Active listening is an intent to "listen for meaning".
When interacting, people often are not listening attentively to one another. They may be distracted, thinking about other things, or thinking about what they are going to say next, (the latter case is particularly true in conflict situations or disagreements).
Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others. It focuses attention on the speaker. Suspending one’s own frame of reference and suspending judgment are important in order to fully attend to the speaker.
It is important to observe the other person's behavior and body language. Having the ability to interpret a person's body language allows the listener to develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker's words. Having heard, the listener may then paraphrase the speaker’s words. It is important to note that the listener is not necessarily agreeing with the speaker—simply stating what was said. In emotionally charged communications, the listener may listen for feelings. Thus, rather than merely repeating what the speaker has said, the active listener might describe the underlying emotion (“you seem to feel angry” or “you seem to feel frustrated, is that because…?”).
Individuals in conflict often contradict one another. This has the effect of denying the validity of the other person’s position. Either party may react defensively, and they may lash out or withdraw. On the other hand, if one finds that the other party understands, an atmosphere of cooperation can be created. This increases the possibility of collaborating and resolving the conflict.
In the book Leader Effectiveness Training, Thomas Gordon states "Active listening is certainly not complex. Listeners need only restate, in their own language, their impression of the expression of the sender. ... Still, learning to do Active Listening well is a rather difficult task..."
Active listening is used in a wide variety of situations, including tutoring, medical workers talking to patients, HIV counseling, helping suicidal persons, management, counseling and journalistic settings. In groups it may aid in reaching consensus. It may also be used in casual conversation to build understanding, though this can be interpreted as condescending.
The benefits of active listening include getting people to open up, avoiding misunderstandings, resolving conflict and building trust. In a medical context, benefits may include increased patient satisfaction, improving cross-cultural communication, improved outcomes, or decreased litigation.
Active listening can be measured by the Active Listening Observation Scale.
Barriers to Active Listening
All elements of communication, including listening, may be affected by a barrier(s) that can impede the flow of conversation between individuals. Some of these barriers include distractions, trigger words, vocabulary, and limited attention span to name a few.
- 1. Hearing, sense of hearing. Obs.
- 2. a. The action or an act of listening; a spell of listening or attentive hearing. Also listen-out (after look-out). Chiefly in phr. on or upon the listen: in the act of listening.
- b. listen-in, a period of listening to a broadcast, telephone conversation, etc. Cf. LISTEN v. 2e.
- 1. a. trans. To hear attentively; to give ear to; to pay attention to (a person speaking or what is said). Now arch. and poet.
- b. With two objects: To hear (something) from (a person). Obs.
- 2. a. intr. To give attention with the ear to some sound or utterance; to make an effort to hear something; to ‘give ear’.
- b. Const. to (unto): to give ear to (= sense 1); also, in extended sense, to give heed to, allow oneself to be persuaded by.
- c. to listen of: to hear tell of. to listen on = listen to. to listen for, after: to be eager or make an effort to catch the sound of; to endeavour to hear or to hear of. to listen out, to listen for a sound, e.g. on a radio receiver.
- d. to listen one's ears (or an ear) to: = b. Obs.
- e. to listen in, to listen to a broadcast programme, etc.; to listen secretly to a telephone conversation. Also const. to, on, and transf.
- f. spec. To listen to a broadcast programme.
- 3. (quasi-trans.) to listen forth, out: to obtain tidings of. (Cf. HEARKEN v. 8.) Obs.
- 4. intr. To sound (in a certain way). Freq. with to = to strike (one) as. U.S.
- 5. g. slang (orig. U.S. Armed Forces'). to listen up, to listen carefully, pay attention. Usu. in imp.
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- Gordon, Thomas (1977). Leader Effectiveness Training. New York: Wyden books. p. 57. ISBN 0-399-12888-3.
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- Reed, Warren H. (1985). Positive listening: learning to hear what people are really saying. New York: F. Watts. ISBN 0-531-09583-5.
- Listening is powerful medicine, National Public Radio, February 2009
- Active Listening International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict: Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA
- Empathic listening skills How to listen so others will feel heard, or listening first aid (University of California). Download a one hour seminar on empathic listening and attending skills.
- Exercise 4 — Active Listening, Center for Rural Studies, University of Vermont, Montpelier
- What is active listening?
- Active listening: A communication tool
- Homepage of the International Listening Association The professional organization whose members are dedicated to learning more about the impact that listening has on all human activity
- Better communication through better listening Eight barriers to effective listening