Active Listening: A Guide to Empathetic Communication Skills

“Are you even listening to me?” Most of us have probably heard this question while being chastised. However, it begs the question: “Am I really listening?” Every day we listen to music, conversations, to the person we are talking to, TV shows, movies, podcasts, radio, news channels, or the traffic outside our window. But how much of the time we spend listening are we actively listening?

What is active empathetic listening (AEL)?

The term active empathetic listening (AEL) has been trending in recent years, especially in the realm of social support. The actual definition of active listening has evolved since its conception and it can vary across cultures. However, a generally accepted definition is to earnestly listen to the speaker to build trust, provide support, and comprehend what the speaker is talking about (Kourmousi et al., 2018; Spataro et al., 2018; Grohol, 2018; Weger et al., 2010). Weger and colleagues (2010) broke active listening into 3 different facets:

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1. Active listening includes nonverbal cues that express attentiveness and engagement

Head nods, posture, eye contact, and facial expressions fall under this category. Moreso with our friends and family, it can be easy to talk to someone while scrolling on your phone, watching a movie or TV show, or paying attention to something else entirely. Something as simple as maintaining eye contact, having an appropriate expression, or turning your body toward the speaker can indicate you are paying attention to and showing genuine interest in the conversation. 

2. Active listening involves echoing the speaker’s message back to them

Paraphrasing or relaying back what the speaker was talking about shows them you were paying attention and showing interest in what they were saying. For example, someone is talking about how they had to stand in line all day at the DMV. An active listener would say something along the lines of “wow you had to wait at the DMV all day? That must have been incredibly frustrating.” Not only does it show attentiveness, it displays support as well. This aspect is heavily intertwined with the following element

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3. Active listening involves asking questions that allow the speaker to go into more detail 

Focus on how, what, when, where, why questions. Rather than just moving on, it will show the speaker you are truly curious about what they have to say. For example, a friend is talking about their dream job. An active listener might ask questions such as, “that is such an interesting job, what inspired you to pursue it?” “Where do you want to end up working?” Not only does asking questions signal to the speaker that you are invested in the conversation, but it also promotes social support. 

Active listening may seem like a peculiar notion since most of us would characterize ourselves as good listeners. We may even read about these 3 characteristics and think we already do perform these traits in our daily lives. While these 3 components only brush the surface, they are the fundamentals of AEL.

Traits of active listening

So, is paying attention to a conversation the only attribute of active listening? Not at all. In fact, research conducted by Lipetz and colleagues (2020) recruited 192 participants and asked them what traits a good listener should have across 4 different contexts. These contexts were: AEL in relationships, friendships, coworkers/managers, and general conversation. There were a total of 66 common traits that fell into the categories of attention, empathy, and comprehension. These qualities ranged from providing a sense of confidence or giving an amiable response. Lipetz et al. (2020) were able to isolate the most prevailing traits identified as good listening skills and determine their frequencies.

  1. Attentiveness (83.3%)
  2. Understanding (79.1%)
  3. Responsiveness (75.8%)
  4. Alertness (72.3%)
  5. Empathetic (70.8%)
  6. Open-mindedness (66.2%)
  7. Perspective (66.2%)
  8. Reflective (63.3%)
  9. Supportiveness (61.9%)

While being a good listener does call for a high degree of attentiveness, it requires an amalgam of other elements. Some of these traits may seem quite obvious such as responsiveness and attentiveness, however, attributes such as supportiveness and open-mindedness may be less apparent. The importance of these traits may vary depending on the context as well. For example, someone may pay more attention to what their boss is saying versus what their significant other is saying (Lipetz et al., 2020). Many of these traits may appear to be innate, however, they can be learned and practiced. 

