How to be an active listener?

You cannot really fake active listening, through practice you can become better at it.  

But what is active listening?

Is listening not always active? Well, no, it is not. When we have millions of things going on in our mind, when we are busy or are in a hurry, when we are tired or hungry or in pain, when we are not interested in the subject matter, feel exhausted, are frustrated, stressed or perhaps excited, when we are hurt or are in a defensive mode it is difficult to concentrate on anything really; it surely is difficult to concentrate on listening what the other person has to say.  

Active listening means, first of all, being present; physically stopping and mentally focusing on what the other person has to say. Active listening requires pausing any other thing you are doing at the moment and pausing any other ongoing thought. Active listening requires time.

Who is an active listener?

  • An active listener is genuine. Tells the other he/she does not have time to listen if that is the case, and schedules a more suitable time immediately.

  • An active listener is also a good observer. They can read body language, sense from the posture and gestures as well as pace of speech whether the person he/she is listening to is concerned, stressed, overwhelmed, relieved, happy, excited, etc.

  • An active listener shows curiosity and engages in the conversation: asks questions on the subject matter, assures the person that he/she is interested in what happened and wants to hear the whole story.

  • An active listener avoids making assumptions and makes sure they are on the same page. When an active listener is not sure, he/she openly says it and asks for clarifications. Not understanding is not a sign of weakness but hiding it might very well be. Questions like ”what does that mean?” or ”can you explain that one more time?” avoids future misunderstandings.

  • It is, also, good to double check. Questions like ”have I understood you correctly, that…” ”do you mean that…” will also help you summarize the conversation you just had, making sure you have not missed any important point.

  • An active listener is not selfish or judgemental. An active listener does not go on talking about him/herself but focuses on what the other has to say. An active listener does provide feedback with the purpose of being constructive, helping and supporting the other and, foremost, for the purpose of being there for the other. An active listener has good intentions.

  • Another important feature of an active listener is that he/she follows up on the converation. If there are promises made he/she makes sure the promises are kept and if there are actions to be taken he/she makes sure necessary steps are taken. At a later stage an active listener reaches out and asks how things have developed / how the person is feeling / whether the situation has resolved.

Active listening also saves time  

Although active listening requires time, it also saves time. Situations are resolved much faster when talked through and talked thoroughly. By active listening one also strenghtens his/her relationships, builds trust and enhances motivation.

When one feels being heard, one’s sense of belonging also bolsters which in return feeds into positive emotions.

Active listening skills can be usefull in almost any encounter; at work, at school, at home. Practising active listening your colleagues, your employees / employers, your clients, your spouse, your children, your family members, your friends, your neighbors not only will make them feel better but also will show that you care and are willing to understand, cooperate, support and be there for them. Establishing healthy and lasting relations is much easier when you listen.  

Practice active listening

Try to practice active listening by being concious of the above mentioned steps. Try it also in different settings; at work, at home, on the phone, at a virtual meeting, in a bus, at the shopping mall.

Do different settings affect your active listening skills? Do you get distracted easily by surrounding noise? Are you a good listener also on the phone or do you prefer to be physically in the same room with the person when listening?

Some people are better listeners when they are moving at the same time. If you are one of those people, how do you let the other person not be distracted by your own movement? Are you a better listener for friends than for colleagues? Do power relations affect your listening skills? Are you biased towards some people?

Acknowledging your habits and working on them will make you become a better active listener. 


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This article is part of Greenligt Listening! campaign; Mental Health Finland's initiative for World Mental Health Day 10.10.2020.





Melis Ari-Gürhanli
Regional Project Officer
MIOS-Project, Mental health and well-being in multicultural Finland

+358 40 186 8122Maistraatinportti 4 A, 7th floor, 00240 Helsinki, Finland