Active Listening – How to do it

Tell me about it

Please Listen

When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving me advice, you have not done what I asked.

When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings.

When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you must do something to solve my problem, you have failed me, strange as that may seem.

Listen! All I ask is that you listen. Don’t talk or do anything. Just listen.

Advice is cheap; 20 cents will get you both Dear Abby and Billy Graham in the same newspaper.

And I can do things for myself; I am not helpless. Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.

When you do something for me that I can and need to do for myself, you contribute to my fear and inadequacy. But when you accept as a simple fact that I feel what I feel, no matter how irrational, then I can stop trying to convince you and get about this business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling. And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious, and I don’t need advice.

Irrational feelings make sense when we understand what’s behind them. Perhaps that’s why prayer works, sometimes, for some people – because God is silent, and He doesn’t give advice or try to fix things. God just listens and lets you work it out for yourself.

So please listen, and just hear me. And if you want to talk, wait a minute for your turn – and I will listen to you. ~ Author Unknown

What is Listening?

  1. Listening is not so much about technique. It is about deciding to be interested and to have concern.
  2. Listening is an indication of self-confidence. We don’t listen when we fear that we may change our opinion or attitude.

Listening happens only when

  1. You have respect for the person and or his/ her ideas.
  2. When you slow down your own reaction and give full attention to the speaker.
  3. When you feel you have something to gain from listening.
  4. When there is a willingness to change.
  5. When what is being said sounds fair, in your frame of reference
  6. When you are aware of your feelings and are skilled in dealing with them.

Active Listening-Paraphrasing

  1. Paraphrasing is a response tool to verify your understanding that the speaker has been understood the way s/he wants to be.
  2. It focuses on the content and involves integrating what you think the speaker said and then getting verification that your understanding was correct.

How to Paraphrase

  1. Let the other person finish speaking.
  2. State what you think they said as you understood it.
  3. If the speaker confirms your understanding, continue the conversation.
  4. If the speaker corrects you, don’t argue. Remember that his/her version is the correct one.

Active listening happens when:

  1. You share your understanding with the speaker.
  2. When you remember exactly what was said.
  3. When you verify the interpretations, you make about what is being said.
  4. When you verify the assumptions, you are making about the speaker.

Active Listening

There are 4 steps to Active Listening. Each involves a separate skill. It is important to be proficient in all and use them consciously.


As with everything, it begins with the intention. In this case the conscious intention to listen. Ask yourself: Do I need to listen? Do I want to listen? If the answer is, “No” to either question, do yourself and the other guy a favor; tell them politely that you are not the best person for them to talk to. Or that this is not the best time. Fix another time, which is more convenient, or suggest someone else they could talk to. Remember to do this with concern and not to ‘get them off your back’. Believe me, this is far less painful and more positive than going through the motions of listening when you believe that you either don’t need to or don’t want to.


Now, this consists of both a mental focus and a physical signaling of it. It means that you stop doing whatever you were doing, ensure that there will not be any disturbance, lean slightly forward, look interested and friendly and make eye contact. Take notes after asking permission to do so, for you to remember what is said.  It is very distracting for the speaker to see you scribbling on a pad as they are talking and can lead to misunderstandings. On the other hand, if you don’t take notes and the matter is unfamiliar, you may lose track or not retain data, which is also negative.  So, to take notes is a good strategy. Taking notes also indicates that you are interested in the individual and in the meeting. It is a good thing to agree on a time frame for the meeting. But remember to do this with sensitivity and concern. Ask instead of stating. Ask, ‘Can we?’ Not, ‘Let’s do this.’

Check for Understanding

This is a critically important step which because it takes time and seems cumbersome, most people don’t do. We have no way of letting the other person know that we have understood them in the way they want us to unless we stop from time to time and do a process check. This is called ‘Paraphrasing’ and involves your restating what the speaker has aid in the way you understand it. “I understand you to be saying that unless I stop and share my understanding with the speaker, she will not be able to tell whether I have understood her in the way she wants me to or not. Is this correct?”

See what I mean by cumbersome? But believe me, if there was a shorter and easier way that I knew I would tell you. Paraphrasing does some other good things: It gives the speaker a pause to take a breath. It builds trust between you, as she now feels ‘understood’. And you can demonstrate your commitment to the meeting by showing that you are all attention.  


