, J. D., & Quesnel, M. S. (2018). Empathy by dominant versus minority group members in intergroup interaction: Do dominant group members always come out on top? Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 21(4), 549–567.

Quick Description

Active Listening involves approaching a conversation with a genuine desire to understand the other person’s feelings and perspective, without judgment or defensiveness. When you engage in Active Listening, you tune into what your conversation partner is communicating with their words and body language. How well do you feel and understand what others are feeling? Take the Empathy quiz to find out. 

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