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  • AutorenbildBirgit Ohlin

Active Listening: The Art of Empathetic Conversation

Julian Treasure claims that we are losing our hearing. And he has a point! With personal broadcasting replacing the art of conversation, and silence becoming a scarce resource, we have forgotten how to listen. It is time to focus again and practise the skill of mindful listening. Not just because we owe our full attention to others when we converse, but because the positive emotions of a truly good conversation have the potential to make us happy!

Good Conversations increase Well-being

The need for connectivity and belonging is fundamental in humans, not only when we are born but also in adult life (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). We want to be liked in order to belong, and research has found that we even mimic others with words and gestures to show them that we are just like them (Van Baaren et al., 2004).

In accordance with this, positive psychology research has left no doubt that positive social interactions increase our subjective well-being and provide greater life satisfaction. Sonja Lyubomirsky (2008) claims nursing social relationships to be one of ten happiness enhancing activities, due to the sense of belonging we experience when being with others. In addition spending time with friends or colleagues builds positive emotions, a key component of happiness (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002).

This shows us that social relationships are vital for a happy and fulfilling life and a vital element of positive social interaction is a good conversation.

Learning to Listen

Communication theory talks about the sender, the receiver, the message and the noise (which has become most prominent in our many of our lives). One of the most important elements of good communication is listening, as it builds deep positive relationships (Weger, Castle, & Emmett, 2010).

But listening is more than the passive act of receiving or hearing. It is the “conscious processing of the auditory stimuli that have been perceived through hearing” (West & Turner, 2010). Listening thus is an active process.

There it is the balance to be found in active listening, between the being passive and being overly active, where our own agenda gets in the way of being a good listener.

So where do we go wrong? Let’s have a look:

Our Most Common Listening Mistakes

Here is a list of the most common mistakes we make when listening to other people:

1. Daydreaming or thinking of something else (even something as simple as your list of groceries) while another person is speaking

2. Thinking of what to say next

3. Judge what the other person is saying

4. Listening with a specific goal or outcome in mind

Whenever we are can say yes to having done any of these, we are no longer listening actively or mindfully. And without active listening, it is difficult to have a positive and engaging conversation with thorough understanding.

Instead, both parties are expressing themselves and the conversation deteriorates to a sequence of statements and stories. So how can we overcome the pitfall of mindless communication and become good active listeners?

The Art of Active Listening

There is still limited empirical evidence on the topic of active, emphatic or mindful listening and definitions vary based on the context. For now, a usable definition for a therapist may be; to “attempt to demonstrate unconditional acceptance and unbiased reflection” (Weger et al., 2010).

AEL is defined as a form of listening practiced by salespeople in which traditional active listening is combined with empathy to achieve a higher form of listening. One study looked into the reliability and validity of an AEL scale which measured the client’s perceptions of the listener and included a self assessment of the listener.

AEL is easily transferred to the field of psychological therapy and counselling where the therapist is required to understand the client’s message from their context without focusing on their own experiences and feelings. This way they are better able to form short and long term therapeutic relationships.

In an interpersonal context, active listening aims to minimise the effect coming from our biases and to practice mindful patience whilst bypassing our own agenda (Dollinger, Comer & Warrington, 2006).

In order to understand the need for active listening, we need to be aware of the fact that we receive and evaluate everything based on the lens through which we see the world.

Here are a few steps on how to overcome your own agenda and become an active and empathetic listener:

1. Nonverbal involvement

Look at your counterpart instead of studying people passing by. Show your attention by nodding your head or raising your eye brows. Make sounds that indicate attentiveness. Remember that even by simply listening we are communicating, albeit non verbally (Weger et al., 2010).

2. Pay attention to your vis-à-vis, not your own thoughts

Devote your whole attention to the speaker. Being mindful means being present in the moment and paying attention to what is happening right now (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). In a conversation this means observing your vis-à-vis while they are telling their story.