There is usually some confusion about this. To support does not mean to agree or accept what is being said. It means merely to create a supportive environment where the person feels valued and accepted, and not judged or evaluated and found wanting. Supporting behavior consists of making the person comfortable. If you sit behind a large desk, come out from behind it. Depending on the nature of the conversation, it may even be a good idea to find a ‘neutral’ place to have your meeting, where you will not be disturbed, and which is not ‘your turf’ as it were. Pay attention and ask questions that will lead the speaker to think of things they may not have thought of earlier. You don’t need to push. It is counter-productive to push. Just ensure that you are giving the impression that you are ‘all there’ and are happy, willing, and able to listen.

Usually such questions would begin with, “Have you considered………………?” or “What about…………………?” Be sure that your questions are always open ended, non-judgmental and without your own agenda in them.  If you are doing it right, you will see the speaker become more at ease and open-up further. If you see the speaker starting to become defensive or justifying what she is saying, you can usually be sure that she is picking up your ‘opinion’ and is trying to ‘correct’ for it. In that case, back off and correct yourself first.

Any time you get the feeling that you know precisely what this person’s problem is and what its solution is, remember that most people know what to do. They are only looking for support to help them face the decisions that they know they should take. They are not looking for answers. They know the answers, and, in any case, nobody commits to an answer that is from the ‘outside’. The only way that you will get them to do what they should, is to let them come to that conclusion on their own. And this is true no matter how painful the process may seem to be.



Past experience: Your experience with that person or with a similar situation can color your listening and make it ineffective. We call it ‘Selective Data Gathering’ and it is something to look out for. It is how our opinions, especially prejudice, colors our communication because we operate from assumptions instead of real-time, here, and now data. Selective Data Gathering is very powerful because it is unconscious. We must ask ourselves, ‘What are my assumptions about this person?’ And then clarify our assumptions. Most of us operate with labels; Manager, union leader, communist, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Christian, child, old fogie, whatever. Each of these labels comes with whatever is in that package taken from our life where we collect what happens with an individual and put it into a package labeled not with his/her name, but with their group as we see it. So, it is not about Cohen or Ahmad. It is about Jews and Muslims. The fact is that I know people with Jewish and Muslim names who are atheists and totally secular, even anti-religion. Labels create prejudice.

“Dialogue of the deaf”: When two people are so intent on making their own points that they don’t bother to listen to what the other is saying.

Familiarity: When you think you know someone so well that you “know what he or she is going to say.” Until you wipe the egg off your face.

Attention Span: People have short attention spans, especially in stressful situations. Usually, it is 30 seconds and if you go on beyond that they will tune out. The same thing can happen to you so watch for it.

“Skimming”- Selective Hearing: When some ‘trigger words’ set off a bunch of feelings or memories and you react to them and jump to conclusions instead of listening to whatever is being said in entirety in the here and now. This can be very powerful because some things from our past are so traumatic that they trigger anger, grief, even hatred. But remember that all that is really for whoever was in your past with whom you have or had a history. It has nothing to do with whoever you are speaking to now. In your conversation, be on the lookout for trigger words and the reactions they are likely to trigger and consciously stop that reaction. Remind yourself that the person you are speaking to has nothing to do with whatever happened in your past. Stay with the present.

Active listening can and should be used in every significant communication, especially in potentially conflictful, stressful, controversial, adversarial, and sensitive situations. These may include but are not restricted to, management-union negotiations, conflict resolution, arbitration, reconciliation, communication between spouses, parents and children, manager-subordinate, especially while giving critical feedback, physician-patient, especially when giving news about critical, even terminal illness and many more.

I have used active listening in management union negotiations with militant communist unions with great success. On many occasions, I have found and so will you, that when you actively listen to the other, you will realize that you have much more in common and much less that you disagree with. That opens the doors for successful conflict resolution because it narrows the areas of disagreement. You can then approach the issue from, ‘We have so much in common so I am sure we can resolve this one matter satisfactorily.” Active listening is especially effective with children and the bridge across the generation gap. Active listening lets you be the student and allows your child open for you, a door into their world.

Active listening is a real expression of respect for the other and builds trust and you will find, when you listen actively that you build better relationships, and open the doors of understanding because you get insights into the life and thinking of the other person, and you can resolve conflicts in situations which may have seemed hopeless.

5 1 vote
Article Rating

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
V J Rao

Dear Yawar, Such a provocative, useful and practical write up. It comes from your huge experience and insights. Thanks a ton.

M Zait

Very amazing read! Thank you for this informative and inspirational article, a lot can be learned from it.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x