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Learning to listen more actively

Now that we are familiar with the concept and traits of AEL, how do we apply it to our everyday lives? AEL is like any other skill, it requires practice and effort. COVID-19 may restrict our AEL practice, however, there are other modes of learning, such as reading or watching examples of AEL. A study by Spataro and colleagues (2018) looked at the listening competency of 108 university students, who were all enrolled in business communications classes. The participants were asked to rate their listening skills before and after watching AEL learning material. These learning materials included articles about AEL, communication styles, and watching videos where AEL was applied.

Participants watched an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, season 2 episode 2 to be exact, where Raymond and his wife face behavioral problems with their daughter. The episode illustrated the couple going to a parenting class where they were taught about active listening. Raymond and his wife demonstrated active listening with their daughter as well as other adults. In both situations, Raymond asked the person to explain how they were feeling about the particular circumstance. Once the person’s feelings were expressed, both parties better understood each other and were able to appropriately move forward.

After the participants had completed all of the learning exercises, they were asked to reevaluate their self-reported listening skills. The researchers saw an average 16% increase in the participants’ listening competency skills. The researchers had three main study objectives: outline distinct characteristics of active listening, identify situations when active listening is applicable, determining ways to continue practicing active listening in the future.

The best way to learn and practice AEL is to apply it in a real-time conversation. However, it can be difficult to practice attentiveness and maintain eye contact during video conference especially when Zoom fatigue sets in. Working on your part as an active listener at work can help avoid communication breakdowns and improve remote collaboration.

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7 Steps to becoming a better listener

Becoming a better and more engaged listener has profound effects on our lives such as strengthening our social relationships and support systems (Manusov et al., 2020; Jones et al., 2019). We are always told to listen, but we are never told how to listen. Grohol (2018) offers some guidance.

1. Give the speaker validation

If someone expresses their emotions or problems to you, acknowledge it. For example, if someone is talking about how they felt during a difficult time, say something along the lines of “this is a hard time you are going through, I really appreciate you opening up to me about it.” Consciously or unconsciously, we all want to feel heard and appreciated, especially when it requires us to be vulnerable.

2. Ask leading questions

These questions typically start a new or an adjacent conversation. Maybe someone brushed over a topic you would like to know more about. For instance, someone is talking about their life in the past few months and briefly mentions they lost a family member before moving on in the conversation. Saying something such as, “you mentioned you lost a family member, that must have been difficult. Would you like to talk about it?” This shows you were paying attention to the speaker and want to provide support. More often than not, people will open up about things when someone else shows a genuine interest in what they have to say.

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3. Do not lecture or patronize the speaker

Unless the speaker is asking for advice, it is better to allow the person to express their thoughts and feelings freely. This builds support and trust in the relationship which allows both parties to speak more openly. Certain times call for a lecture, however, most of the time people just want to let all their thoughts and emotions out. Think of it like dumping a box of crayons. You need to dump them out in order to organize them. 

4. Utilize minimal encouragers

This one is familiar to most people. The occasional head nods, “I understand,” or “mhm” to let the speaker know you are actively listening and engaged in the conversation. When using minimal encouragers, one should keep a few things in mind such as keeping them pithy and positive. Another thing is to not overdo it. Excessive head nodding or “mhms” can be incredibly distracting and it can turn the speaker off. Using minimal encouragers takes practice, and you may find yourself using them more with some people and less with others.

5. Use “I” statements

This advice is quite well-known, especially in relationship advice. The point of “I” statements is to avoid sounding accusatory. “I” statements shift the attention to the topic being discussed and not the person. For example, a friend of yours is telling you they are going on a solo road trip. Instead of saying “that sounds dangerous, you shouldn’t do it,” saying something like “that sounds like an adventure! I am a little concerned about your safety though” comes off more supportive than the first reaction. As mentioned above, try to avoid lecturing or sounding condescending by using “I” statements.

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6. Know when to stop

When talking to someone, especially about a difficult topic, try to notice their body language and behavior. Are they shifting in their seat or seem fidgety? Are they unable to make eye contact? Do they seem flustered or nervous? If they seem uncomfortable talking about the subject at hand, say something like “we do not have to continue talking about this topic if you would like. I don’t want to pressure you to talk about something you do not feel comfortable about.” This will indicate to the person that you are paying attention to not only the conversation, but to them as well. 

