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This technical note was prepared by James G. Clawson, Professor of Business Administration. Copyright © 1986,
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I think real listening is something you do with your whole self. You have to hear
what people are really saying beneath all the words. You have to pick up the
messages that have a certain urgency and then respond to these nuances with
further questions. Over the years, I’ve learned that the really attentive listening
requires conversational responsiveness. You have to try to listen in such a way that
you can respond with your own ideas and feelings and aspirations—so that you
show the speaker that you’ve truly been paying attention. I’m talking about a strong
human connection here: How do we understand one another? How do we give
ourselves to someone else, and possibly even become one?
What if you had a magic wand and could, with one stroke, become a more effective
leader, closer to your significant others, more influential in your professional relationships, a
better friend, and a wiser, more mature adult? Active listening is a social skill that promises all of
these things and more. Most people fall prey to a variety of social pitfalls in their conversations
that erodes their influence, undermines their attempts to lead, and deepens the chasms between
them and others. Those pitfalls include the almost universal tendency to judge others from our
own points of view, to try to lead the conversation even when talking about the other’s interests,
and the desire to convince others of the correctness of our points of view. Effective listening or
active listening helps us to overcome those gaffes and become more influential and more
effective in our relationships, professional and personal.
Effective listening is essential to good leadership. Unless you understand the position,
views, beliefs, values, opinions, and conclusions of others, your attempts to manage others, to
offer advice, directions, instructions, comments, or opinions will be blind ventures based on your
experience and perhaps totally inappropriate to the other. The more you know about the views of
the other person, the better you can frame not only what you say, but how you say it. The “magic
1 Robert Coles, “The Inner Life of Executive Kids: A Conversation with Child Psychiatrist Robert Coles,”
Harvard Business Review (November 2001): R0110A.
wand” of active listening can be an enormous asset in your interpersonal tool kit—if you’re
willing to develop it.
Active or “reflective” listening was originally developed and refined by psychologist Carl
Rogers for use in personal counseling. Rogers wrote extensively about his very successful
approach and gave seminars teaching others how to use it to help their patients. The technique
can be very useful in settings outside counseling, including everyday conversations, formal
discussions, teaching, managing, and in marriage—in virtually every situation where people
interact. Active listening is particularly useful when the speaker has a problem or is animated
about some topic and the listener either wants to help the person with that problem or to learn
more about the speaker’s perspective.
Active listening consists of two major components; first, seeking genuinely to understand
the other person at two levels, and second, communicating or reflecting that understanding back
to the speaker. This latter characteristic has caused the approach to be referred to often as
“reflective listening.” The reflection is important, because it reassures the speaker and the
listener that what is being communicated is being understood. Without that link, neither the
speaker nor the listener is really sure whether clear communication is taking place.
Active listening is a learnable skill. But it is more than the lay language implies; it is
more than simply “paying attention.” The approach includes a cluster of skills—and perhaps
more importantly—a mindset. This mindset is the desire to see and understand how another
person sees and experiences the world. Most of us, having grown up as we have within our own
experience set, tend to think that the rest of the world sees the world as we do. We are surprised
when we see people behaving in ways that seem irrational to us. The first step in developing
active listening skills is to have a genuine interest in seeing the world as others do. Given that
desire, one must develop some, perhaps unnatural skills to become effective at the technique
Figure 1. Four Key Active Listening Skills
1. Suspending judgment of the speaker
2. Focusing on emotion as well as content
3. Following, not leading the conversation
4. Reflecting accurately what you understand,
so the speaker can “see” it more clearly
Perhaps the central skill in active listening is the ability to momentarily suspend our own
judgments and beliefs about what may be right or wrong. That is difficult for most people to do.
We all want to believe that we are “right.” If we cannot let go of that for a moment or two,
however, we will be unable to see the world as the other person sees it. When we listen to a
person actively, we suspend for the moment our own views and values, beliefs and attitudes,
judgments, and conclusions. Whenever we say, “I know exactly what you mean!” we are
probably still locked in our own experience perspective. We’ve picked up on something the
speaker said—immediately we’ve jumped to our own similar experience and concluded that they
must have responded the same way. Often that is not true. And our presumption shifts leadership
of the conversation from the speaker to us.
