Active Listening: Definition, Skills, & Benefits

Active listening is more than ‘hearing’ someone’s words. It means fully attuning to the feelings and views of the speaker, demonstrating unbiased acceptance and validation of their experience (Nelson-Jones, 2014). 

When we practice active listening, we pay attention to what is being communicated both verbally and nonverbally, focussing on the content of the message but also on the interpretation of the emotions conveyed through it and the body language.

In addition, we make an effort to show our understanding of the message, acknowledging the speaker’s internal frame and reflecting back on their emotions (Miller and Rollnick, 2012). 

two women talking at a table, actively listening
Active listening is often referred to as a “soft skill,” as it can promote successful conversations in many contexts – at work, with family, and in social situations. 

Components of Active Listening

The concept has its roots in the formulation of psychologists Rogers and Farson (1987), who describe active listening as an important tool to foster positive change, in both dyadic and client-helper interactions and in group contexts. 

According to their perspective, there are three main components of successful active listening:

  1. Listen for total meaning 

When someone is communicating a message, there are two different layers to pay attention to the content and the feeling or attitude that underlies the content. By attuning to both these aspects, it is possible to fully engage in what a person is saying and accurately understand the meaning of the message. 

  1. Respond to feelings 

After listening, it is essential to respond to the feeling component of the message at the appropriate time. In this way, the speaker feels believed and supported, and an empathetic relationship is established. 

  1. Note all cues 

Nonverbal cues include the person’s facial expressions, eye contact, body posture, and voice tone. Paying attention to these signals can help gain a better understanding of the speaker’s emotional state and level of comfort. 

Overall, by putting in place these principles, it is possible to create a climate of respect and acceptance that provides a sense of psychological security to the speaker.

This, in turn, makes people more aware of the experiences that have been shared in the conversation and open to reflecting on alternative perspectives that can prompt a personal positive change. 

Ultimately, active listening helps build deeper and stronger relationships between the listener and the speaker (Rogers and Farson, 1987).

How to Improve Active Listening Skills

Since active listening requires a set of skills that goes beyond typical social skills used in everyday interactions, it is important to increase awareness of which behaviors can improve the quality of our listening experience, serving the values of empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard (Westland, 2015). 


Restating what a person has said in our own words gives us the opportunity to understand whether we captured their point of view accurately. It also conveys interest in the content of the conversation and prevents potential miscommunications (Garland, 1981). 

For example, what we might say is, “I understand that this X situation has caused Y,” followed by, “Is that correct?”. 

In this way, we encourage the speaker to keep talking and further elaborate on their thoughts.

Receiving active listening paraphrases also creates a greater sense of closeness with the listener and can increase perceptions of social attractiveness, meaning that the target person is more likely to be considered a pleasant member of one’s social circle (Weger, Castle, and Emmett, 2010).

Open-ended questions

Asking closed, “yes or no” questions can block access to the speaker’s internal frame of reference, reducing the amount of information shared and preventing the conversation from flowing.

Instead, open-ended questions do not contain predetermined answers and are, therefore, a more powerful tool for obtaining expansive responses. 

In practice, we can replace the question “Do you think this was the wrong decision?” with “What do you think about this decision?” and “How do you think you could have responded differently?”.

In general, questions starting with “What?”, “How?” and “Why” are less biased and more likely to generate a full answer.

Verbalizing emotions

Although similar to paraphrasing, verbalizing emotions refers less to the content and more to perceiving the feelings expressed by the speaker and reflecting them back (Miller and Rollnick, 2013).

It involves listening for words and phrases manifesting emotional states ranging from fear, lack of self-confidence, and boredom to cheerfulness and excitement. 

For example, if a person says, sighing, “Tomorrow I have got an early shift at work,” we can verbalize their emotions by saying, “You don’t seem to be looking forward to it.” In this way, we encourage the other person to open up and evaluate their own feelings.

cartoon of a man and a woman talking to each other

Verbal affirmations

Showing short, positive expressions of interest demonstrates our engagement in the conversation, motivating the person to keep talking without interruptions (Nelson-Jones, 2014). 

