Active Listening

Learning Objectives

  • Learn to attend to the other person(s) with whom you are interacting.
  • Learn to listen for the content of the message.
  • Learn to notice nonverbal communication in others.
  • Learn to identify critical information.
  • Learn to ask open-ended questions.
  • Learn to check for the other person’s perceptions.


Every day we participate in so many virtual and in-person conversations that we often take for granted how vital listening is to our personal and professional success. Because of the nearly constant stimulation we receive, we often put listening on “autopilot” and listen for only those things we want to hear. This is often referred to as “passive” or “distracted” listening. Many individuals—unless it has been pointed out to them or unless they’ve been trained otherwise—don’t even realize that’s how they listen.

Passive listening, while not inherently bad, may lead to problems or breakdowns in communication. Active listening, on the other hand, is a way of listening fully that improves mutual understanding1. While it takes practice, active listening has a number of important benefits. By engaging in active listening, you can ensure that:

  • You get more accurate and complete information from others
  • You check whether what you think you’re hearing actually matches what others are saying
  • You pick up on others’ verbal and nonverbal implicit messages—those “hidden meanings” behind what’s being said explicitly in a conversation
  • You better determine what effect(s) you’re having on others
  • You promote listening in others
  • You show respect and caring as well as building and maintaining rapport

Attending to Others

Attending refers to your physical orientation towards the person with whom you are interacting. Attending behaviors involve conveying through our stance and posture (facing the other person directly, sitting up, and leaning forward when necessary) that we are paying attention to and interested in what the other person is saying. Attending can encourage others to share more because they perceive you as wanting to hear what they have to say1, 2.

Facial expressions, gestures, and gaze also communicate your level of listening, interest or engagement. For example, donning a friendly or serious face both send different messages, as does looking directly at the person or away from her. Similarly, having eye-to-eye or eye-to-face contact generally conveys engagement, while checking your phone or sketching on your folder can convey that you are not attending fully.

It is important to remember, however, that these attending behaviors reflect Western cultures, whereas people from other cultural groups may interpret the same behaviors (such as eye to eye contact or leaning forward) as disrespectful. Similarly, leaning forward or touching in an interaction between a woman and a man can be interpreted as conveying sexual interest.

You can also communicate your interest and engagement in small ways such as nodding or using short verbal encouragers such as “uh huh,” “I see,” or “ok”. These minimal responses encourage the other person to continue sharing his or her perspective, and can promote their listening behaviors as well3.

Tip: As you are using encouragers, watch to see if the other person keeps talking, becomes more engaged, or relaxes. If they do, that is a good sign and it means you are on the right track—these are signals that the other person senses that you seem to understand what they are saying.

Listening for Content

Listening in its most basic form is paying attention to and understanding the words being said by the person in the conversation; however, listening deeply and honing in on messages that are less than obvious are skills that are different altogether. Listening for content involves a focus on hearing and understanding the other person rather than on getting our own messages across. You can’t fully absorb or understand what someone is trying to say if you are busy thinking about what you are going to say next, or if you are listening only for what you want to hear.

Try it: the next time you find yourself in a conversation, don’t worry about formulating your response—focus only on what they are saying, and note how different it feels.

Noticing Nonverbal Communication in Others

Nonverbal cues in action: In our culture, we often communicate lack of interest without saying a word. Some nonverbal cues that someone is not interested in your message include: looking at the time, conducting some other task like working on a computer or playing with a phone, tapping your foot, and rushing someone to deliver their message.

Since one of the major goals of active listening is understanding someone else’s message completely, it becomes important to move beyond the content of a message to how it is communicated. It is estimated that between 60-90% of communication is nonverbal3. Facial expressions, body posture and position, eye contact, and other aspects of body language can be as informative as the content of the words expressed in a message.

Nonverbal cues can provide rich information about the meaning of our interactions. For example, research has shown that negative emotions, such as fear and anger, are expressed mostly with the eyes, while happiness or satisfaction is expressed with the mouth4, 5, 6 [see Expressing Yourself]. The following table illustrates how some common nonverbal cues affect communication. Again, keep in mind that these cues reflect Western culture and some may directly contradict other cultural norms.

Identifying Critical Information in a Message

Identifying critical information involves using verbal and nonverbal cues to make an assessment about the most important messages that the other person is sending [see Expressing Yourself for more]. Similar to listening for content, identifying critical information involves actively processing what is being said, and seeking out the essential meaning of what the person is conveying; however, listening for critical information also relies on understanding fully both the words and their associated body language, and reading the social cues laden in the situation.

