When people talk, listen completely

This is the third post on active listening. Please read first the previous active listening posts, part 1 and part 2.

There are two planes of active listening: setting-up the stage and caring for the message.

The first plane was discussed here. In the second plane of active listening you are a facilitator of understanding for yourself and for the other person. In such a process it is essential to keep an eye contact and engage in listening. This means you avoid interruptions when possible. You are only gently letting know the other you are there and listening. Simply nod your head or say “Yes”, “I understand”,”I see”, etc.

Caring for the message

The basic steps of the caring for the message are:

  1. Receive the message: repeat content.
  2. Understand the message: ask questions to clarify understanding.
  3. Absorb the message: summarize content, paraphrase and reflect feelings.
  4. Reply: summarize content, reflect feelings and add your own reply.

Repeat content

There are two reasons for repeating the content. First, when you speak you engage your conscious mind and it helps you to understand it better. Secondly, you allow the other person hear what (s)he is saying which helps her/him to understand it better.

Of course, you repeat the important content, not everything being said. Use exactly the same words as the other person does. The key words and phrases have very specific meaning to the other person. Your meaning of the key phrases used can be a little bit different or even totally different. Avoid the temptation of using synonyms or beatifying the language. Change of the words implies a shift in the meaning and feelings.

Understand the message

First, encourage the speaker to continue and help him/her think through. E.g. “Tell me more about…” or “Explain this perspective better”. More importantly, use open questions which start with what, how, which, who, and where.

  • “What do you mean by saying …?”
  • “What leads you to that conclusion?
  • “How is that affecting you?”
  • “What do you want to happen?”
  • “What are the results you want?”
  • “What is the worst things that could happen?”
  • “What stops you from…”
  • “What is the first step in this direction?”
  • “How can I help you to achieve that?”

Be very careful with asking WHY.

The why-questions are big spoilers. They are often subtly perceived as a form of accusation or telling off, where you call the other to explain himself. This is especially true when you put the emphasis is on why. E.g. Imagine what type of feelings evoke in you when you hear: “So, why do you do that?” orWhy did you decide to go in this direction?” You can ask the same/similar question in a different way.

Use WHAT instead. Say “What encourages you to do that?” or “What was your motivation to go in this direction?” You notice the power of curiosity behind the what-questions, don’t you? Choose to ask what-questions. They are great.

Absorb the message and reply

Don’t judge and don’t evaluate while you are hearing the message. This is really hard, I know. Our mind often jumps to conclusions and formulates opinions in a split of a second. It takes conscious effort and practice just to listen and stay loving and non-judgmental. Practice. There is a mental shift and a deeper connection for you to experience when you learn to stay non-judgmental in a conversation. And it’s worth it because the magic happens then.

Reflection demonstrates your understanding of the person’s message. Paraphrase what the person has communicated you both verbally and non-verbally. Use your body language to support your reflection.

  • “So, what you are saying is…”
  • “It seems that you see yourself trapped.”
  • “It sounds as if you …”
  • “It feels as if you …”
  • “You seem to be feeling happy / anxious / inspired / frustrated …”

There is also a unique power of metaphors and stories as they naturally appeal to our subconscious mind. Metaphors are conceptual in nature and are among our principal vehicles for understanding.

How can you use them in active listening?

Simply allow it to happen. Just allow images, feelings or sounds to come to you naturally and reflect them back. You respond in metaphors more than you think. They can be pretty short. E.g. you can reflect the metaphor that argument is war: “It feels he attacked all weak points of your argument. His criticism was right on target, wasn’t it?” Or you may e.g. say “It feels as if you are trapped in a room. You try to open the door hard but there is an opposite force that pushes it back. The harder you try the bigger the resistance.” … “Does it make any sense to you?” Note that you always bring it back to the other person to let him/her redefine the description or feelings.


If you want to end your conversation on the powerful note, simply end with calling for action.

  • “What is the first step for you to take now?” …… “When are you going to do that?”
  • “What does it need to happen for you to solve this issue” … “Which is the day to you do that?”

Active listening – a summary

In active listening you listen to the other person with the intention to understand. You forget your own thoughts, problems and agendas and you focus 100% on the other person.

In order to give the full attention you need to set up your stage well: set the intention, recognize and acknowledge distractions, build rapport and listen.

To really understand the message, you need to ask facilitative, usually open questions and reflect your understanding back. You repeat the process until you get in sync with feelings in order to understand the other person. Then you end up with helping the person to define basic action steps if a solution to a problem has to be found.

And in doing so, you have mastered the basics of successful coaching.

Embrace active listening.

There is NO better day than starting today. It will change your life.


Photo courtesy Fe Langdon, available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.

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