Some affirmations that can act as small incentives are “I understand,” “I see,” and “That makes sense,” often accompanied by expressions of encouragement such as smiling and nodding. 

Verbal affirmations are particularly effective when used in response to content the speaker wants us to pay particular attention to and can increase the other person’s perceptions of being believed and supported. 


Asking for clarification helps to gain a better understanding of concepts that are too vague or unclear. It delivers the positive intent of wanting to learn more rather than making assumptions that are based on our own interpretative structures. 

Clarifying questions can also prompt further reflection and redefinition of ideas that have been shared, helping people to see things from an alternative angle. Some examples of clarifying questions are “What do you mean by this?”, “Can you give me an example?”.


Encouraging the speaker to provide further details on the topic of the conversation demonstrates our willingness to listen and dig deeper (Weger, Castle, and Emmett, 2010).

It facilitates greater openness from the speaker, fostering feelings of safety and acceptance. 

During the narration of a story, we can, for example, ask, “What happened next?” or “How did this make you feel?”.  We may also try to use a different intonation to express our interest or offer verbal prompts to elicit further reflection.  

Non-verbal affirmations

Using positive body language also shows that we are present and willing to follow the conversation (McNaughton et al., 2008). Gently nodding our head, making eye contact, and smiling are simple, supportive cues that help the speaker feel listened to and comfortable. 

Maintaining a still position can also communicate total concentration and focus, and it is, therefore, important to avoid behaviors that manifest our distractibility, such as glancing at our watch, multitasking, or daydreaming.

Awareness of our facial expressions also ensures that we are not conveying any negative or judgemental response.

Waiting to disclose opinions

Patiently waiting to disclose our opinion allows the other person’s train of thought to continue without interruptions.

In addition, it minimizes the risk of the so-called “myside bias,” which is the tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms our opinions (Stanovich, West, and Toplak, 2013). 

If we feel the urge to immediately share our thoughts, we are delivering the message that the speaker’s ideas are less important than ours, and we demonstrate boredom and impatience.

By temporarily suspending our responses, we provide more space for reflection to the speaker, and we can gain a complete picture of their point of view.

What are Some Barriers to Active Listening?

Holding judgments

When practicing active listening, self-monitoring our thoughts can help us refrain from making judgments. Responses containing labeling or criticism can increase the other person’s defensiveness, making the free expression of thoughts more difficult (Robertson, 2005). 

To maintain an open and non-judgemental attitude, we might consider that other people’s ideas are influenced by a variety of contextual factors, including culture, educational background, religious beliefs, and the support system around them (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

With this in mind, it is easier to create a climate of acceptance and use other people’s perspectives as opportunities to enrich our own.

Suggesting solutions

It can sometimes be tempting to suggest solutions to someone who expresses a problem or concern. Although it might seem supportive, it is worth asking ourselves if the person is truly soliciting our advice or if they are just looking for a space to be listened to. 

Jumping to solutions might indicate our discomfort about what the speaker is saying, and it can create an imbalance in power dynamics, discouraging them from coming up with their own solutions (Weiste and Peräkylä, 2014).

Alternatively, we can offer empathetic responses, such as “I understand this is causing frustration,” or reflect the speaker’s emotions.


Interruptions convey the message that we are not interested in what the other person has to say or that we do not have enough time to listen to them. They can also indicate an attempt to dominate the conversation by imposing their own opinion, which might leave the speaker less motivated to disclose deeper and more meaningful content. 

Waiting for natural breaks in the conversation or pausing for a few seconds before speaking are some strategies that can help maintain positive interactions with others (Lunenburg, 2010).

If we find ourselves interrupting, we might also allow the other person to continue speaking by saying, “Sorry for interrupting. Please go on.” 