The Three Elements of Critical Messages

Critical messages have three elements associated with them:

  1. Explicit Content: this includes the actual verbal message being delivered as well as the explicit cues that are associated with the message.
  2. Implicit Messages: this includes parts of the message that have some embedded or alternate message associated with them. This is also sometimes referred to as the hidden meaning.
  3. Nonverbal Cues: these cues help you to interpret parts of the message that are not explicitly stated and associated with elements such as gaze, facial expression, body position, and rate or tone of speech.

Explicit Content

Identifying the critical information in a message can be challenging when you have to consider the words, the nonverbal behavior, what is left out, and more. However, there are some explicit cues that may signal the speaker’s critical message. Explicit Content includes both what is said and the explicit cues associated with the message. The table below offers some examples of explicit cues that can be useful in identifying which parts of the verbal message are most important.

Implicit Messages

Many times what is not said or how something is being said (the implicit or indirect message) is just as important as what is said (the explicit or direct message). To be an active listener, you should be prepared to pick up and consider the implicit along with the explicit because both are part of the message. As an example, if a classmate says sarcastically, “that test was so fun—I want to do it again!” you know from the tone that she did not enjoy taking the test.

Consider a subtler example: A professor says she likes her profession and has found a community that she loves. Her explicit message is that she is happy and comfortable; however, she is not necessarily saying that she wouldn’t leave if another position came along.

Implicit messages are not always easy to identify but it can help to ask yourself the following questions: What is not being said directly in this conversation? and What is being said beyond the words?

Relying on words alone to form your impression of what is communicated gives you only part of the picture. An important aspect of listening for critical information is noting the implicit message, that is, what is not expressed directly.

Nonverbal communication also plays an important part in gathering implicit information. Research shows that facial expressions, gestures, gaze, and vocal cues are significant for interpreting information when messages may be untrustworthy, ambiguous, or difficult to interpret8.For instance, have you experienced speaking with someone whose nonverbal cues don’t really seem to reflect what she is saying (e.g., smiling when she is telling you she is upset about something)? If so, you were likely feeling confused or frustrated afterwards. This mismatch between verbal and nonverbal messages can be an indicator that there is something else that is influencing the communication besides what can be taken from the words or actions alone (see the table on verbal/nonverbal mismatch in Expressing Yourself for more). In these kinds of situations, paying particular attention to the ways in which the verbal and nonverbal messages complement or clash with one another can help you to better understand the meaning of a communication.

Which is more important? Research suggests that nonverbal behaviors play a more important role than verbal behaviors in the communication of emotions. When there is a discrepancy between verbal and nonverbal behaviors, nonverbal behaviors are the more reliable indicators of the actual message3, 9.


A lab mate and friend asks you to attend a practice presentation for an upcoming conference with her advisor and co-presenters. From the conversations you’ve had with her beforehand, you know that she is very excited about her project and has practiced her presentation very thoroughly. At the meeting, she makes a good case for her research, but as she is presenting she tends to look down, speak quietly and shift where she stands. Also, when audience members ask her questions, she either does not answer them sufficiently or she altogether misses when audience members raise their hands with questions. Based on her verbal and non-verbal cues, what message is likely being communicated to you and the others in attendance?

Answer: “d” is the most likely interpretation of your friend’s behavior.. The fact that she is ignoring questions or glazing over comments likely communicates that she is not listening thoroughly and she is not picking up on the audiences’ reactions to her presentation. Although her behavior may indicate that she is simply nervous that others like her topic (answer “a”), that is not the best choice because in this scenario, it is likely that others will read more into her behavior than simply thinking she is worried about how others like it. Both “b” and “c” are not likely to be audience interpretations, as she was well prepared and made a good case for her research but she isn’t acting in a confident manner.

The following table contains examples of an initial communication interaction and then points out the different levels of the message. As you can see, a good listener considers far more than the actual words to understand a message. In the instances below, you’ll also see that gender biases sometimes play a role in what and how messages are communicated.

Using Open-ended Questions

Another important part of active listening involves giving others space to articulate their position. This starts with framing your questions in a way that directs the focus to the other person and his or her point of view1, 2. This is more difficult than it sounds, as we tend to ask questions that reflect our own views and interests.

