The Art of Active Listening


Active listening is defined as a therapeutic skill that involves listening attentively and responding empathically, so a client feels heard (Levitt, 2001). This topic is not very new, and there is a vast amount of sources that already cover the topic. So, why yet another post about it?

First of all, science shows that the usage of active listening has a positive effect on “the recipient’s perception of feeling understood compared with other response strategies”, which are advice and minimal feedback (Weger et al., 2014). So from my point of view, active listening is a general skill that everybody, not only therapists, leads, or people in similar positions, should have. It is a general skill that improves nearly every interaction between human beings. So, why not learn it if it helps not only you but also others?

Second, I want to put an emphasis on some facets of active listening that I value as meaningful while also adding some background knowledge.


Open questions

Open-ended questions such as “Where do you want to be in five years?” or “What do you think is the best option to react?” cannot be answered with a simple “yes”, “no” or a short phrase. They need more space in order to give an appropriate answer. This freedom comes with additional benefits: 

First, a lower reactance (a post about this reactance will come soon). In short, reactance is the emotional response and arousal to the perceived limitation of alternatives and the ability to choose. One of the possible consequences of reactance is persistence to persuasion and taking the opposite side of the speaker’s opinion or goal. Open questions avoid this reaction because they give the person the freedom to answer in any intended way. 

Second, open questions are an elegant solution to guide and direct a conversation without taking any position or looking suggestive. You’re leading the conversation through questions.

Third, the response of the listener reveals what is most important to him/her and is more detailed. Especially closed questions – questions that can be answered by yes, no, or a short phrase – are likely to miss relevant information that could have been revealed with an open question.

Prefer Statements Before Questions

This concept is mostly coming from the concept of motivational interviewing. In the role of a therapist, a leader, or a similar position, we tend to follow-up with questions. However, one possible result is that two roles, the person that is asking and the one that is answering, manifest throughout the conversation. This might end up defensive or reactive conversation styles instead of open and active behavior because the situation feels like some sort of interrogation or dysbalanced discussion.

A statement that does not end with a question mark, however, leaves an open space where both parties can follow-up. This flattens the conversational hierarchy, and it is more likely that you will have an active instead of a reactive conversation. This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to ask any questions – where are not in a therapeutic situation. It is just being aware of this fact and using it as a tool. For illustrational purposes, you will see that the examples in the following chapters are always statements instead of questions. 


Paraphrasing means that you repeat the just heard with different words while shortening or aggregating the information. This has two effects: First, the abstraction of the information functions like a communication check: Did I understand the information correctly? Are we both on the same page? Second, a clear statement allows you to guide and shift the conversation in a certain direction. There are several facets that help you generate a deeper understanding of the situation for both sides:

Continue the Thought

Based on your background knowledge and experience, you pick up the core thought or emotion and make an assumption of how the next sentence could look like.


“Everybody behaved completely differently in the
last meeting.”

“And you are asking yourself if something happened
since the last meeting or if you said anything wrong.”

“Yesterday, I forgot to write an important email
to one of my partners.”

“And you’re worried that this could
slow down the processing of the contract.”

Differentiate Feelings

There will be cases in which you will hear phrases that comprise several feelings at once. However, this might not be clear to the speaker, and you can help that person to reach a better and holistic understanding of the situation.


“That meeting got completely out of
control – I didn’t know what was happening!”

“You are afraid of the consequences and worry
about your authority within the team.”

“That client insulted me again!
I wanted to scream and cry at the same time.”

“You are angry at the client and sad that you
were absolutely helpless because you need the deal.”

Four-Sides-Model: Select a Certain Channel

The Four-Sides-Model from Schulz von Thun states that a message that is sent from a sender to a receiver always comes with four different facets of information. Click here to look at a spotlight that I wrote on this topic.

Knowing the four sides of a message helps you to guide the conversation in a certain direction. It depends on the situation, your information, and the goals that you are having.


Imagine your employee approached you in a One-on-One with the following phrase:

“The whole team doubts that we can finish the project until the deadline.” 

Depending on your goal and situation, you could pick a certain channel to respond:

Appeal: “You are wondering if I could talk to the team about this topic.”
The person is new in the role of a leader and asks implicitly for help.

Factual information: “What do you think is the cause?”
You want to go straight for the origin of the problem.

Self Revelation: “It is important to you that the team is treated in a fair way.”
De-escalate the topic.

Relationship: “Thank you very much for this insight. I admire your honesty.”
The person is new to the team and is not sure if it is good to be that honest to you.

Differentiate Feelings

The differentiation of feelings describes the expression of latent or “deeper” emotions that are between the lines of a message. This might not be applicable to every situation in a working environment, but there are situations – especially in conflict management – where this method helps to clarify all emotions that are involved. A hidden emotion might stand for a motivation that hasn’t been expressed before but is driving the conversation in a subtle way.


“One of my clients refused to work with me.”

“This makes you angry and also a little bit sad.”

Further hints for active listening

Accept breaks

Breaks during a conversation are essential and part of the conversation. They provide room for your counterpart to think and digest the information and situation. 

You will see that your counterpart will provide additional information or will take the lead from here with a question on his/her own, which breaks the interviewer’s/interviewee’s situation into a more dynamic conversation.

Short reflections

Keep paraphrased and reflective summaries short. They shouldn’t be longer than what your counterpart said. It should summarize the information to the relevant points.

Stay Focused

The rise of laptops, tablets, and smartphones made it very easy to become distracted or to make notes while a person is listening. However, just put yourself into the following position: You are talking about a serious topic, and you had to fight with yourself to raise the topic – and the person you are talking to is typing. You will feel less heard, and further communication will be less open.

So, to make it simple: Avoid making notes on an electronic device at all. Use a pen and paper and make notes only in breaks and not while somebody is speaking. If you’re summarizing and paraphrasing correctly, notes should become obsolete anyway. 


Levitt, D. H. 2001. Active listening and counselor self-efficacy: Emphasis on one micro-skill in beginning counselor training. The Clinical Supervisor, 20: 101–115. doi:10.1300/J001v20n02_09

The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions
Harry Weger Jr. ,Gina Castle Bell,Elizabeth M. Minei &Melissa C. Robinson


Ted Talk from Julian Treasure

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