“Every experience is open to countless readings and interpretations. We never see a thing completely. In sure anticipation, our eyes have always already altered what awaits our gaze. The search for truth is difficult and uncomfortable.”John O’Donohue, Beauty
Active listening is a critical skill for the health of any relationship. Active listening involves observing what verbal and nonverbal communication is being sent. The goal is to help the speaker tell their story. With attention, curiosity, and empathy, the listener conveys mutual understanding and validates their perspective.
Active listening helps to build trust, connection, and perspective. It strengthens values that are often ignored when individuals are in conflict: caring, patience, and imagination. It can lead to transformative change for both the listener and the speaker.
This article will focus on listening to others. To learn the complementary practice of listening to oneself, see my article How to Build Self-Awareness. To learn to listen to one’s inner characters for purposes of trauma healing, see We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind.
Here we will learn to build effective communication skills set the groundwork for having difficult conversations at home, at work, and elsewhere. Ultimately the goal of any conversation is understanding. Conflict resolution doesn’t occur without it. Active listening is one key piece that builds to understanding. The second half of having a difficult conversation is asserting one’s own feelings and perspective; see Telling Your Story.
This Article Contains:
What is empathy?
Active listening builds genuine caring, otherwise known as empathy. See the video below which describes the difference between empathy and less genuine forms of caring.
The ladder process of active listing: 6 key aspects
There is a ladder process to listening. This involves hearing, piecing together a story, feeling the other person, understanding what they have to say, and finally validation.
- Set the stage for listening
- Hearing (the words).
- Piecing together the facts into a story.
- Feeling what the speaker feels emotionally as you travel through the story. Being present with them.
- Understanding the choices the speaker made during the story (and imagining yourself make similar choices in similar circumstances).
- Validating their feelings and perspective
This six-step process is not easily done. There are many potential missteps along the way. Even knowing the skills, it may take years to really master them. Next, we will break down this process into 3 parts: Prologue, Storytelling, and Conclusion.
Part 1: Prologue – setting the conditions for active listening in 11 steps
“Our culture has little respect for privacy; we no longer recognize the sacred zone around each person. We feel we have a right to blunder unannounced into any area we wish. Because we have lost reverence of approach, we should not be too surprised at the lack of quality and beauty in our experience.”John O’Donohue, Beauty
Active listening is about one person telling a story, and the other person becoming immersed in that story. Like all stories, we need to first set the stage. Here are eleven key steps to setting the stage.
- Look inward first to find calm. Before we begin, we need to first do a personal self-check. Where are we right now? What emotional baggage are we bringing to the table? What agenda are we bringing? How emotionally reactive are we at this moment? Ideally, we would come into the conversation with a place of inner calm. To explore self-awareness, see How to build self-awareness.
- Be genuine. Even if we can find calm, we need to recognize our own thoughts, emotions, and our own story related to the subject. Recognize how much energy we have available to share with the other person right now. Recognize that we may not have as much energy to give as they are expecting to receive. Be up front about this. “I have 30 minutes to talk about this. We don’t have to finish in that time, but wherever we’re at we’ll need to pause at that time. We can always come back.” Call out negative emotions, “I’m feeling defensive when you say…” Self-monitor for your own thoughts and judgments that may come up. Recognize your mixed feelings on the subject. Do we have the energy right now to give our speaker undivided attention?
- Create psychological safety. Honest conversations cannot happen when one person feels like they are trapped in an interrogation cell. Start by finding an appropriate time and place for your conversation. Make sure everyone involved has enough energy to have the conversation. Make sure everyone is feeling safe. Nothing that is said should have repercussions afterwards. No one should be walking on eggshells for fear of being punished for saying the wrong thing.
- Establish, from the outset, unconditional positive regard. Acceptance and connection are key. Even if the personal connection between speaker and listener is frayed somewhat, work to establish the connection that still exists. That connection will be our foundation upon which the conversation can be built. Make clear that no matter what is said, we can always go back to that foundation and trust it will still be intact. We will not allow what is said to threaten that preexisting foundation. Both speaker and listener will check-in periodically to ensure that as the conversation flows, this unconditional positive regard has not suffered. If it does, we will agree to take breaks to recharge.