We approach active listening by clearing our own minds of our thoughts and priorities,
for the moment, and understanding as deeply as we can how the other person thinks and feels and
then reflecting or mirroring that understanding to the speaker. Any judgment—negative or
positive—will cloud our ability to hear and connect with the speaker. When we suspend
judgment, we give the speaker “breathing room”—space to be honest and to do so without
People find it difficult to stop judging others for a variety of reasons. First, they infer that
suspending judgment means that they are agreeing with the speaker, which is not so. Our goal is
not to confirm their viewpoint but to understand it. If we confuse these two, it makes it harder for
us to let go of our own views. Second, some people are afraid that if they listen to another’s
views carefully it may affect their own views in negative ways. Suspension of judgment requires
some confidence in our own abilities to put aside and then reassume our own values and
priorities. Consider for a moment the kind of people that you have the most difficulty not
judging. Is it a religious group, a political group, a race? Whatever it is, unless you are able to
pause in your tendency to judge people immediately, you will likely find it difficult to become a
good listener. And listening to someone who believes deeply and differently from you does not
mean that your thinking will be “contaminated.” Rather, you may learn something that will
benefit you for the rest of your life, professionally and personally.
Focusing on emotion as well as content
The second active listening skill is the ability to pay attention to both the content and the
related emotions contained in what another is communicating. This is what Daniel Goleman has
called “emotional intelligence” and I have referred to as “social quotient.”2 At first blush, this
seems simple, but for those who practice active listening, figuring out quickly what a person is
saying while simultaneously paying attention to the feelings surrounding that content is quite a
challenge. Emotions are important because they reflect the intensity of the person’s thoughts and
experience. If you can see what another person is feeling and then articulate that accurately back
to them, you can signal to the speaker the depth of your understanding of their world.
Identifying a speaker’s emotions is not so simple. Sometimes their emotions may be
obvious: anger, fear, depression. In those cases, it may be easy to identify what they’re feeling.
Other times, however, the feelings washing over a speaker may be ambivalence, confusion, or a
2 Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 1995); and James G. Clawson, “Leadership and
Intelligence,” Level Three Leadership 2e, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002).
vague uneasiness. These emotional states may be more difficult to see and even more difficult to
articulate. Good listeners understand the wide range of emotions and are able to see and describe
them in conversations.
Following, not leading the conversation
The primary goal of active listening is to give the speaker complete freedom to pursue
issues and topics of their choosing, and in so doing, to use the listener—yourself—as a sounding
board for ideas and options about handling personal situations and concerns. Most would-be
listeners are unable to allow this because they begin judging and asking questions, thereby
focusing on what’s important to the listener rather than on what’s important to the speaker. Good
active listeners are willing and able to allow the speaker to go where he or she wants to by virtue
of their competency in letting the other lead the conversation. Paradoxically, one must let go of
the desire to lead the discussion along lines of one’s own interests in order to become more
influential with the other.
Reflecting accurately what you understand
Another active listening skill is the ability to reframe the content and emotion of the other
person’s statement in a way that makes it easy for the speaker to understand that you, the
listener, understand accurately what the other has been saying and feeling. If one simply repeats
what the other has said (parroting), the speaker may come to feel that the listener is playing some
pop psychological game with them or is mocking by mimicry. If the listener overstates what the
speaker has said, the speaker may feel manipulated or invaded and retreat from the conversation.
Active listening is hard work, and it can be frightening. To lay one’s own beliefs and
values aside for the moment and to concentrate on how someone else thinks and believes and
feels—to wrap one’s self inside another’s view of the world—can be unsettling. This willing
suspension of one’s own view of the world requires a certain self confidence in one’s own views
and beliefs and in one’s ability to pick them up again in a moment at will. This suspension
requires you to understand that others have and utilize a rationale different from your own. The
goal of active listening is to understand their rationale—and emotional experience—from their
vantage point. Learning to be an effective active listener by suspending judgement, paying
attention to content and emotion, following not leading, and reflecting your understanding is
hard, even exhausting work. When you first begin to practice active listening, you are likely to
find that you feel worn out. But don’t give up! Active listening serves a valuable purpose.
Purpose of Active Listening
The primary purpose of active listening is to allow another person an unfettered,
unguided opportunity to articulate what they are concerned about so that both you—and, more
important—they may understand that concern more clearly and then deal with it. A major side
purpose here is to allow you, the listener, to expand your horizons and to learn more about how
other people in the world think about and react to events around them. Unless we do this, we are
doomed to offer advice from our own perspectives and experience—which may or may not be
appropriate for another.
