Chapter 4 Communication Skills

4.1 Active Listening

Being a good communicator involves not only being good at speaking. Listening is an essential part of communication and is often the weakest link in the communication process. People usually love to be heard but are often not as excited about listening. Active listening is being engaged as a listener, not just hearing the words.

Are you a good listener? Most of us like to think we are, but when we really think about it, we recognize that we are often only half-listening. We’re distracted, thinking about other things, or formulating what we are going to say in reaction to what we are hearing before the speaker has even finished. Effective listening is one of the most important learning tools you can have in college or university. And it is a skill that will benefit you on the job and help your relationships with others. Listening is nothing more than purposefully focusing on what a speaker is saying with the objective of understanding.

A row of people sit listening to a speaker
Active listening requires focus and attention.

This definition is straightforward, but there are some important concepts that deserve a closer look. “Purposefully focusing” implies that you are actively processing what the speaker is saying, not just letting the sounds of their voice register in your senses. “With the objective of understanding” means that you will learn enough about what the speaker is saying to be able to form your own thoughts about the speaker’s message. Listening is an active process, as opposed to hearing, which is passive.

Being an active listener takes concentration and work. The principles of active listening are not hard to understand, but they are hard to implement and require practice to use them effectively.

Principles of Active Listening

  1. Focus on what is being said. Give the speaker your undivided attention. Clear your mind of anything else. Don’t prejudge. You want to understand what the person is saying; you don’t need to agree with it.
  2. Repeat what you just heard. Confirm with the speaker that what you heard is what they said.
  3. Ask the speaker to expand or clarify. If you are unsure whether or not you understand, ask questions; don’t assume.
  4. Look for nonverbal signals as well as the words used. Nonverbal messages come from facial expressions, body positioning, arm gestures, and tone of voice. Confirm these body language messages just as you would verbal messages by saying, for example, “You seem very excited about this idea.”
  5. Listen for requests. A speaker will often hide a request as a statement of a problem. If a friend says, “I hate math!” this may mean, “Can you help me figure out a solution to this problem?”

Exercise: Listening with Your Whole Body

Make two lists.

Think of a person you consider an excellent listener. Picture that person clearly in your mind. Focus on what they do, not what they are saying. Describe what actions and postures they use to show they are listening. Use these items to create your first list.

Think of a person you consider a poor listener. Picture that person clearly in your mind. Focus on what they do, not what they are saying. Describe what actions and postures they use to show they are not listening. Use these items to create your second list.

Now compare these lists with your own behaviour. How many of the body language signals from each side do you think you exhibit? How can you add more of the attitudes and actions in the first list to your own behaviours? How can you control those behaviours you recognize in yourself from the second list?

Active listening should accomplish two things:

  1. Listening for understanding (i.e. the listener fully understands the speaker.)
  2. Conveying to the speaker that you are really listening (i.e. the speaker feels understood.)

Active listening involves the following:

  • Waiting for the speaker to finish speaking before responding; don’t interrupt.
  • Asking questions and asking for clarification about what the speaker is saying.
  • Reiterating in your own words what you think they meant in order to clarify meaning and understand intentions.
  • Paying attention to body language, gestures, and tone of voice.
  • Focusing and giving undivided attention; avoid distractions.
  • Showing sensitivity to the speaker’s point of view.
  • Being attentive to the speaker, which is demonstrated through eye contact, body language, and facial expressions.

For example, leaning in toward a speaker shows interest in what the speaker is saying, as opposed to leaning away and crossing arms. Crossing arms can be interpreted as rejection of the message (though this can be confusing as sometimes it may just mean the listener is feeling cold). Smiling and nodding indicates that you are following what the speaker is saying and that you are interested to hear more.


A guy looks annoyed as he scrolls through his phone. A woman sits at a table looking attentive
Active listening is so much more than hearing words. Who would you rather be talking to?

Even if the listener doesn’t agree with the speaker, it is important to acknowledge that the speaker has a right to their point of view, their ideas and their feelings. Be respectful of others’ opinions, and keep in mind that cultural differences can impact beliefs, values, and communication styles. Signs of distraction include looking away, humming, doodling, checking your phone, texting, or surfing the web. This communicates that you are uninterested in what the speaker is saying.

Meaningful conversations can’t happen if one side is not listening effectively. The following are some examples of responses that stimulate meaningful understanding.

  • Show interest to encourage further discussion. Use expressions like:
    • I haven’t looked at it like that before…
    • That’s a great point…
    • Can you tell me more about…?
  • Show empathy by being sensitive to the speaker’s feelings. Use expressions like:
    • It appears that you…
    • I get the feeling that you…
    • I can see you feel quite strongly about this…
    • I can imagine how upsetting (frustrating/hard/emotional) that must have been…
  • Demonstrate understanding of what has been said by rephrasing the message in your own words. Use expressions like:
    • So what I think you’re saying is…
    • Tell me if I’m understanding what you mean. I think you’re ultimately saying that…
    • So you mean that…
  • Avoid evaluating the message unless you are asked for your opinion. Avoid expressions like:
    • Well that seems a bit over the top.
    • That’s ridiculous.
    • I think you are over-reacting.
    • That seems pretty judge-y.