- Set out clear goals for the conversation. Now is the time for the listener to quickly and concisely be clear about the purpose of the conversation. “I don’t feel good about what happened yesterday. I’m hoping to learn more about your perspective…” The goals may require some negotiation. “I would like to learn more about how things are going with you at work right now. I know that you also want to talk about my mother, but let’s agree to hold that conversation for now…”
- Acknowledge preexisting feelings, including distrust and disconnection. If the purpose is to resolve a previous disagreement, be clear about what negative feelings that disagreement has generated in the past. we will use those feelings as energy to drive our resolve towards understanding. However, once we get started with the process of listening, those negative feelings that we have will need be put aside. We are only going to acknowledge and label those feelings at this stage. We are not going to justify or explain them. There will be time for telling our story later.
- Ask permission. Ask if the speaker is willing to talk. Let them know exactly what we’re hoping to learn from them. If there is preexisting distrust, the speaker may only intend to share parts of their story. Make clear that we are OK with that. As trust builds, they are likely to open up more.
- Find compassion. Sometimes two people get stuck in a difficult situation. This becomes a type of trap or negative cycle. Recognize that no one person is to blame for the negative cycle, but that everyone has become unwittingly trapped. We must have compassion for each participant. No one wants to be trapped. Compassion is the key first step. We care about the person, the speaker. We are not afraid of what they have to say.
- Pause our own thoughts, feelings and storytelling. Our story must be set aside for now. For effective listening to occur, we must completely pause, in our mind, our own version of events. Right now, they do not exist. We have dissociated from them. We will revisit them later. We have no agenda right now except to put on the shoes of the speaker. Our preexisting feelings and thoughts must be suspended.
- Extend benefit of the doubt (extend unearned trust). If we’re having this conversation because of a prior conflict, resolving that conflict requires both sides to extend some measure of trust that didn’t exist before. We must find some trust–generosity of spirit–within ourselves that we can extend to the other person, whether we regard that trust to be earned or not. We must have faith that their actions, whether we believe them to be good or bad, were the result of some legitimate purpose that we can eventually find common cause with. We don’t have to agree in the end. The purpose isn’t agreement, it is understanding. Trust is the glue that will hold the conversation together. Without it, we shouldn’t expect a positive result.
- Exercise humility. No one person has the answer. Everyone will need to work together to answer critical questions and resolve the issue at hand.
Part 2 of Active Listening: Storytelling – 22 key points to remember when listening to someone’s story
“A great journey needs plenty of time. It should not be rushed.”John O’Donohue, Beauty
Now is the time to dive into the story. We will do this primarily by asking open-ended questions and giving space for the speaker to answer. The quality of the conversation will be determined by the quality of questions that we ask. Here the speaker will build their narrative. They may not always follow a linear timeline. We will use our skills to piece together their feelings, facts, motives, and observations. Along the way, we will convey interest by demonstrating understanding and validating their perspective.
- Find your curiosity. We begin to ask difficult questions. What is the speaker feeling? Why are they feeling this way? Where did these feelings come from?
- Ask open-ended questions that leave room for a narrative response rather than closed questions that forcing a yes-no response. Yes-no questions are agenda-driven questions that pressure the speaker into conforming to the questioner’s agenda. Yes-no questions undermine the complex experience of the speaker.
- Be brave. As the listener, it takes courage to find our own vulnerabilities. Our speaker is sharing their vulnerability with us. To truly hear them, we need to be equally vulnerable. They are opening up to us, and in turn we must reciprocate by opening up to receive what they have to say.
- Give encouraging verbal cues. Use small replies like: “Yes, I see,” “Mmhmm,” “I get it,” “I hear you,” “Right,” “So…” “Oh?” These are done to encourage and covey interest. They are used alongside gestures and expressions, such as smiling or nodding. Practice this. This begins the process of making the speaker feel validated.
- Their truth. Their perspective. What is being said is a type of truth that belongs to the speaker. It is not The Truth–the final word on the subject. But it is a truth. Avoid dismissing it. Avoid looking for cracks and plot holes. The thoughts and feelings being expressed must be believed, supported, and respected. They should not be challenged. Avoid logical arguing. Avoid diverting the conversation away from uncomfortable topics, unless we had already agreed not to discuss those topics at this time.
