Active Listening How To - 5 easy steps to your best conversation yet (2023)

Work and social discussions don't have to be frustrating time wasters. Active listening isDieSkill number oneto transform them into productive dialogues. In this Active Listening article, I take the process straight back to its basics – what it is and how we can use it in all of our conversations to listen better, in five simple, immediately applicable steps with examples, with examples.

15 minutes read


Article overview

A very simple and effective approach

A definition of active listening

Our ultimate goal - Cognitive Empathy

Step 1. Keep an open mind

Step 2. Listen to the overall meaning

Step 3. Search for more information

Step 4. Give back what you heard

Then ask them to confirm your understanding

Step 5. Use your understanding

An example

Scenario - Identifying customer/stakeholder needs

Put everything together

Summary - Active listening how it's done


A very simple and effective approach

"Active listening" is often used as a nebulous catch-all for anything to do with paying attention to a speaker and their message.

But at its coreActive listeningis a very specific and simple approach that can have a surprisingly transformative impact on most of our verbal interactions: social conversations, sales and business, doctor-patient conversations, negotiations, conflict resolution, coaching and mentoring, etc.

A definition of active listening

(Video) Active Listening Skills

Active listening was originally developed by clinical psychologist Dr. Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago and then developed by his students Richard E. Farson [1] and Dr. Thomas Gordon (later also a respected licensed clinical psychologist). [2] Although the method was developed in the 1940s, the term "active listening" was not coined until the late 1950s.

In short, when a person is speaking to us, the purpose of active listening is to help us appropriately understand the information they are trying to share with us. The idea is that by better understanding the other person's message, we are able to respond in an informed and appropriate manner, avoiding costly misunderstandings.

In a 1957 article, Rogers and Farson described active listening as a collection of things we must do (as opposed to a prescribed process). [1] But if we boil the article down to the nitty gritty, active listening involves five basic steps that help us fully understand a speaker's message:

  1. Keep an open mind and listen without judgement

  2. Listen to the overall meaning of the speaker's message.

  3. Find more information.

  4. Give back to the speaker what you think he said.

  5. Use your understanding.

Ultimate goal: Cognitive empathy with the speaker

First, let's examine the end goal of cognitive empathy and how it plays out in our discussions. Then we'll go through each step and look at practical examples of how to incorporate them into your conversations.

Our ultimate goal - Cognitive Empathy

When we talk about empathy, we tend to think ofexperiencesomeone else's feelings - “I feel your [pain, excitement, sadness, hope, etc].” This is called “emotional empathy.”

However, there is another distinct type called cognitive empathy, also known as "perspective taking." [3]

In the context of listening, cognitive empathy means being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes to see the topic of discussion from their perspective. It's the ability to do itunderstandHowShethink and howShefeel about the topic based onherBackground.

For example, "Ah, I see...after hearing what you've been through, I see your point now."

This perspective is different from assuming howShecould think and feel based on the subjectour ownBackground. For example: "If I were in her place, I would [x, y, z].“

We need to develop cognitive empathy in every discussion we have. That's because nobody's perspective will ever be exactly the same as ours. If we don't develop it, the end result will likely be a misunderstanding or even a disagreement.

However, several obstacles make it difficult for us to properly understand the speaker's perspective:

  • Our own opinions and beliefs on the subject
  • Our inability to imagine how they might feel
  • Preconceived notions about what the other person is thinking and feeling
  • cognitive bias
  • Confusing statements by the speaker
  • Conflicting verbal and non-verbal messages
  • Insufficient information shared by them.

Each step in the process of active listening is designed to help us overcome these obstacles and correctly interpret what the speaker is telling us. That is, the goal of active listening is to help us develop cognitive empathy for the speaker.

I must point out that the process of active listening only develops cognitive empathy. However, it forms the basis for the development of emotional empathy (see step 5 below). That's because we have tounderstanda bit about the person and their situationExperienceher emotions.

Read the following article to delve deeper into cognitive and emotional empathy in the context of listening:Do you want to avoid bad discussions? Listen with empathy

Step 1. Keep an open mind

Empathetic listening requires that we refrain from judgement.

Here are some ways to do this:

  • Keep an open mind and just listen.
  • Choose to temporarily suspend your opinions and feelings on the topic to really hear what the speaker is saying.
  • Let go of your preconceived notions of what you believe and feel about the topic.

I know this is difficult. Everything in us wants to defend our position to the bitter end! But this causes you and I to interpret and distort everything we hear through our own frame of reference.

In the end, we listen to our own ideas and not those of the speaker.

However, listen without judgmentnotmeans having to agree to them.

