7 Active Listening Techniques to Communicate Better

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn active listening techniques that will help you become a better communicator. 

[Featured image] Two friends wearing glasses and head coverings enjoy a conversation as they walk with their arms around each other.

Listening is the act of paying attention to what someone else is saying, whether the message is directed at you or to a larger audience. Active listening, then, is absorbing the information and showing the person that you are receptive to what they are saying. 

Whether you are communicating at work, at school, or at home, your relationships can benefit from good communication. Effective communication can deepen bonds and connections, leaving you feeling fulfilled, understood, and validated.

Active listening, like any skill, is a skill you can improve over time as you interact with different types of people. The relationships that you cultivate in your career, education, and personal life benefit from learning active listening techniques. 

What is active listening?

Active listening is the practice of paying full attention to and absorbing what someone is saying so that the exchange between the listener and speaker is productive and fulfilling. It is an attempt to demonstrate unconditional acceptance and unbiased reflection, according to researcher Harry Weger [1]. Carl Rogers originally developed the methodology, sometimes known as “reflective listening,” for psychologists in the 1950s [2]. It has since been used in fields such as business and education. When we practice active listening, the speaker feels understood and the listener retains the information so that they are able to reflect and respond productively.

The average listener only remembers 25 percent of a talk or lecture two months later, according to testing from Harvard Business Review [3]. Over time, our cognitive ability to retain information decreases. Taking notes may help jog your memory later on. There are many ways to improve your active listening skills.

To learn more about active listening, watch this video from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School:

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With active listening, we demonstrate concern, and we demonstrate interest in other people and their ideas, and we can actually shift emotions and how people are feeling.

Benefits of active listening

The practice of being more conscious while listening can benefit your career and life. In your day-to-day conversations with colleagues, in networking for future opportunities, in sustaining genuine connections as a manager, listening makes people feel heard. Empathy, the basis of active listening, is crucial in building meaningful relationships. Active listening can even help you manage your emotions, retain data and information better, and resolve conflict.

Demand for social and emotional skills, including active listening, is projected to grow by more than 20 percent across all industries between 2016 and 2030, according to McKinsey [4]. Among these skills are communication, negotiation, interpersonal skills, leadership, management, teaching, and training. Further, research suggests that good interpersonal skills are a strong predictor of workplace success overall, due to the link between team effectiveness, empathy, and inclusivity [5].

7 active listening techniques

These techniques can be used all at once or adopted individually in different situations. They are derived from the notion that active listening is a practice that can always be improved. The following techniques are foundational for effective communication—in conversations, lectures, or interviews, with anyone, anywhere.

1. Focus on the intent and purpose of the conversation.

Approaching listening from a holistic perspective begins with an intent to be conscious and receptive to the other person—including the intent and purpose of the conversation—in order to truly understand and empathize with them. Incorporating mindfulness into active listening means that the speaker has your full attention.

Being mindful generally means being respectful and aware of the present moment. No daydreaming, no interrupting, but simply comprehending the content and purpose of their words and body language. That way, the listener and speaker build an authentic connection.

2. Pay attention to body language.

Body language refers to the conscious and unconscious gestures and movements that express or convey information. Such behavior can include facial expressions, posture, hand gestures, eye contact or movement, and touch. Much of communication relies on the nonverbal. In fact, in face-to-face conversation, communication is 55 percent nonverbal, 38 percent vocal, and 7 percent words, according to researcher Albert Mehrabian [6].

When speaking to others, it is important to consider how your message might be received. We may subconsciously mirror the speaker’s behaviors and positioning because we have been socially conditioned to accept these as properly “listening” (be aware not to overdo the mirroring, however, because it may become inappropriate). 

These are common scenarios in which body language is used in effective communication:

  • In the workplace: When your manager gives you feedback on a project you worked on, you might maintain eye contact and nod, angling your body towards theirs. That way they understand you are listening and retaining what they are saying.

  • At school: In a classroom, Zoom or in-person, a teacher tends to have a full view of their students. Practicing active listening can mean watching them attentively, rather than playing on your phone, fidgeting, or looking at the clock. When your body is alert and present, your mind also absorbs information better.

  • With friends: One day, your friend tells you that their dog just died, so you comfort them by giving them a hug or touching their arm or back. These small gestures express care and empathy without saying a word.

3. Give encouraging verbal cues.

Verbal cues are prompts that a speaker may use to elicit a response or reaction from the listener. This includes what Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer considers “minimal encouragers,” such as replying “yes, I see” or “mmhmm” or “I understand.” These are often used alongside gestures and expressions, such as smiling or nodding.

In turn, the speaker might give verbal cues when they want the listener to pay extra attention, like speaking more slowly or loudly to emphasize certain points, stressing certain words, using a different tone of voice, or pausing. In that silence, they might expect a response from their listener.