Become aware of the subtle changes in their voice, the way they mimic you, the words they use and the emotions they are experiencing. Try to truly understand the thought process of your conversation partner (Ucok, 2006).

Observe your own thoughts but from a distance and resist the temptation to engage in them.

3. Do not be judgmental

Being mindful means practicing non-judgment (Kabat-Zinn, 2014). There is no need to agree or disagree with what is being said or evaluate the statements being made. Remember that quite often saying a question out loud is more important to the speaker than having it answered (Rogers & Farson, 1957). A skillful active listener is able to simply receive the message without the need to judge or respond with their own bias.

4. Tolerate silence

Resist the urge to fill moments of silence. There are different types of silence and respecting quiet moments can a powerful tool for a deep conversation. It gives the speaker and receiver a chance to reflect and continue with this process.

If you find this difficult you can encourage the person to continue by asking open questions such as “What do you make of this?” or “Tell me more about what happened”. But never underestimate the power of the ability to tolerate silence for a good conversation.

5. Paraphrase

Paraphrasing is another powerful communication tool. Starting with sentences such as “So you are saying that…” and repeating in your own words what you believe the other person said is a good way to show you are following the conversation and ensure your understanding.

A recent study found that whilst paraphrasing did not necessarily make people feel understood, paraphrasing can create a greater sense of closeness and intimacy in a conversation and is particularly important for situations where future interactions are possible such as friendships (Weger et al., 2010).

6. Ask questions

When you finally do respond, do so to the statements made without trying to bring your own point across. Refuse the impulse to tell your story on the topic.

Show your attentiveness using sentences such as “I can imagine how disappointed you must have been”. Be respectful in your response. Ask open questions such as “How do you interpret this?” , they are powerful tools to deepen a conversation and uncover hidden reasoning. (Weger et al., 2010).

In conclusion

With the lingering thought that we may not be such great listeners after all, we can see why Julian Treasure claims that we are losing our hearing. Treasure uses a simple acronym, RASA (meaning “juice” or “essence” in Sanskrit), to relay his steps for active listening, RASA stands for:

- Receive - Appreciate - Summarise - Ask

Becoming a skilled active listener requires practice. And if the benefit of fulfilling friendships doesn’t provide enough motivation to get practicing, here is another reason:

As we listen more sensitively to people, they start to listen to themselves more carefully, paying attention to their thoughts and feelings (Rogers & Farson, 1957). Thus by practising your listening skills you can help your friends and colleagues to become more self-aware whilst making both of you experience more positive emotions from having great conversation.

So next time you are talking to someone, make sure to dive into the “essence” of good conversations! Start being an active listener today!

Want to know more about active listening?

In his TED talk (eight minutes well worth watching) Julian Treasure offers five more tips to help you improve your conscious listening:


Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive Emotions Trigger Upward Spirals Toward Emotional Well-Being. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 13(2), 172.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfuless-based interventions in context: Past, present and future Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 144-156.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2014). Meditation Is Not for the Faint-Hearted. Mindfulness, 5(3), 341-344. doi:10.1007/s12671-014-0307-1

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want: Penguin Press.

Rogers, C. R., & Farson, R. E. (1957). Active Listening. Chicago, USA

University of Chicago. Industrial Relations Center.

Ucok, O. (2006). Transparency, communication and mindfulness. Journal of Management Development, 25(10), 1024-1028. doi:doi:10.1108/02621710610708676

Van Baaren, R. B., Holland, R. W., Kawakami, K., & Van Knippenberg, A. (2004). Mimicry and prosocial behavior. Psychological science, 15(1)(71-71).

Weger, H., Castle, G. R., & Emmett, M. C. (2010). Active Listening in Peer Interviews: The Influence of Message Paraphrasing on Perceptions of Listening Skill. International Journal of Listening, 24(1), 34-49. doi:10.1080/10904010903466311

West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2010). Understanding Interpersonal Communication (Vol. 2nd Edition). Boston, USA: Cengage Learning.

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