The Power of Active Listening

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5 min read

woman listening carefully and active

Listening to other people is important — we all know it. Given how often we “listen”, you would assume we’d be good at it. The truth is, not many of us can make a conscious effort to lend an ear to others and practice active listening in our day-to-day communication.


2002 research by Fredrickson and Joiner highlights that initiating positive social interactions can empower our mental well-being and life satisfaction, and one of the easiest ways is to listen actively. Not sure how? Read on to see how active listening can help you.


What is active listening?

Active listening is all about building rapport, empathy and trust. It is a listening skill that involves full attention to what is being said. Active listening is not just about hearing what others say, but consciously listening and understanding the messages conveyed. To become an active listener, you should be neutral and non-judgmental. And to be non-judgmental, it is paramount that we observe rather than making a hasty assessment of an expression’s rightfulness.


Active listening is essential in relationship-building, as it affirms the other person that they are listened to and valued.

Why does active listening matter?


1. To feel connected to one another

Humans have evolved as social beings who rely on connection with others to survive and thrive. Our yearning for connectivity and belonging has become innately natural. In particular, Bowlby’s attachment theory has looked into our fundamental emotional needs — including the need to be heard, understood and valued, especially by our significant others. We all want to be liked. Research by van Baaren and his colleagues reveals that self-voluntary mirroring occurs unintentionally when people interact, even with strangers, as a sign to show conformity and agreement. These prosocial interactions help us establish a sense of belonging with society.


2. To engage in wholesome interaction

According to Weger and his colleagues, active listening is more effective to induce others to feel understood than advice-giving and simple verbal acknowledgments. Theoretically, active listening favors our use of paraphrasing and encourages the speaker to elaborate by conveying our understanding and interests.


3. To embark on life-long happiness

As a matter of fact, savoring time with loved ones can instantly boost mood and bring long-lasting happiness. Active listening is a pivotal component in constructive communication and social interaction, which is a vital part of a flourishing life.

Learning to listen: dos & don’ts


Step 1: Understand components of communication

To get started with active listening, consider the components of communication — the sender, the receiver, the message and the noise. Listening is far beyond the passive act of receiving the message. Instead, it is the conscious processing of the sender’s message. It is an active process, but beware of the balance between being passive and overactive so you can listen to understand.


Step 2: Identify and learn from your mistakes

Don’t overdo active listening. People are often only aware of the flaws of being passively listened to, without realizing the problem of being overly active in a conversation.


Ask yourself: ever gave in to the impulse of responding or interrupting all the time during a discussion? Admit it, intentional or not, you are hogging the spotlight with all the talking, which might also leave the other person to feel alienated, unwanted or unappreciated.


To better control your listening activity, lest it become stiff, nuanced and redirect, we have to identify some common mistakes we fall for.


The number one taboo is daydreaming and being distracted in the middle of a conversation. As human beings, we are all fairly well attuned to elusiveness in a person, not to mention that unresponsiveness will come across as disrespectful to the other person. Fully focus on receiving the message and avoid thinking about what to say next. Keep a sharp lookout for any selfish tendencies or personal agenda during a conversation.


Step 3: Tread the flow of communication with care 

Stay patient, don’t be bothered by periods of silence. In fact, it may surprise you that it will be far more rewarding if the conversation is not “filled”, as these periods signify your genuine reflection of the speaker’s content. As mentioned, pay attention to the speaker. Apart from giving verbal comments, you can employ additional non-verbal feedback to acknowledge your active listening. Smiling, nodding, eye contact, mirroring, and leaning in, to name a few, are some common signs of your devotion to attention. Being a lively presence is much more impactful than simply answering a question.


Step 4: Take the communication to the next level

Engage all your senses in the conversation, make use of observation in particular. Observe the subtle changes in voice, the mimicry involved, the choice of words, the emotions and facial expressions. Try to put yourself in the speakers’ shoes and understand the rationale behind their behavior. While you shouldn’t immerse yourself in your own train of thoughts, you can observe the speaker distantly as you think about what the other person is saying from their perspective. You will be surprised it opens up a space in you to understand yourself and others better.


Keep in mind that the prefix “com” in “communication” means together. Whether you see eye-to-eye with the other person, communication is a two-way co-creation process that requires mutual efforts to progress. Ask for clarification and raise questions to enhance mutual understanding. Paraphrasing, summarizing and reflecting what is said are also useful active listening strategies that are easy to use — they are even adopted in certain mental health therapies.

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Extra Tips: How to ensure your attitude is “right”?

Deferring judgment is not as easy as it sounds but you may avoid the following practices to train yourself to be non-judgmental gradually.

  1. Challenging the “why”: Questioning the “why” often hints at an accusation. It might trigger others to react defensively and resist continuing the conversation.
  2. Hasty reassurance: Avoid slinging platitudes like “don’t worry” and “cheer up”. If people explain their worries, they might be really troubled. Your quick reassurance, though done with good intentions, may come off as dismissive to the other person as it oversimplifies, or denies their worries. They might feel as though their worries are too illegitimate to be acknowledged.
  3. Pity: It is essential to acknowledge and empathize with the other person’s feelings. However, don’t express it in a patronizing way. Otherwise, they might feel pitiful or inferior in the relationship.
  4. Trying to be a know-it-all: Don’t act like you are the expert. It may put distance between you and others as they may feel like you are not in sync anymore.

Key takeaways

The essence of active listening is not about how many verbal or non-verbal signs you display, but more about giving your undivided attention to one another. Genuine communication goes a long way, practice this skill often and gradually it will become easier for you to embed in your conversations along the way.


What does active listening mean?

Active listening is all about building rapport, empathy and trust. It is a listening skill that involves full attention to what is being said. To become an active listener, we should hold a neutral, non-judgmental attitude.

What is the main purpose of active listening?
How can you tell if someone is actively listening?
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This article was independently written by Healthy Matters and is not sponsored. It is informative only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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