It just means keeping an open mind long enough to adequately understand the other person's perspective. And if you disagree with something that is said,afterThey have listened to the point where you can empathize with them (i.e. see the issue through their frame of reference),ThenGo ahead and tactfully share why you disagree.

Step 2. Listen to the overall meaning

Whenever someone speaks to us, their message is conveyed in two ways: the literal content of the message and the underlying feelings and attitudes. [1]

Pay particular attention to:

  • Verbal cues.This is key information in the literal content. Look for repeated words and phrases, common themes, assumed background knowledge, very specific statements or requests, omitted information.
  • Nonverbal Cues.Basic feelings and attitudes are expressed through gestures, facial expressions (eg, serious or light-hearted), unusual silence, posture (relaxed or leaning forward), tone of voice, volume (calm, nervous, uplifted), rate of speech, emotions, and others

This verbal and non-verbal information will give you a more complete understanding of the speaker's message.

Here's a fun example from the television sitcom The Big Bang Theory. It emphasizes the importance of paying attention to both the literal content and the underlying attitudes. Amy's tone of voice and various gestures speak a very different message than her literal content! As it should be, Sheldon missesatthe nonverbal cues...

Click here to learn more about how to "Listen to the overall meaning’.

Step 3. Search for more information

Many active listening articles combine “listening for the big picture” and “seeking more information” in a single action. But I prefer to separate them for clarity.

A key action in listening to Total Meaning is to remain calm -just listen carefully- without interrupting your interlocutor so that he can speak freely. But sometimes we have to break that silence to ask questions.

In general, the speaker will start by sharing a little bit of information, provided that it's enough for you to understand - that is, empathize with - their point of view. However, this is usually not enough and we have to look for more information at various points during the discussion.

Anytime you feel the need for more information, don't be afraid to ask questions that will clarify your understanding or encourage the speaker to elaborate further.

Here are some examples.

Example 1 - Clarification

Of:"What exactly did you mean when you said, 'I highly recommend this candidate without any qualifications'?" [6]

Example 2 - Clarification

Speaker:“It was a great meeting last night. All election candidates spoke briefly, much to the delight of voters.”

Of:"Pleased? Because everyone was able to speak? Or because they all spoke briefly?"

Example 3 - Promotion of Elaboration

Speaker:"We have completed the evaluation of the shortlisted software systems and will select System C."

Of:"Interesting. So what are the reasons for choosing System C?"

Example 4 - Reflective feelings

Speaker:"We've completed this design project!" [spoken with a tone of desperation]

Of:"You sound upset. What works?"

Typically, you alternate between listening (Step 2) and asking questions (Step 3) until you understand their message sufficiently from their perspective. Then you can proceed to step 4.

For many more practical tips and examples for finding more information, read this detailed article on Step 3: "Follow-up questions are the secret to meaningful conversations".

(Video) Active Listening

And as a kick start, you get the free download

"10 active listening questions to improve focus and increase listening effectiveness in your very next conversation".

Active Listening How To - 5 easy steps to your best conversation yet (2)

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Step 4. Give back what you heard

Assume beforehand that you will misunderstand the speaker. Even if you listen perfectly, you can interpret their message from your point of view rather than theirs. Furthermore, feelings are notoriously difficult to interpret because our past experiences,cognitive biases and filtersdistort the way we interpret information.

So make it a habit to regularly confirm your understanding of what you hear (the literal content) and observe (the non-verbal cues).

To do this, give the speaker feedback by rephrasing what they are saying to you. For example:

  • "Or so you say ... [Rephrase the speaker's sentences in your own words]? And?"
  • "So let me get that straight for a moment. If you say [ABC] do you think [restate abc based on your understanding of what they said]? Is that right?"

Also reflect the speaker's feelings. Example: "You sound [frustrated]. I guess [you don't want to do that again], hm?” [1]

Then ask them to confirm your understanding

The success of feedback is to ask the speaker to either confirm or correct your understanding. To do this, use a follow-up question like the ones in the examples above: "Yes?", "Is that right?", "...huh?"

When the speaker says I didn't understand them correctly, I find that they usually provide the correct understanding as well. But if they don't, I'll jump back to steps 2 and 3 to seek further clarification and elaboration.

Step 5. Use your understanding

Once you adequately understand the speaker's message from their perspective—i.e. H. have sufficient cognitive empathy – the process of active listening ends. Now it's time to use your understanding in the ongoing dialogue.