In other words, the goal of active listening is to allow the speaker to lead the conversation
without fear or inhibition—for a time—so that they can take the conversation in the direction
they want. If a person is afraid of the reactions of the listener in any way, he or she is likely to
maintain a certain defensiveness. This defensiveness inhibits both the speaker and the listener
from clearly “seeing” the speaker’s true thoughts and feelings. Active listeners seek to see the
world, for the moment, through the other person’s biases and filters, to be clearly aware of what
the speaker is both saying and feeling, to clearly see the way the speaker thinks and to reflect that
understanding back to the speaker. However difficult this may seem at first, if one can achieve
this purpose, one can accomplish several important benefits.
Benefits of Active Listening
Understanding another person’s point of view
We all see the world differently. The more clearly we understand how others see the
world, the better able we are to understand their behavior. This will broaden and strengthen our
understanding of human behavior and guide our efforts at motivating and leading others. We are
often perplexed about why other people are behaving the way they are. Active listening can help
us to understand their behavior better and thus be better equipped for working with them.
Stronger interpersonal relationships
Skilled reflective listening tends to strengthen interpersonal commitments. When a
speaker senses that a listener has suspended judgment and is working hard to see the world
through his or her eyes, he or she appreciates the effort. Good active listening allows the speaker
to feel safe. The speaker senses the respect that the listener must have for the speaker in order to
be able to do this, and he is likely to return the favor. The unspoken message from the listener is:
“I respect what you have to say and what you are feeling, I will take the time (and the talent
required) to listen to it.” Sensing this message, the speaker feels safe, less defensive, and closer
to the listener.
Helping the speaker
When a person can speak without fear of being judged, he or she is more likely to speak
openly and completely. At the same time, when one does this and both the content and emotion
of the speech are mirrored in the listener, the speaker sees and hears more clearly what he or she
is saying and feeling than he can do when simply listening internally. Sometimes the speaker
may even say, “Did I say that?” or “Yes, I guess that’s what I’m saying.” When that happens, the
speaker’s positions and concerns are clarified, and the person is then often better able to decide
what to do about the question at hand.
We can point out here that people do not always “know” what they think and feel. Carl
Rogers spoke about two “translations” that must occur for a person to communicate clearly (see
Figure 1). First, one must be aware of one’s own experience, the things one is feeling and
thinking. Current work on the nature of emotional intelligence3 suggests that people vary widely
in this “skill.” Being aware of one’s experience to the point that one can formulate a thought
about it is the first translation. The second translation comes when one tries to put his or her
thoughts into spoken words. If your experience is like mine, you find daily examples of others
who struggle to say clearly “what they mean.” You may even find yourself struggling from time
to time throughout the day to communicate clearly to others what you’re thinking and feeling.
When we “see” or hear reflected back to us what we’re saying, two things happen: first, we gain
a sense of validation in the world, that someone else out there understands us, and second, we are
able to understand ourselves better by virtue of that “mirroring” effect.4 Instructors in the
classroom will often write what students say on the chalkboard so that others and the speaker
may “see” and explore the functionality of their comments. Yet, while active listening does much
to strengthen relationships and to help people deal with each other, these benefits come at a
Figure 1. Carl Rogers’s two translations in communication.
Disadvantages of Active Listening
Active listening has some disadvantages. Perhaps the most obvious is that it takes time.
Active listening is not the sort of thing one can do in one minute in a hurried exchange with a
3 See Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 1995).
4 Alice Miller’s classic book, The Drama of the Gifted Child (New York: BasicBooks, 1997), for example,
points out how fundamental an impact mirroring has on the development of small children. Simply put, when we are
allowed to see ourselves in our relationships with others, we gain an ego strength and self-confidence that cannot be
subordinate or colleague.5 But the old advertisement adage, “You can pay me now, or you can
pay me later,” applies here. If one does not take the time to understand the other person in a
relationship early on, the prices or costs of lack of trust, lack of respect, lack of communication,
lack of motivation, and loss of ability to influence or lead make the accounting more difficult.
The time commitment in active listening, both in learning to do it well—as well as to use it—is
heavy on the front end, but rewarding in the end.
A second disadvantage is that many think they are good listeners when they are not.
People who “parrot” what another says and believe themselves to be good reflective listeners are
fooling themselves—but probably not those they are talking with. Skill in active listening
requires above all else the ability to put one’s own view of the world aside for the moment and
then to focus exclusively on the other person’s content and emotion. Unless the genuine intent
and the skill to back it up are there, attempts to use active listening as a management “tool” may
actually undermine a relationship.