- Withhold judgments. As we listen, our own stories will try to seep in. Our preexisting beliefs and feelings are like pesky critters trying to find their way back into the forefront of our thoughts. They may manifest through analysis and judgment. They undermine our ability to be present with the speaker. We must actively work to avoid this. Avoid criticism, blaming, threatening, directing, lecturing, shaming, analyzing, interrogating, humoring, and distracting. Doing any of these things undermines psychological safety for the speaker.
- Logical analysis should only be done for the expressed purpose of understanding the speaker’s story. Our goal is to gather the facts as the speaker sees them. This is critical. Here we should recreate the speaker’s timeline. We will immerse ourselves in the speaker’s story. Part of doing so is understanding the facts, timeline, and logical thinking that are part of the story. We will probe with curiosity and caring as our instruments. We will avoid allowing our own preexisting negative feelings to drive our analysis.
- Do not interrogate the speaker. Interrogation is pressuring. We are not pressuring the speaker into doing anything. Instead, we are letting them come to us with honest narration. There are two types of interrogation to be mindful of. The first is bending the speaker’s story in a particular direction (towards agreeing with us or being congruent with our story). The second is pressuring the speaker to divulge information prior to them being ready. The speaker must feel safe before they can give up deeper, more intimate parts of their story.
- Recognize the speaker’s emotions. Respond to them. Label and call them out in a curious, caring way. This will help the speaker know that we are truly listening and remaining engaged. Keep in mind that this is our impression of their feelings. Leave plenty of room for their feelings to be different or more complex than what we are observing.
- Be sure not to diagnose their problem or stamp a definitive label on it. Labeling at this stage is still phrased as a curious question meant to clarify what they are actually feeling and close any knowledge gaps. We are filling in the gaps of your ignorance, not trying to bend their feelings in a particular direction. In other words, labeling an emotion is offering a hypothesis to be tested. The speaker will help correct or clarify the hypothesis.
- Remember also that by labeling an emotion, we are shaping it. We are defining it through language, which does in fact change the emotion. This is another reason why we must be careful to exercise curiosity and respect at this stage for what they might be feeling. Ultimately the speaker will pick the words that best describe what they are feeling. The speaker may discard other labels that we offer.
- Share new feelings generated by their story with care and intention. We have already put our preexisting feelings aside. Yet, there is an experience to hearing someone else’s story. New feelings are like new plants growing in the wild. We may acknowledge them as they began to grow and take shape. Likely they will be similar to but slightly different from the feelings the speaker has. These differences in feelings and experience may be OK to share. We need to be intentional about sharing them.
- Some of our feelings may exist harmoniously with the speaker’s feelings. These may be OK to share in small doses. Watch for feedback from the speaker to see if they are feeling validated by our sharing.
- Some of our feelings may not be harmonious with the speaker’s feelings. We should acknowledge them internally, to ourselves, and then set them aside for now.
- If the reason we’re listening right now has to do with resolving a disagreement, chances are we are now feeling something different from what we may have felt originally. Try not to resolve these differences right now. Keep our preexisting feelings away so they don’t interfere with the new feelings that are germinating.
- Do not overuse “I” statements. We are the listener. The occasional comment about us will show that we are remaining attentive and demonstrate how the speaker’s story is affecting us. Avoid flipping the switch and suddenly start telling your story while being the listener. Avoid letting “I” statements disrupt the speaker’s story.
- Let silence sit. There will be moments where silence is called for and necessary. Especially moments of confusion, times when big emotions get dropped, or times where new layers get opened up. If we feel compelled to break the silence, say something like: “Maybe we should just sit with the silence for a few seconds.” Wait until they indicate they are ready before proceeding.
- Key Skill: Reframing. Translate the essence of what the other person says into more constructive language. If there was past conflict, there may have been mistranslation and miscommunication. To resolve this conflict, someone will need to act as translator. Work on acting with dual roles: listener and translator. Watch for certain things below which commonly need to be translated. Check out the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most that goes through this process in detail.
- Translate: Truth → Different stories. The speaker is speaking their truth, as we noted before. It is not The Truth. Remind them that there may be different stories. They should not be using language that disrespects our story (our version of events).
- Translate: Accusations → Intentions and Impact. The speaker should not be making accusations towards us or others. Instead, refocus their efforts towards their feelings. For instance, they may feel abandoned, but that does not mean that we abandoned them. The difference may seem small, but it is critical. Discuss the impact that events have had on them. Encourage them to discuss their own intentions as well. Why did they do what they did? We will hold off on discussing our intentions and the impact on us until we are ready to share our own story.
