What active listening really means

There are times when you think you’re better off talking to a brick wall and times when…actually you are e.g. teleconferences where the ‘listeners’ have pressed the mute button.

Whether it’s at work or in other areas of your life, wouldn’t it be great to be able to use a few simple techniques that:

1.  can pour water on the fire of potential conflict,
2.  help you to discover hidden agendas
3.  or, simply, to get people on your side

Verbal Techniques for Effective Listening

1. Empathy

Although we all empathise at least sometimes, some show empathy more naturally than others and will tend to vocalise it. This is particularly important on the telephone but is also vital in face-to-face conversations as it builds rapport.


  • You encourage the person to disclose more information!
  • People feel understood


  1. That’s (interesting)…..
  2. How (dangerous)!
  3. What (a pain)!
  4. I can see how that could make things difficult/dangerous/ Yes, that’s how I see it/feel
  5. It sounds like that to me too

2. Reflect Back (including Paraphrasing and Summarising)


  • Mitigates the chance of conflict based on misunderstanding
  • Clarifies statements and a stance on an expressed opinion
  • Helps the speaker to formulate their intentions
  • Buys you time before reacting (helping you to control your own emotions)
  • Reassures the speaker that you’ve understood them
  • Aids memory through repetition of details


  1. Let me see if I understand this correctly…
  2. If I can just go back a little
  3. Let’s step back for a moment…
  4. To recap…
  5. What I got from that was…
  6. Would it be correct to say…

3. Vocalise


  • Buys you time before reacting
  • Encourages the speaker to continue
  • Shows empathy through intonation


  1. ‘uh’, ‘ah’, ‘umm’ etc.

4. Pausing

Get comfortable with pauses! Nodding, vocalising and your facial expressions can fill a pause as can writing if you’re sitting at a table. Looking away in thought, can take away any intensity during the silence and give the impression that what has been said is worth considering.

Benefits: helps reflection on what’s been said provides time for the listener to formulate a response allows statements to sink in makes you look more confident

There’s a gender difference in how we listen.

Men will tend to want to ‘fix’ a problem and give advice.

A woman will want to tell the ‘story’ because it feels better. Cut in too quickly with your ‘fix it or shut it’ approach and you’re dinner.

If you want to move the conversation on and away, just show some empathy. I’m not saying men aren’t empathetic but it’s a matter of showing empathy, partly through matching body language and vocal tone, but also through a verbal indication that you understand (see above). Often women know the solution: they just want to feel that they’ve been understood. Believe me, knowing this can make or break a relationship! (P.S. The body language is different as well e.g. men use less head movements such as nodding, when listening and this is particularly noticeable the higher up the ladder you go so watch out for this one!).

And here’s the biology behind it…

Men have twice as much serotonin as women, whereas women have twice as much dopamine as men. Hence, when a man tumbles through the door after a long day, he may well feel happy and relaxed (serotonin) but tired, unfocused and uninterested (lack of dopamine).

Women on the other hand, may trudge glumly through the house (lack of serotonin) but focused and interested enough to complete tasks and chores.

So when a man doesn’t feel like doing the washing up he can blame his Dopamine Depletion. When a woman wants to have a good ‘ole moan and grumble, it’s our Divine Right.

This is either an argument for gay marriage or the use of Empathy. Take your pick…



Want to become a better communicator in ALL areas of your life?  Whether you’d like to learn as part of a team or individually, I’ve online and in-person courses here. 


Photo courtesy of Gratisography

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