Consider the 2-by-2 table shown in Figure 2. If a person does not have a genuine interest
in understanding another’s point of view, this “attitude” will probably come through sooner or
later to the speaker. Having some skill at reflective listening then is not enough; genuine interest
is a critical foundation. On the other hand, if one has a genuine interest but weak skills, the other
person may forgive technical gaffs because they know you are really trying. If you can add a
degree of skill to your genuine attempts to listen actively, you may hope for deeper, more aware,
more productive relationships. If you have neither skill nor interest in active listening, you may
spend your time in superficial relationships never really knowing why others do what they do—
especially around you. That suggests a need to clarify the fundamental principles of using active
Figure 2. Impact of sincerity and active listening skill on relationships.
5 Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager (New York: William Morrow, 1982) might disagree.
Actually, a person skilled at moving in and out of active listening could probably use it to good effect from moment
to moment throughout any given day.
Low Sincerity High Sincerity
Low Skill High Skill
Principles of Active Listening
There are some seemingly simple principles to active listening that you should keep in
mind as you begin to try it—they seem easier to do than they really are.
Respond, don’t lead
While you are in the reflective listening mode, your goal is to understand as completely
as possible, not to direct. The goal is to let the speaker determine what will be talked about next
and to what degree. The speaker should choose what is important, not the listener. If you begin to
direct the discussion, it will focus on your interests, not the speaker’s. If you begin to ask
questions, you will begin to lead the discussion and you will have lost an opportunity to learn
more about the other person and what he or she wants to talk about.
Respond to the personal rather than the impersonal
Whenever we respond to what another person has said, we are faced with multiple
choices. A key choice is whether to respond to the personal or the impersonal components of
what has been said. When one responds to the impersonal, one directs the discussion away from
the speaker’s beliefs and values, when often those are the very things he or she is trying to
communicate or understand better. Some people find it difficult to talk with others about
personal things. That is a choice we all have, speakers and listeners. The choice to remain
impersonal has a consequence of keeping the relationship on a relatively superficial level. If you
are willing to listen personally, you must still respect the speaker’s choice about how much to
open up—or not. The speaker may not want the listener to get that close. More often than not,
however, the choice to focus on the impersonal, arm’s-length content of the discussion is a result
of the discomfort of the listener in dealing with (that is, listening to) personal matters. If you feel
this way, remind yourself that your goal is not to offer advice about what to do about a particular
personal problem, rather only to understand it. Ultimately, it is the speaker’s responsibility to
take action about the issue. Perhaps this will make it easier to participate in a more personal
Recognize feelings as well as content
Emotions are an important determinant of behavior. The skill of recognizing feelings is
an essential part of understanding another person. If we cannot recognize and reflect the
emotions that speakers have, we may not be able to understand their values and the strength of
those values. Learn to watch for and be able to identify the feelings associated with what a
person is saying. Some managers find it almost impossible to recognize feelings—perhaps,
because the demands of their jobs have taught them over the years to suppress the emotional side
of their personalities.6 Each of us has learned patterns that determine how much emotion we
show in our relationships. Whether we show them or not, they are there, and if listeners can
6 Again, the work on emotional intelligence is revealing here. See footnote 3.
watch for and reflect them, we can learn more about what bothers us, what we like, what we
dislike, and how to manage those emotions at work as well as in our nonwork activities.
Know when to use active listening
Active listening is in some ways like a carpentry tool or a golf club in that it has specific
purposes and predictable outcomes, and therefore, is not applicable to every situation. In the way
that judgments about which tool or golf club to use when are important skills for the carpenter
and golfer, knowing when to use active listening is a key skill for the effective manager. Ideally,
one will sense these times and be able to slip in and out of active listening so smoothly that the
speaker is hardly aware of the change in structure yet feels better understood and ready to
proceed without concern.
Many managers claim that they have a “communication problem” in their organizations.