- Translate: Blame → Contributions. When they start into blaming, ask them instead to share how they think others contributed to the outcome. What actions did they observe and what was the impact of those actions? Ask them how they think they contributed to what happened.
- Translate: Judgments → Feelings. When they start to judge, again refocus them into saying how they felt. Here we are winding back their thought process to discover the underlying feelings. Their feelings will be held as sacrosanct, while their thought processes will be recognized as hypotheses that need further scrutiny. Avoid scrutinizing their thought processes here during the stage of active listening.
- Translate: What’s wrong with us → What’s going on for them? This is another type of accusation that must be redirected. Bring it back to them. We’re not here to be put on the defensive. We only want to exercise curiosity and caring to understand their story.
- Key skill: Focus on the behavior, not the person. In an argument, the speaker may accuse us or someone else of something. This is likely to be phrased as a personal attack against that person’s identity. This needs to be translated and refocused into a discussion about behavior. Leave the person’s identity intact. Focus on the choices that the person has made, including the impact of those choices. Talk about why those behaviors matter so much. “There seems to be a pattern developing here…”
- Key skill: Help keep the speaker on track. Listener and speaker previously agreed to what subjects would be discussed and which ones would be put aside for now. If the speaker veers off into a different subject, feel free to nudge them back on track. “Let’s get back to talking about…”
- Key Skill: Paraphrasing. In paraphrasing, the goal is to close any ignorance gaps that might arise. We will restate things that spoken by the speaker. As we hear them, we are processing their words. We are translating them in a way that we can understand. Mirroring their story back is one way to check the accuracy of your translation. It can also help make the speaker feel validated.
- Clarify. Double check facts, timelines, feelings, experiences, intent and impact. The last two pieces are the most difficult. Work to understand their intent. What values drove their decision-making? What was the impact on them? Prior to their decisions, what did they think the impact would be? After the decisions were made, what did they observe the impact to be on us? We will close the gap between their observed impact and the actual impact later during the telling of our story.
- Move from “either-or” → “and”. Many arguments involve individuals unwittingly setting either-or traps for one another, then watching as people fall into those same traps. We escape the traps by remembering that two things can be correct at the same time. For instance, change, “You didn’t care about me” into “I do care about you, and I was also trying to protect myself.” Remember, when two people argue, they are bringing two sets of feelings, experiences, perspectives and values. Both sets are important and needing to be validated and respected.
- Summarize and repeat back key words. Catch small things that the speaker might hint at which may be incredibly important. These tip-of-the-iceberg statements require more exploration. These often include feelings that stand out.
- Key Skill: Escaping Traps. Speaker and listener may get stuck somewhere in the conversation. Often this occurs when one person refuses to back down from leveling their insults and accusations. To escape a stalemate, try one of the following:
- Don’t get insulted when they call out our behaviors. Take accountability for the contributions we made to the problem being discussed and the resulting impact on the other person. This isn’t yet the time to discuss our intent. That comes during the telling of our story.
- Keep our focus on behavior; avoid attacking the person. Remember that they have every right to call out our behavior in the way that they see fit. But they do not have the right to insult us as a person.
- Invite the other person to persuade us. “I’m still not sure that was the right thing to do. Can you tell me more?” Remember to leave the invitation open-ended so as to avoid making the speaker feel pressured.
- Ask their advice: “What would you do if you were me?”
- Explain our listening strategy. We may annoy the speaker with reframing and paraphrasing. Carefully explain why we are using these techniques as a means to understand them.
- Give them an opportunity to try again. This is especially useful if they say something that really rubs us the wrong way. Tell them, “What you just said was insulting. Would you mind trying to explain that again?” Again, we’re not trying to bend their story, only to eliminate the unnecessary insult from it.
- Be prepared to walk away. We should always be prepared to conclude that understanding isn’t possible at this time. Keep the door open for the future. “I have to pause this conversation right now. I will leave the door open to resume at a later date.”
- Avoid non-validating responses. Don’t minimize the uniqueness of what the other person has said. Avoid pretending to know something about something that we don’t.