Comments like these put the speaker in a defensive mode. They can be insulting and can inhibit further discussion.

In general, you want to encourage speakers to be able to openly share their message. The more strategies that you use for active listening, the more the speaker will be able to freely share the message, and the more likely you are to be able to truly understand the message. After all, isn’t that the making of good communication?

These strategies are not only useful in one-on-one conversations; they are also useful in educational settings such as listening to lectures in class, listening to lab assistants and fellow students in lab activities, and listening in group work projects. Even in a lecture, if you are busy playing with your phone, or checking your email, you not only convey to the speaker that you are not interested, but you are also distracted from clearly hearing the message. People think that they can multi-task, but in reality they are missing a lot of the message when they are busy doing other things. Furthermore, if you try to look interested, you likely will be more interested. If you sit attentively, you likely will be more attentive.  Practice active listening skills in your various classes and educational activities.

Listening in a classroom or lecture hall to learn can be challenging because you are limited by how—and how much—you can interact with an instructor during the class. The following strategies help make listening at lectures more effective and learning more fun.

  1. Get your mind in the right space. Prepare yourself mentally to receive the information the speaker is presenting by following the previous prep questions and by doing your assignments (instructors build upon work presented earlier). Being prepared for class will help you listen more actively.
  2. Get yourself in the right space. Sit toward the front of the room where you can make eye contact with the instructor easily. It will also help to have less distractions to focus on active listening. As an added bonus, instructors often believe students who sit near the front of the room take their subject more seriously and consequently they are more willing to give these students help when needed or to give them the benefit of the doubt when making a judgment call while assigning grades.
  3. Focus on what is being said. Eliminate distractions. Turn your cell phone off and pack it away in your backpack. If you are using your laptop for notes, close all applications except the one that you use to take notes. Clear your mind and keep quiet. Listen for new ideas. Think like an investigative reporter: you don’t just want to accept what is being said passively—you want to question the material and be convinced that it makes sense.
  4. Look for signals. Each instructor has a different way of telling you what is important. Some will repeat or paraphrase an idea; others will raise (or lower) their voices; still others will write related words on the board. Learn what signals your instructors tend to use and be on the lookout for them. When they use that tactic, the idea they are presenting needs to go in your notes and in your mind—and don’t be surprised if it appears on a test or quiz!
  5. Listen for what is not being said. If an instructor doesn’t cover a subject, or covers it only minimally, this signals that that material is not as important as other ideas covered in greater length.

A note about recording lectures: You may want to record a lecture to double-check what you heard in class, but do it with caution.  If you know you are recording the lecture, it may lead you to listen less effectively and think less actively. Additionally, some instructors do not allow students to record their lectures. At any rate, if you record lectures, listen actively the first time, and then use the recording for review, further clarification, and deeper understanding.

Dealing with Special Listening Challenges

What to do if…

  • Your instructor speaks too fast. Crank up your preparation. The more you know about the subject, the more you’ll be able to pick up from the instructor. Exchange class notes with other students to fill in gaps in notes. Visit the instructor during office hours to clarify areas you may have missed. You might ask the instructor—very politely, of course—to slow down, but habits like speaking fast are hard to break!
  • Your instructor has a heavy accent. Sit as close to the instructor as possible. Make connections between what the instructor seems to be saying and what they are presenting on the board or screen. Ask questions when you don’t understand. Visit the instructor during office hours; the more you speak with the instructor the more likely you will learn to understand the accent.
  • Your instructor speaks softly or mumbles. Sit as close to the instructor as possible, and try to hold eye contact as much as possible. Check with other students if they are having problems listening, too; if so, you may want to bring the issue up with the instructor. It may be that the instructor is not used to the lecture hall your class is held in and can easily make adjustments.

Exercise: Active Listening Responses

Choose the correct answer for each question.

  1.  Active listening involves:
    1. interrupting the speaker to find out more information
    2. giving the speaker undivided attention
    3. making occasional eye contact with the speaker while you are multi-tasking
    4. lounging back to stay comfortable while listening
  2. Which statement is an effective way to initiate a response?
    1. I strongly disagree…
    2. I understand why you might feel that way, but have you considered…
    3. Wow, that reminds me of the time that…
    4. I don’t get it.

Exercise: Listening Treasures

Watch this TED Talks video clip and use your active listening skills to truly hear his message. Then answer the following questions.

  1. What 3 types of listening does the speaker discuss?
  2. How and why have we been “losing our ability to listen,” as the speaker suggests? He cites 5 ways.
  3. What are the 5 tools we can use to listen better?

Video: “5 ways to listen better | Julian Treasure” (length 7:42)

Exercise: Active Listening Practise and Analysis

Practise your active listening skills this week. Then report on a situation that happened. Briefly describe the situation, and then describe which active listening skills you used and how effective they were. In hindsight, were there any others which maybe should have been used as well? Did you resort to using ineffective communication skills from habit? Note you will be marked on your ability to recognize and analyze the use of active listening skills (not on how well you did in the situation).

Your assignment should be approximately half to a full typed page double-spaced.

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Student Success Copyright © 2020 by Mary Shier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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