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Active Listening Cues

Most recently, my clients have either benefited from - or explicitly requested - information about active listening. As a mediator, active listening is one of my most important skills. Active listening:

  • Is the best way I know to ensure that I understand what is being communicated.

  • Allows me to ask about and better empathize with the emotions behind whatever is being said.

  • Helps forge and enhance relationships - professional and personal.

I’ve written about active listening before, and today I read a new, short piece by Daniel Goleman about it. He writes about what research has shown, namely that active listening requires sensing, processing, and responding. Most importantly, it requires unitasking - shut off the phone, turn away from the screen, and - if at all possible - shut down the part of your brain that brings up your to-do or shopping lists!

Still, both my previous posts and Goleman’s latest provide more of a philosophy than a basic tips sheet on active listening. Here, I want to list some simple phrases and actions you can practice to exercise your listening (and empathy) muscles.


    • Seriously. I said it before and I’ll say it again. Give it a power cycle, or turn it to vibrate if that makes you feel better, but put it in a place where you can ignore the buzzing sound for at least 15 minutes. And, turn away from whatever other screens are typically in front of you. If you work in an office and people come in to chat, turn your body away from the computer screen - or better yet, get up and sit down next to the person speaking with you, rather than keeping the desk between you. If your office doesn’t have the room for additional chairs, you can take a walk together.

  • Paraphrase

    • Try out the following phrases to introduce whatever you’re paraphrasing:

      • So it seems like…

      • Do you mean…

  • Reflect back

    • When you reflect back, you use the person’s words - whatever you heard them say - back to them. It’s a little different from paraphrasing, and definitely flows more smoothly when you use an introductory phrase. Try these:

      • I think I hear you saying…

      • It seems like you said/feel…

      • What I think I heard you say is…

  • Ask questions

    • There are two routes to go here. First, clarifying questions: these are sometimes yes/no questions, but will always give you the opportunity to check and make sure you understand whatever the person is saying. For example:

      • When you say they annoyed you, do you mean you felt angry?

        • The goal here is clarifying what emotion the person felt, regardless of the inciting action before they felt the emotion. Bonus: if the person they are blaming for irritating them is around, that person won’t hear you blaming them!

    • Second, open-ended questions: these are great ways to draw out more information from people. The more open-ended, the more options they have for what to talk about in their response to you. Their choices about what to respond with reveal what is most important to them in that moment.

    • A great, simple sentence that applies to pretty much every situation is, “Tell me more.” This sentence is an invitation to continue speaking in whatever vein is most important or interesting to them. They may change the subject, or not. The important thing is to illustrate that you, indeed, want to hear more!

Active listening is one of the best, learnable ways to show empathy. By demonstrating that you are truly hearing whatever the other person is saying, you become more able to identify and resonate with whatever emotions they may feel in that moment. I hope these examples are useful - give one or all of them a try the next time someone drops by just to talk!


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