When asked what this means, they often say, “I can’t get them to understand what I want them to
do!” This answer reflects a theory of communication that begins with the desire to be
understood. We suggest that a more productive theory of communication would begin with the
desire to understand and only secondly move to the desire to be understood.7 The reason is that
when other people feel understood, they are much more likely to be willing to listen to what you
have to say (later) and, therefore, will allow you to be understood. Although (a topic for another
discussion) the means one uses to be understood are critical, too.8 Unless one can be clear,
stimulating, respectful, and congruent, others will probably not respond well. Further, sharing the
raw data from which you have drawn your own conclusions, rather than sharing only your
conclusions, lets others draw their own conclusions and tends to lead to more productive
Choose appropriate response types
Whenever we respond to what someone else has said, we choose a type of response. We
can array these responses on a continuum of directiveness, as shown in Exhibit 1. The goal of
active listening is to be nondirective. As you review this array, you will be surprised at where
some response types appear. You may be surprised, for example, that questions rank so highly on
the scale toward “directive.” If you think about it, when we ask a question, we are focusing the
discussion on what we want to know—not necessarily on what the speaker wants to talk about.
When we ask questions, immediately the speaker is asked to take a secondary role, one of
responding to your inquiries. Questions send a message, however subtle or unrecognized, that
you are leading the discussion and not really interested in what the speaker wants to talk about.
Active listening seeks to use the responses on the nondirective end of the spectrum so that the
speaker will feel free to say what is on his or her mind.
7 See Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon and
8 For more information here, see the discussion on the language of leadership in the chapter on “Leading
Others” in James G. Clawson, Level Three Leadership 2e (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999).
You should not try to use active listening all the time. Eventually, people may want to
know what you think and what your view is. This is one of the points in Coles’s quote at the
beginning of this note. Active listening could be another tool in your social toolkit. If you know
how to use it, you must also know when to use it and when to put it aside and move on to another
tool, perhaps questioning or giving advice. Active listening will help you understand another
person better and help them to understand themselves better. Often, a person who has a good
active listener will come naturally to the course of action they wish to pursue by hearing and
seeing the reflections of their listener. In these cases, the listener need never switch to giving
advice or direct instructions. This is good for both parties: the speaker feels more autonomous
and powerful while the listener feels more influential and powerful.
Sometimes, though, the speaker runs out of steam. While Rogers, in a counseling session,
would carefully avoid giving advice at these points, in a managerial setting you may feel it
appropriate to switch over to giving suggestions. Just beware, though. Most of us are way too
quick to do this, and in so doing we undermine the development of our relationships. This
tendency is what William Glasser has called “control theory,” the desire of most people to
assume that they know what’s right and that they have a right and obligation to get others to
agree with them and to accede to their point of view.9 We will be better leaders if we can resist
this urge to control others.
Do not expect after reading this note that you will be an expert at active listening. That
takes time and practice. If you practice using active listening and are genuine in your interest in
understanding others, you will gain some skill with it. If your first few attempts are stumbling or
laden with errors, don’t fret; speakers will sense your interest in truly trying to understand them
and make allowances. Likewise, we encourage you not to despair and give up the effort. If you
become an effective active listener, you’ll be a better spouse, a better parent, a better friend, a
better mentor and coach, and a better leader.
9 William Glasser, Choice Theory (New York: Harper Collins, 1999).
Commands and threats Telling a person what to do. Giving orders.
Persuasion Selling, urging, entreating, building “logical” arguments to persuade the
other to your point of view. Arguing is a heated form of persuasion.
Advice Offering what you think should be done, based usually on your own view
Questioning and focusing Establishing a focus on what you will talk about next. Can be done through
statements or questions.
Giving feedback Telling the other person your judgments—both positive and negative.
Extremely volatile, i.e., can be constructive or destructive to the individual
and to the relationship. Can be solicited or unsolicited.
Directive probing Asking leading questions to reach specific conclusions. Effective, if used
skillfully, in getting a person to “personalize” joint conclusions.
Role playing Building skills by allowing the other person to practice saying and behaving
in situations that are likely to appear.
Summarizing Attempting to outline the major points of the discussion.
Self-disclosing Giving information about yourself. Very powerful in building trust and
credibility. Can be overdone.
Exchanging Undirected exchanges of greeting, social comments. Builds rapport and
pleasantries and establishes a socially acceptable base for the conversation.
Problem-solving Open-ended exploration of alternatives without preconceived notions about
how to solve the problem. Brainstorming, or “dialogue” techniques, then
“Umm,” “Uh-huh,” “Yeah,” and other means of encouraging the other
person to carry on.
Silence Can be somewhat directive depending on the situation.
Reflective listening Setting aside personal views and listening to another’s content and emotion
and then reflecting that understanding back to the speaker. Related to
empathy. Extremely useful in building support.