By changing from a closed-ended question to an open-ended one, you keep the focus on the other person, and keep the flow of the conversation moving:


Vera, a second year Industrial Engineering student, is concerned that she is not performing as well as she should be. What is the best way for her to convey her concerns to her advisor?

Answer “c” is the best option because it is an open-ended question. This allows her advisor to explain at length, rather than give her a short, incomplete answer. In turn, Vera can gain a more thorough understanding than she might have received from the other closed-ended options. If her advisor does answer with a short or succinct response, a simple open-ended follow-up such as “tell me more” can help open up the dialog.

Tip: If you start a sentence with:

  • “Did…”
  • “Is/Are…”
  • “Can…”

You are setting yourself up for a closed “yes/”no” response, which often stifles all that can be expressed in an interaction.

Checking Our Perceptions

Perhaps even more critical is ensuring that what you heard is what the other person actually meant. Each person in a communication interaction has characteristics and contexts that affect sending and receiving messages. Because of this, it is always best to verify your interpretation of messages (what you think the other person said or meant) throughout conversations. If you do not verify your interpretation, you may sometimes think you know what the other person is saying, only to later find out that you missed the speaker’s point.

Paraphrasing or summarizing back what you think you’ve heard to the other person is a great way to verify your perceptions. Doing so can help to foster mutual understanding and communicate to the other person that you are listening and care about fully understanding her or his perceptions. This process of perception checking involves three main parts as shown on the following table.

CareerWISE Point

Active listening is an important skill to have in your communication toolbox. People can provide you a wealth of information that will be useful in your career. Listening in an active manner will ensure you hear them accurately and learn from them. Engaging in active listening with others will also lead others to listen to you more effectively—we all tend to give back what we get.

CareerWISE Tips

  • Take some time in casual conversations to practice active listening with friends and family, concentrating on what they say, not what you plan to say. Try to understand them fully and be the one who spends the least amount of time talking.
  • Practice asking all of your questions in an open-ended format over a trial period. Re-evaluate your progress regularly to see whether or not you are using that skill to get the most information possible out of an interaction or conversation.
  • Pay particular attention to nonverbal cues in “down time” situations (on the metro/bus, waiting at a restaurant, airport, etc.). See if you can catch some of the meanings behind the actions.


  1. Cohen-Posey, K. (2008). Making hostile words harmless: A guide to the power of positive speaking for helping professionals and their clients. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Hill, C. (2009). Helping skills: Facilitating exploration, insight and action (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  3. Knapp, M., & Hall, J. (2009). Nonverbal communication in human interaction (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.
  4. Kestenbaum, R. (1992). Feeling happy versus feeling good: The processing of discrete and global categories of emotional expressions by children and adults. Developmental Psychology, 28, 1132-1142. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.28.6.1132
  5. Matsumoto, D., Keltner, D., Shiota, M. N., Frank, M. G., & O'Sullivan, M. (2008). What's in a face? Facial expressions as signals of discrete emotions. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland & L. Feldman Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions (pp. 211-234). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  6. Kleinke, C. L. (1986). Gaze and eye contact: A research review. Psychological Bulletin, 100, 78-100. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.100.1.78
  7. Egan, G. (2009). The skilled helper (9th ed.). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole
  8. Ambady, N., & Weisbuch, M. (2010). Nonverbal behavior. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds). The Handbook of Social Psychology (5th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 3-40) Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  9. Burgoon, J.K., Stern, L.A., & Dillman, L. (1995). Interpersonal adaptation: Dyadic interaction patterns. New York, NY: Cambridge University.

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The importance of being open and honest with your advisor.

The Importance of Sharing Stories
The importance of hearing other people's stories.

Hearing from Students and Having an Impact
The importance of giving back to students and making an impact in their future education and career choices.

Reflecting on "Why" and "How"
The importance of giving yourself credit and remembering why you are doing what you're doing.

Promoting Yourself to Your Family
Advises how to keep family informed about research goals and progression from student to faculty member.

Observations on Women's Safety (Part 2)
Discusses necessary precautions to take as a female student working late nights on campus.

Stubbornness and Tenacity
Highlights the obstacles faced when trying to have research reviewed by the advisor and emphasizes the steps necessary to make adequate progress in the program.

Help and Support from Other Administrators
How to seek support from administrators outside the department when dealing with departmental sexism.


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