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Are you really listening or just hearing them talk? A guide to active listening

What is active listening?

Did you know, there’s a difference between listening and hearing? 

Active listening is more than just the physical process of hearing the sounds around us, it’s a complex interaction that involves being stimulated by and paying attention to the information, understanding the information, and responding to the information (Bodie et al, 2008; Gearhart & Bodie, 2011). A key distinction are the levels of engagement we give to those we listen to. 

As key components of social support are the feelings of being supported and heard, it is critical we are able to demonstrate understanding and empathy to the people around us (Weger Jr et al., 2014). However, it has also been shown that active listening is much more effective in showing empathy than giving advice or merely acknowledging the speaker (Weger Jr et al., 2014). By practicing active listening, you can foster stronger relationships with the people around you and build your overall social and emotional wellness between your loved ones.

How do we practise active listening in our daily lives? 

There are three important point to note when being an active listener: nonverbal involvement, verbal paraphrasing, and asking questions for others to elaborate. Let’s dive right in!

Nonverbal cues:

Nonverbal actions such as appropriate eye contact and composure demonstrate attentiveness and friendliness (Weger Jr et al, 2014). To apply this in our conversations, we should aim to maintain healthy levels of eye contact with the people we are speaking to and be mindful of our body language. Actions such as nodding and shaking your head can help convey your thoughts to the speaker as well.

Verbal paraphrasing:

Verbally paraphrasing what someone is telling you is a good way to show that you are paying attention to them. It helps communicate that you understand the conversation and are interested in it (Cissna & Sieburg, 1981). 

This involves repeating what someone has told us in a slightly different manner but capturing the essence of what is being shared, while also summarising the content in a concise form. For instance, we could say, “I see that what happened at work today was really important to you” to someone who is going through troubles at work (Saripalli, 2021). Subsequently, validating the speaker may be helpful as well! An example of this could be, “I know this was not easy to talk about and it means a lot that you feel comfortable sharing with me.” (Saripalli, 2021)

If we have suggestions or thoughts in mind, we could even put them forward as well (Weger Jr et al, 2014), but make sure to first check if the person is comfortable taking suggestions, and using “I” rather than “you” statements can help the reduce the possibility that the person sharing will feel accused or get defensive (Saripalli, 2021).


Asking Questions:

Finally, asking questions encourages the speaker to elaborate on what they are saying (Devito, 2007). Questions should be asked when the situation allows for it, and without interrupting the speaker.

Image by Aarón Blanco Tejedor

When should we use active listening?

We can use it as often as we like! Active listening is essential in creating meaningful relationships, and benefits us in a range of situations, from conversations in social contexts to the workplace (Cuncic, 2022). In relationships, active listening also facilitates intimate conversations between partners through the giving and receiving of undivided attention and meaningful responses (Grande, 2020). 

Let’s practise these techniques in our everyday conversations, especially when our loved ones are in need of a listening ear. It may seem small, but it really makes a difference! Learn more about our Social Wellness topics on Total Wellness Initiative Singapore!


Christopher C. Gearhart & Graham D. Bodie (2011) Active-Empathic Listening as a General Social Skill: Evidence from Bivariate and Canonical Correlations, Communication Reports, 24:2, 86-98, DOI: 10.1080/08934215.2011.610731

Cissna, K. N. L. and Sieburg, E. 1981. “Patterns of interactional confirmation and disconfirmation”. In Rigor and imagination: Essays from the legacy of Gregory Bateson, Edited by: Wilder-Mott, C. and Weakland, J. H. 253–282. New York, NY: Praeger.

Devito, J. A. 2007. The interpersonal communication book, 11th, New York: Pearson.

Graham D. Bodie, Debra Worthington, Margarete Imhof & Lynn O. Cooper (2008) What Would a Unified Field of Listening Look Like? A Proposal Linking Past Perspectives and Future Endeavors, International Journal of Listening, 22:2, 103-122, DOI: 10.1080/10904010802174867

Harry Weger Jr., Gina Castle Bell, Elizabeth M. Minei & Melissa C. Robinson (2014) The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions, International Journal of Listening, 28:1, 13-31, DOI: 10.1080/10904018.2013.813234

Harry Weger Jr., Gina R. Castle & Melissa C. Emmett (2010) Active Listening in Peer Interviews: The Influence of Message Paraphrasing on Perceptions of Listening Skill, International Journal of Listening, 24:1, 34-49, DOI: 10.1080/10904010903466311

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