How you use this understanding obviously depends on the nature of the discussion. Here are some ways you could move forward:

  • Ask additional questions to develop the discussion further.
  • In social conversations, balancing listening with talking is important to coming across as an interesting person. So give your opinion on the topic of discussion and then stop speaking to see how the other person reacts.
  • In mentoring, you could use your understanding to ask highly specific questions that will more effectively guide the speaker on their journey of self-discovery.
  • In business and sales, this process of active listening has helped you better understand the customer's needs. So now you could offer them some options specifically tailored to the needs they told you about.
  • Sometimes our interlocutor tells us a happy or stressful event. This is often because they hope that we can and will experience their emotions with them. If we listen to better understand their situation, we canempathize with them emotionallyand create the deeper connection they seek.

An example

Scenario - Identifying customer/stakeholder needs

Although this example relates to engineering, active listening can be used anytime you need to capture stakeholder or customer requirements. Or whenever you just want to find out what your loved one really needs.

every time

I'm starting an engineering project. The first step is always to understand the scope and results. Active listening is invaluable for:

  • identify exactly what the client/stakeholder wants to achieve (i.e. project deliverables)
  • Separate critical information from background knowledge
  • Uncovering roadblocks
  • set deadlines
(Video) Active Listening: How To Communicate Effectively

Engineer:So tell me what you want to achieve. [Encourage elaboration]

Client:We need to understand the impact of this generator on the local power system.

Engineer:When you say "impact," what do you need to focus on specifically? [Clarification of a loosely defined word]

Client:Circuit loads, voltage drops and fault currents.

Engineer:M-hm, great. Thanks for that. [Feedback that the client has been heard]

Engineer:But you sound frustrated. Why is this? [reflect feelings]

Client:Several setbacks delayed the project.

Engineer:So I'm hearing my engineering degree needs to be delivered in a compressed time frame. Is that right? [Give feedback and seek validation]

Client:Yes. Is this possible?

Engineer:Perhaps. Let's discuss your priorities. Some studies may not be required. [Use understanding and move into a second cycle of active listening]

Put everything together

Summary - Active listening how it's done

  • Ultimate Goal: Understanding the speaker's message from their perspective (aka cognitive empathy)
  • Step 1. Empathy - Keep an open mind by listening to the speaker without judgement
  • Step 2. Pay attention to their verbal and non-verbal cues to understand the full meaning of their message
  • Step 3. Get more information from them by clarifying them, encouraging them to explain their feelings and reflecting
  • Step 4. Give back what you heard, and then ask them to confirm your understanding
  • Step 5. Use your understanding in the ongoing discussion

Active listening is helpful at every stage of a discussion. We can use it at any time to confirm our understanding of what we are being told:

  • In the beginning when you are trying to keep up with what the speaker is telling you.
  • Throughout the discussion to clarify vague or ambiguous comments.
  • At crucial moments to deepen or broaden the topic of conversation.
  • At the conclusion of the discussion, confirm that everyone involved in the discussion has the same understanding of what was discussed and summarize any key conclusions and actions.

I believe active listening isDieKey competency to get the most out of our discussions.

Persist in using it until each step becomes second nature. It takes some conscious effort to actively listen before the process becomes a habit. But that effort will pay off in a much deeper understanding of what people are sharing with you - meaning a lot fewer frustrating misunderstandings!

Which step will yAre you starting practice this week? Tell us in the comments below. And remember to sign up for weekly listening tips and receive your 6 bonus active listening questions (Click here).


  1. 1

    Rogers, C., Farson, R.E., "Active Listening," Gordon Training Inc.,, excerpt from 1957 article.
  2. 2

    Gordon, Thomas, Ph.D, "Origins of the Gordon Model", Gordon Training Inc.,, Referenced January 2019.
  3. 3

    The definition of empathy is a bit gray. Some researchers divide empathy into different categories. Namely affective (or emotional) empathy, cognitive empathy (aka perspective taking), and somatic empathy. Because studies show that different parts of the brain are used for each form of empathy. However, other researchers have dismissed emotional and cognitive empathy as distinctly separate forms of empathy. Instead, they argue that "true empathy" integrates both. [4] Confusingly, some popular reference works loosely define empathy in terms of feelings. [5] For descriptions of each form
  4. 4

    Thomas, Chris A., "Emotional Empathy and Cognitive Empathy",, 07/19/2013. Thomas has cited: Staub, E. "Commentary on Part 1." In Empathy and Its Development, edited by N. Eisenberg and J. Strayer. 103-15. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  5. 5

    google dictionary,"Empathy", referenced June 22, 2019
  6. 6

    Thornton, Robert, „The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations (L.I.A.R.)“, 2. Aufl.,, 2003.
  7. 7

    Feature Image Credit: Photo byLuke LenzAnUnsplash

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7 Targeted active listening games, exercises and activities for adultsFollow-up questions are the secret to meaningful conversations – Step 3Do you want to avoid bad discussions? Listen with empathyNon-verbal cues help to avoid misunderstandings. Here’s how – step 2

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