Diverting the conversation

Changing the subject of the conversation shows that we are rejecting what the speaker is saying and is an indicator of unassertive communication (Weiste and Peräkylä, 2014). If we feel uncomfortable talking about a specific topic, it is more respectful to tell the other person directly and offer an alternative time to discuss. 

Diverting the conversation towards ourselves is also a major listening barrier.

Making statements such as “I had a similar situation when…” or “This is nothing compared to when I…”  will deliver the message that our experience is more relevant, introducing unhelpful comparisons with the speaker.

What are the Benefits of Active Listening?

Practicing active listening can have a positive impact in many areas of life, including personal relationships, social interactions, and work collaborations.

Building trust

When a person feels listened to, it is easier to create a relationship based on trust and loyalty. Especially when someone is dealing with hardships and problems, active listening allows us to showcase compassion, making the other person more comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities (Doell, 2003). 

In the workplace, building trust between team members helps establish healthier working relationships, boosting levels of engagement and sharing of information that is crucial for group development (Roger and Farson, 1957). 

Resolving conflicts

Sometimes, we become so entrenched in our own beliefs that it is difficult to see other people’s perspectives. Active listening gives the opportunity to understand alternative viewpoints and identify possible areas of agreement to move forward toward a resolution (Phillips, 1999).

When neither party is listening, the conversation becomes formulaic, and there is a greater risk of misunderstanding. 

Broadening knowledge

Maintaining a good level of interest in the topic of the conversation can promote understanding and learning of a variety of subjects. In personal interactions, this approach helps incorporate new knowledge and opinions into our perspective, empowering our ability to see things with greater awareness.

In the workplace, it allows us to have a more in-depth approach when trying to assimilate more details about a topic or when planning a strategy for organizational improvement.

Anticipating problems

When we make an effort to understand the speaker’s message correctly, we are in a better position to identify problems that are not immediately evident on the surface and devise a strategy to address them promptly (Phillips, 1999).

This can also limit the chance of errors occurring in the workplace, as we make sure we are not missing important information.

Promoting collaboration and empathy

Using validating words and feedback when listening to others’ experiences allows us to adopt a more empathetic attitude, resulting in greater emotional support and strengthening the quality of our relationships.

It also helps create a positive environment at work by encouraging open communication between colleagues and improving teams’ collaboration skills (Jonsdottir and Kristinsson, 2020).

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between active and passive listening?

While in active listening, the listener pays complete attention to the content of the conversation and responds accordingly, in passive listening, there is no reaction or comment to the information that has been shared. 

A passive listener simply consumes the message without showing interest in the content and neglects the details that allow a full understanding of the speaker’s intention, including nonverbal cues and hidden meanings.

An indication of passive listening is the person not being able to fully absorb the content of the message and recall it in the future.  

How can active listening help to avoid miscommunication?

Miscommunication typically occurs when there is a mismatch between our understanding and the real meaning of the message, increasing the risk of problems and conflicts.

One of the most effective active listening skills that can help avoid miscommunication is restating what the person has said, as it will clarify whether the information has been understood properly, as well as asking relevant follow-up questions. 

In addition, fully engaging in the conversation and avoiding distractions will allow most of our attentional resources to be directed toward the speaker, noticing the nuances of their opinions more accurately.

How can active listening improve a relationship?

Listening is an emotional skill that enables us to be sensitive to what others are saying, prioritizing their expression of thoughts and feelings over ours.

Through active listening, we deliver the message that we want to be there for that person, providing a safe space where they will not be judged, disbelieved, or criticized. 

When we show understanding and the ability to remember information that is relevant to the other person, we can create stronger bonds and healthier relationships based on trust and empathy (Bodie et al., 2015).


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Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Sara Viezzer

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc in Applied Neuropsychology

Sara Viezzer is a graduate of psychological studies at the University of Bristol and Padova. She has worked as an Assistant Psychologist in the NHS for the past two years in neuroscience and health psychology. Sara is presently pursuing a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.