The Components of Active Listening

Every day, every hour you will be having conversations with other people. The success of these communications and your effectiveness as a manager depends on your ability to understand what is being said. The attitude you approach and adopt during such conversations has a significant impact on its effectiveness and mutual understanding.


This ability to listen with an open mind was what turned the practically bankrupt Pike Place fish market in Seattle around for John Yokoyama. In a meeting with his consultant they were looking for something to turn around the business and one of his team suggested becoming world famous.

Rather than dismiss this idea they thought about what it meant to them are decided that it was ‘being present with people and relating to them as human beings’. The team wanted everyone who came to the market to go away feeling they had been served, whether or not they bought any fish.

The power of active listening  
Part of this commitment meant that as a team they would tell one anther if they felt or saw one of them acting in a way that reduced the customer’s experience. To achieve this they had to ensure their behavior enabled them to actively listen to each other. The business is now thriving and has many celebrities visiting their famous market.

The concept of active listening is not a new one. The Greek philosopher, Diogenes Laertius summed up the reasoning behind the importance of listening when he said;

“We have two ears and only one tongue in order that we may hear more and speak less.”

But how many of us ‘actually do this? We are too busy being on focused on what we want to achieve, or reacting to what is being said. This means that we miss the ‘real ‘ message being given. There are three components of active listening that you need to understand in order to master this essential communication skill. These are listener orientation, the reflective technique and questioning skills.

Listener Orientation

You need to display three key behaviors during the communication. You must remain neutral, you must be non-judgmental and your complete focus must be engaged from the whole conversation.

This means avoiding taking sides or forming opinions whilst the other person is speaking. Only when you have heard all they have to say will you be able to comprehend their ‘real’ message. Your ability to understand exactly what is being said to you depends on your ability to actively listen. This may sound simple but its not.

Whilst we are familiar with hearing the actual words spoken to us we may not actively ‘hear’ the true meaning of what those words convey. This is because we do not acknowledge ‘the meaning perceived by the other party’.

Reflective Technique

Active listening requires you to be both attentive and patient with the individual. Your behavior needs to give them the time they need to explore their own thoughts and feelings before these are verbalized.

You need to resist the temptation to ask questions or make comments every time the individual pauses. When you reply use the most appropriate response to illustrate you have heard and understood them. This means choosing whether to repeat, paraphrase or reflect the message they have been given you.

Good listeners’ detach themselves from their own concerns, attitudes, and ideas whilst they are listening. You achieve this by removing such distractions allowing you to observe both the conscious and unconscious signs of the speaker. You are then able to identify any discrepancies between these two signs and discern the true meaning of what has been said.

Questioning Skills

Developing your ability to ask questions that draw out the information needed to aid your understanding of the speaker’s situation and help them find a resolution is crucial to your success. Your questions help you to: focus attention, elicit new ideas, encourage exploration, and foster commitment.

Whenever you ask a question think about how and where you are trying to ‘take’ the speaker. If the question you ask does not result in a positive step forward then you must ask yourself three simple questions: ‘Did I ask it in the wrong way?’, ‘Could the words I used be misinterpreted?’ and ‘Was the type of question appropriate?’ The answers you get by asking yourself these things will enable you to develop your questioning competency and alter your behavior in the future.

There are numerous benefits you and your organization can achieve by actively listening. But the ones most beneficial to you and your team can make significant differences as shown by the Pike Place fish market.

To actively listen we must make a conscious decision to hear what is actually being said or shown in the person’s body language.

Key Points

  • Talking to other people one-to-one makes up a significant proportion of the total amount of communication that you are involved in each day.
  • Active listening is a straightforward technique that you can use to improve your communication skills. It involves listening for meaning, in a neutral and non-judgmental way.
  • Active listening will reduce the chance of misunderstandings, help to solve problems, and allow you to take advantage of opportunities you may have previously missed.
  • There are three components of active listening that you need to understand in order to master this essential communication skill. These are listener orientation, the reflective technique and questioning skills.
  • Listener orientation means making a conscious effort to approach the conversation with a positive attitude to the other person and to the encounter itself.
  • It is characterized by undivided attention, empathy, respect, acceptance, congruence, and concreteness.
  • Reflection involves reflecting back to the speaker what it is you believe they mean. This technique increases your own understanding, helps the speaker to clarify his or her own thoughts, and can reassure them that you are interested in their point of view.
  • Questions can help you to focus attention, elicit new ideas, encourage exploration, and foster commitment.

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