Active Listening

Businessmen talking to one anotherActive listening is the practice of listening to a speaker while providing feedback indicating that the listener both hears and understands what the speaker is saying.

Therapists and other mental health professionals regularly practice active listening, but active listening is not exclusive to therapy. Business professionals, medical doctors, and other people who frequently interact with the public may use active listening as a tool to ensure good customer service and stronger communication. Many relationship counselors advocate active listening for couples and spend several therapy sessions encouraging couples to practice active listening skills. Active listening is also an important skill for parents to use with their children.

Components of Active Listening

There are three primary aspects of active listening:

  1. Comprehending – In the comprehension stage of listening, the listener actively analyzes and listens to what the speaker is saying without distraction or thoughts about other topics.
  2. Retaining – Retaining requires the listener to remember what the speaker has said so that the speaker’s full message can be conveyed. Some people may opt to take notes or use memory tricks when practicing active listening.
  3. Responding – Responding is the act of providing both verbal and nonverbal feedback to the speaker that indicates the listener is both hearing and understanding what the speaker has said.

Examples of Active Listening

In active listening, the speaker must feel heard. Listeners can utilize several techniques to accomplish this end. Nonverbal cues used by an active listener might include:

  • Head nods
  • Smiles
  • Appropriate eye contact
  • Leaning forward toward the listener

Verbal cues used by an active listener may include statements such as:

  • “Mm-hmm”
  • “I see”
  • “How strange”
  • “Tell me more”
  • Any other statements that encourage the speaker to continue

Therapists engaged in active listening frequently reflect back a portion of the speaker’s words of the emotions conveyed by the speaker. For example, a therapist might say, “If I’m understanding correctly, you’re feeling both angry and sad at the same time about your mother’s death. Is that a fair characterization?”


  1. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  2. Rothwell, J. D. (2010). In the company of others: An introduction to communication. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Last Updated: 08-4-2015

  • Leave a Comment
  • Mary

    January 4th, 2013 at 5:19 PM

    Active listening is a skill I teach parents in my parenting classes. So many adults don’t know how to do this properly, which can then interfere with the relationship they have with their children. It’s funny how so many parents expect their children to listen to them, but they rarely listen to their children!

  • Lynne J

    September 7th, 2016 at 3:16 AM

    A valuable skill but when it comes across as learned, contrived, formulaic or insincere it is seriously off putting.

  • Kellie

    April 24th, 2023 at 6:33 AM

    Does anyone know who wrote this article as would be good to reference it?

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