7. Reflect back to the speaker

This is similar to the validation and paraphrasing aspect mentioned earlier. Reflecting back involves translating what the speaker said into feelings and emotions. It seems a bit abstract, however, reflecting back can be turned into a formula (Nemec et al., 2017). “You feel x because of y” where x is the emotion and y is the cause. For example, “from what I’m hearing, you feel stressed because you have 4 exams next week.” Whether or not the speaker realizes it, taking the time to interpret and analyze the conversation is vital for providing validation and support. 

There is no shortage of information and advice on how to be a better listener; a simple Google search will bring up hundreds of thousands of results. Improving your listening skills takes time and practice. Try implementing it into your daily routine by taking the time to actually listen to the notes or lyrics of a song or listening to the sounds of traffic pass by your house. Being a better listener requires a level of mindfulness, both of which can be practiced by simply slowing down and paying full attention to the task at hand.

Whether it be the radio on your commute to work, your neighbor’s music, your TV, or the quiet conversations taking place inside a coffee shop, we are exposed to a ceaseless stream of sound. It can be difficult to focus on just one thing, especially when talking to someone. This can get in the way of depth, intimacy, or even basic respect. Learning to listen is one of the many essential skills to building lasting relationships.

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LIFE Intelligence is an innovative app that provides self therapy, coaching, and relationship counseling snippets in a self-guided fashion. The app comprehensively covers the science behind your self, career, and relationship development. Its main program includes 9 core Missions, or topics, covering a range of topics from mental strength to decision-making and goal-setting to emotional management, relationships, conflict resolution, and leadership. 

Missions 6.3-6.5 concentrates on building social support, facilitating social connections, and becoming an active, supportive listener. After working on your listening skills, you can learn more about marriage counseling topics and leadership topics in Missions 7, 8, and 9. Listening is one essential part of a whole toolkit for happy, healthy relationships, but at work and at home. Especially in a pandemic, social support is essential to our well-being. LIFE is here to help you strengthen connections and become a better listener, friend, partner, colleague or boss.

Mason Low
January 22, 2021

Comer, L. B., & Drollinger, T. (1999). Active empathetic listening and selling success: A conceptual framework. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 19(1), 15–29.

Jones, S. M., Bodie, G. D., & Hughes, S. D. (2019). The impact of mindfulness on empathy, active listening, and perceived provisions of emotional support. Communication Research, 46(6), 838–865.

Kourmousi, N., Kounenou, K., Yotsidi, V., Xythali, V., Merakou, K., Barbouni, A., & Koutras, V. (2018). Personal and job factors associated with teachers’ active listening and active empathic listening. Social Sciences, 7(7), 117.

Grohol, J. (2018). Become a better listener: Active listening. Psych Central.

Lipetz, L., Kluger, A. N., & Bodie, G. D. (2020). Listening is listening is listening: employees’ perception of listening as a holistic phenomenon. International Journal of Listening, 34(2), 71-96.

Manusov, V., Stofleth, D., Harvey, J. A., & Crowley, J. P. (2020). Conditions and consequences of listening well for interpersonal relationships: Modeling active-empathic listening, social-emotional skills, trait mindfulness, and relational quality. International Journal of Listening, 34(2), 110-126.

Nemec, P. B., Spagnolo, A. C., & Soydan, A. S. (2017). Can you hear me now? Teaching listening skills. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 40(4), 415–417

Spataro, Sandra E, & Bloch, Janel. (2018). “Can you repeat that?” Teaching active listening in management education. Journal of Management Education, 42(2), 168–198.

Weger Jr, H., Castle, G. R., & Emmett, M. C. (2010). Active listening in peer interviews: The influence of message paraphrasing on perceptions of listening skill. The Intl. Journal of Listening, 24(1), 34-49.

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