Neurodivergence: Listening with the ears

Neurodiversity is "a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation. These differences can include those labeled as Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyscalculia, Autistic Spectrum, Tourette Syndrome, and others [7]."

While many of us might consider eye contact and body language to be hallmarks of good communication, neurodivergent individuals may communicate in different ways than we are used to. This could manifest in less eye contact and more limited body language, as well as more blunt and unfiltered use of language. 

When in conversation with neurodivergent individuals, practice content-oriented actions like paraphrasing, summarizing, and asking questions to help the other person feel heard. 

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4. Clarify and paraphrase information.

Sometimes, it is not enough to nod and maintain eye contact in a conversation. In the workplace or in a classroom, you might have doubts about whether your mind grasped the full picture. Clarifying and paraphrasing the information back to the speaker can help both of you fill in any gaps in understanding.

In formal situations, with a supervisor or a professor: Paraphrasing information can help you ensure that you have completely and accurately understood what the other person is trying to communicate.

  • Supervisor: “I just wrapped up a meeting with the executive staff, and your budget proposal has been conditionally approved for next quarter.”

  • Direct report: “So we can begin hiring for the new roles as long as we meet our quarterly goal? Is that correct?”

  • Supervisor: “Yes, exactly.”

In casual conversation, with a friend or partner: Clarifying what the other person has said can help demonstrate empathy and support. 

  • Friend: “I feel so burnt out. There’s always so much to do and not enough time.”

  • You: “It sounds like you’re exhausted and could use a break.”

  • Friend: “Definitely! Maybe next month I’ll take a long weekend.” 

5. Ask questions.

Just like paraphrasing to clarify what a speaker has said, asking questions can eliminate confusion. You may think you have processed most of what they said, but you still have questions. By asking clarifying questions, you ensure you have heard the correct information.

As an active listener, you can also demonstrate interest by asking questions. Asking an open-ended question can encourage the speaker to elaborate on an important or interesting idea. It also shows that you have been listening attentively up to that point, and you want to know more. This can nurture a bond between the speaker and listener.

6. Refrain from judgment.

When practicing active listening, it is important to remain open, neutral, and nonjudgmental. What’s so wonderful about taking the steps to become a better listener is that you can engage with new ideas, perspectives, and opportunities that you may never have accessed previously. Withholding judgment, avoiding criticism, and approaching each conversation with an open mind can open many doors.

7. Summarize, share, and reflect.

Toward the end of your interaction, make sure you end on a high note. Share a quick summary or a few notes about what the speaker said. If prompted, give your thoughts and opinions in a way that demonstrates you have digested the information. In informal settings, sharing thoughts and feelings may lead to deeper and meaningful conversations.

After the interaction, reflect on what you learned. Whether it was a lecture, interview, or a conversation with an old friend, you may have strong feelings or ideas that need to be processed or written down. You may want to share your reflections with your teacher, colleague, or friend. Feel free to reach out to them and engage with them after the initial interaction.

Next steps

Build job-ready communication skills on your own time with the Achieving Personal and Professional Success Specialization from the University of Pennsylvania, or practice the fundamentals of conflict resolution and intercultural communication with the Conflict Management Specialization from the University of California Irvine.

Maximize your career potential and learn how to communicate effectively, no degree or experience required. Upon completion, apply these skills immediately to achieve your personal and career goals.

Related articles

Article sources

1. International Journal of Listening. "Active Listening in Peer Interviews: The Influence of Message Paraphrasing on Perceptions of Listening Skill, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10904010903466311." Accessed January 28, 2022.

2. American Psychological Association. “Behind the Mirror, https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/hum-42-354.pdf." Accessed February 2, 2022.

3. Harvard Business Review.. “Listening to People.  https://hbr.org/1957/09/listening-to-people." Accessed February 2, 2022.

4. McKinsey & Company. “Skill Shift Automation and the Future of the Workforce, https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/industries/public%20and%20social%20sector/our%20insights/skill%20shift%20automation%20and%20the%20future%20of%20the%20workforce/mgi-skill-shift-automation-and-future-of-the-workforce-may-2018.pdf.” Accessed January 28, 2022.

5. Science. “Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1193147." Accessed February 2, 2022.

6. The University of Texas Permian Basin. “How Much of Communication Is Nonverbal?, https://online.utpb.edu/about-us/articles/communication/how-much-of-communication-is-nonverbal/.” Accessed January 28, 2022. 7. National Symposium on Neurodiversity at Syracuse University. “What Is Neurodiversity?, https://neurodiversitysymposium.wordpress.com/what-is-neurodiversity/.” Accessed February 2, 2022.

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