What is Active Listening?

Active listening may seem simple, but in such a hyper-connected and hyper-stimulated world, it's difficult to apply it. In this article, we'll give you the keys to put it into practice!
What is Active Listening?

Last update: 18 February, 2021

Active listening is a very useful communication strategy in certain contexts. As its name suggests, it’s a type of interaction in which we actively listen – and not only hear – whoever we’re conversing with, providing verbal and non-verbal feedback.

In this way, the other person understands that we’re really paying attention to what they’re saying. It also helps us to maintain a much closer, empathetic, and nuanced dialogue. This occurs especially between two people or in a very small group, as an essential part of active listening is dialogue.

Therefore, it’ll be a type of conversation that might occur between a therapist and their patient, a couple, two good friends, or between close co-workers.

On the other hand, if, for example, you attend a conference that interests you, it’d be more appropriate to say that you listen attentively rather than actively. That’s because the presentation or presentations will be unidirectional.

The characteristics of active listening

A couple having a dialogue at a table while drinking coffee.
People who practice active listening have a predisposition for dialogue, are attentive, have good emotional intelligence, and possess many other qualities.

Although we all have a particular way of communicating, people who practice active listening usually share a series of characteristics. Most importantly, they:

  • Show a good predisposition for dialogue
  • Know how to maintain sustained attention over time
  • Are curious about what their counterpart is explaining
  • Usually have a good emotional intelligence
  • Show a friendly and approachable attitude
  • Are aware of the other person’s vision of the world
  • Their way of speaking is respectful
  • They know how to reflect in their words how the other person feels
  • They accept the opinions of others even if they disagree
  • If they don’t understand something, they ask the other party to resolve their doubts

Obstacles to effective active listening

In contrast, some actions make it difficult for us to be good listeners. In fact, they’re often such a part of our way of behaving that we don’t even realize that we use them. Some of them are:

  • Interrupting our counterpart’s speech
  • Pretending to listen when we’re actually thinking about other things
  • Downplaying the importance of what the other party’s explaining
  • Paying attention to different stimuli at the same time and reducing the attention we pay to the conversation
  • Thinking more about our response than about listening to what the other person’s saying
  • Giving your opinion without knowing if the other person wants to hear it
  • Judging the other person’s ideas
  • Disqualifying the other person for thinking differently
  • Offering advice when no one’s asked for it
  • Explaining our own story instead of listening to the other person

Strategies for improving active listening

Active listening is a skill that we can all develop, it’s just a matter of practice. Therefore, we can use some of the following strategies to further master the art of communication.

Show empathy

Empathy is key to strengthening the bond with the people you’re talking with. Likewise, showing them that we understand how they feel will help them feel less judged and freer to speak.

Two people facing one another and holding hands as they speak.
Empathy allows us to strengthen the bond with the other person, as it lets them know that we understand what they feel and that they’re free to speak.

Appropriate use of non-verbal language

Connecting with your gaze, nodding our head, and maintaining a receptive posture and an appropriate body distance in which your counterpart feels comfortable, will make it easier for the other person to perceive your attention.

Giving verbal signals of listening

Emitting expressions of agreement – aha, yes, already, of course, etc. – and a receptive tone of voice are strategies to indicate to the other person that we’re really listening to them.

Asking open-ended questions

Instead of asking closed questions – for example, Are you okay? Is something wrong? – use more what, why, which, when, or how questions, to make it easier for the other person to explain more details of their situation.

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing means to express in your own words what the other person has just explained to you. In doing so, you show them that you’re attentive and that you’ve understood their message.

A couple conversing at their dining room table.
When you paraphrase what the other person says, in a way we demonstrate that you’re interested in the conversation and that you’ve understood what they want to tell you.

Respect silence

Some people are uncomfortable with the silences that naturally occur in a conversation, but these allow us to show that we respect the other person’s rhythm.

So, before considering yourself an excellent converser, it would be helpful to do some self-criticism, because it’s extremely common to make mistakes in our communication. The important thing is to know how to detect them and be willing to put new skills into practice.

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