- Do not problem-solve. Avoid fixing the problem right now. Fixing the problem for the speaker is another way of dismissing their issue and quickly wrapping things up. There is time for resolution later.
- When the speaker feels sufficiently listened to, they may ask for advice: “What would you have done differently if you were me?” Be careful in answering this question. They may genuinely want your advice. Or they may be testing you to see if you’re still listening (without even knowing they are testing you). In many cases, they have an idea in mind about what they would do differently next time, and they are looking to see if you are thinking the same thing. Try answering their question with another curious question rather than a definitive answer: “What do you think would’ve happened if you had done this instead?”
- Ultimately, even if we have the perfect solution to the speaker’s problem, we don’t want to just give it up. Help the speaker arrive at that solution for themselves, through careful questioning, only after they’ve been appropriately listened to. Even our perfect solution may not be perfect for them.
- Follow the 80:20 rule. When we are the listener, make sure we’re not doing more than 20% of the talking. If we’re doing more, then we’ve probably switched over to fix-it mode.
- Be patient. The speaker will tell their story at their own pace. Give them time to feel things again before they answer.
- Accept that we will make mistakes. Listening is an art that times time and practice. Ask forgiveness if we do not get it right at first and the speaker gets upset.
- Connection is cure. Avoid trying to make things better. This can be seen as dismissive. Instead say: “I don’t know what to do right now. I’m just so glad you told me.” Always work on connecting to the emotions that underpin the experience.
- Recognize when we’ve heard enough. Take a break. When we feel our own emotions start to boil over, insist on pausing. If they have still more to say, let them know it is only a temporary break. We will come back. Give them a rough estimate on when we can resume. For instance, if our spouse wants to discuss a thorny issue right before bed, we can say, “I know this is important to you. Because I love you, this is important to me, too. Right now, I need to get some sleep. I would like to discuss this tomorrow after dinner when I have more time and energy to listen.”
Part 3: Conclusion (now for the sequel: Your story!)
We have a story to tell!
If this conversation started because a friend came to us looking for advice, then now is finally the time when we can begin to offer our advice up! Again, we don’t want to just tell our friend what to do. Give them a story from our past experiences. Tell them what we did and how it worked out or didn’t work out for us. Then let our friend make up their own mind on what they should do. Leave room for our suggestions and methods to not be what your friend ultimately decides to do. “I don’t know if this would work for you, but last year I found myself in a similar situation. Here’s what happened… Here’s what I did…” Ultimately, we want to empower the speaker to solve their own problems. Even if we’re the expert on the subject, maintain humility and leave room for further learning. Try our best to follow the 80:20 rule through the entirety of the conversation. Pretend someone is transcribing the whole thing, and afterwards we will count the number of words spoken to verify an 80:20 ratio. All of our talking, including your curious questions and your stories, should not exceed 20% of the total conversation.
If the conversation is the result of a disagreement, then now is the time for our feelings, perspective, and intent to be shared. If we exercised good listening, chances are the speaker’s trust in us has gone up exponentially. This opens the speaker up to being willing to listen to our story. They may even start to model some of the listening techniques that we’ve used. They may also need some gentle guidance in how to listen effectively. “I’m asking for your patience as I try and explain why I did what I did…”
Ask the speaker, “Did you feel listened to?” If not, remind them that we are trying our best to listen. We may not have gotten it perfectly right this time. Ask if you can try again another day.
Check out this active listening worksheet for more ways to practice.
Difficult conversations are best handled like table tennis, where the ball is being bounced back and forth. There is a rhythm to the process where each side takes turns being listener and speaker. No one person monopolizes one role. Rarely does one person tell their entire complex story all at once before allowing the other to speak. Instead, the onion is peeled back in layers. With each layer, both sides get to speak parts of their story while the other takes a turn listening. However, for this to work effectively, at least one person needs to become an extremely effective listener. Practicing these techniques and mastering the listening role can go a long way towards relationship success. As we get better, we can model effective listening for our partner. Over time, both individuals share in the rewards, building trust and confidence in the process. This rhythmic approach with back-and-forth switching of roles is called positive cycling. For more on this, see Guide to Positive Cycling. Positive cycling is a type of virtuous cycle. It is not a straight-line walk towards a preexisting agenda. Instead, it is a winding journey full of twists, bumps, and missteps. Always we are moving towards understanding.