If you have opened this article you know that in order to communicate effectively it is necessary to know how to listen. Have you ever quarreled with people who did nothing but repeat the same things without listening?

Here, paying attention to what our interlocutor says is the basis for an exchange of information. You must listen to be able to understand the point of view of others . In this way you first understand your interlocutor, his motivations and his interests and only then do you advance your requests or propose a solution.

After all, if you want to go somewhere, first you need to understand where you are. Only in this way can you understand which is the best way to reach your goal.

In this article you will better understand what is meant by active listening and how you can improve your listening skills.

“The reason we have two ears and one mouth is that we have to listen more, talk less.”

– Zeno, Greek philosopher

Content index

Active listening: definition

Active and passive listening

Gordon’s thoughtful listening

Active empathic listening

The role of listening in communication

Active listening techniques

3 techniques for reflective listening

Examples of active listening 

Obstacles to active listening

The 12 obstacles to communication

Exercises to improve active listening


Active listening  is a way of listening to what we are told with an intentional effort to understand the point of view of others. The aim is to truly understand the point of view, motivations, thoughts and expectations of others, suspending any judgment.

To do this, an active effort is needed that differentiates this listening from simply listening in silence. This effort is also necessary to maintain an open, impartial and non-judgmental attitude.

But also from curiosity and the desire to take the other’s point of view to understand what motivates him. From these assumptions the reader can imagine that to listen actively and also necessary to speak.

Active listening in fact provides for attentive silence alternating with questions, reformulations and other interventions aimed at keeping the other person talking and empathizing with him. This is achieved by communicating both verbal level (‘tell me’), but also by a simple ‘ah’ rather than with facial expressions or a nod.


Let’s see first of all the main differences between active listening and passive listening. In passive listening the person remains silent. Silence is useful – indeed necessary – to start a good active listening.

However, it should not be prolonged too long. Communication is an exchange and not a reception of information. Try to imagine going to the doctor, only you talk and he doesn’t ask you anything looking at you in silence.

Do you trust a doctor who asks you nothing? Do you think he really understood your problem without even touching you or asking you a question?

Try to imagine a gallant date. You are sitting in front of a person who continues to remain silent. Maybe you start telling a story and she doesn’t even blink.

Are you not starting to feel uncomfortable and wondering what he will ever be thinking? Listening actively is like dancing and it is the actively listening person who leads.

To hear is not to listen. What is the difference between hearing and listening? It’s like when you listen to a music you like by paying attention to words compared to when you put the television in the background while you cook.

In the first case you hear what the singer says, you get emotional, maybe they go through the head of memories … In the second case you wouldn’t even know how to summarize the episode to those who haven’t seen it.

It takes attention and commitment for the sound that hits our ears to acquire meaning . For example, when we discuss animatedly while the other person is talking we think about what to say we are hearing what he is saying, but we are not listening to him.

It is difficult to understand people. The first step is to be aware that what people spontaneously say is not enough. The active listening process is similar to that of those who try to find the pieces of a puzzle  that are certainly in the box but are not placed before our eyes.


How do you feel when you talk about your problem and are immediately interrupted by someone who already has the solution?

He can be your boss with a criticism, without even understanding the problem you were bringing him. Your partner who belittles some of the day’s difficulties by telling you what you should and should do, when in reality you were just venting. Or your mother who – even if you are married with children – gives you the lecture when you are only telling her the news.

The message that is perceived in the absence of real active listening is simple: ‘ I don’t care’  or  ‘I (of your problems) know more than you and therefore you better listen to me!’

Learning to listen actively allows you to understand others and their point of view. To improve your relationships and learn to empathize with others.

You will be able to develop one of the tools to be able to take the perspective of others and to understand the motivations that explain their behavior and emotions. This is a skill that will come in handy. Whether you want to improve a relationship, learn to manage groups better but also to become more effective in dealing with superiors or customers.


Thomas Gordon has defined an active listening approach in four parts:

  1. Passive listening (silence)
  2. Welcoming
  3. Warm invitations
  4. Thoughtful listening

Passive listening or silence serves to give space to the other. Starting to listen in silence also serves to make the speaker understand that he has our full attention. This makes him feel important and makes us understand that we are willing to listen.

An interested listening is also communicated by our non-verbal behavior. The gaze on who speaks first, but also an open posture.

Being absolutely silent can become counterproductive. If you had any professors who listened to what you said without moving a muscle, you know what I mean. Even if you happened to speak in front of groups of people, you probably don’t like the listener in silence.

This is why it is good to use messages , both verbal and non-verbal, that make it clear that we are listening. They are encouragement to continue. You can use words that emphasize what is said: ‘tell me’, ‘I understand’ but also nods, smiles and looks.

At this stage you start talking but only as a support for what the other says.

Then the warm invitation phase begins . That is where you use words to push the interlocutor to deepen what he is saying . If we just listen, people talk less than they do when encouraged.

Communication gains according to the quantity and quality of the information you collect. For this reason, encouraging is very useful.

Eventually the time comes when you can start  thinking about who is speaking. This is the real core of Gordon’s active listening which is, in fact, also called reflective listening. The aim is to return what you are told but in different words.

This allows you to check if you really understand what you’re being told. The person you reflect will feel heard and understood and thus you will lay the foundations for an open, honest and collaborative relationship.

Reflexive listening is empathic. He plans to declare the idea that we made ourselves of how the other person feels, leaving him the space to correct us. There are two cases: either you guess how he feels or you are corrected and in this way you learn to better understand that person.

For Gordon the active principle of active listening is in reflecting how the other feels.


A saying said that if you want peace, you must prepare for war . Similarly, s and you want to communicate, you have to be able to listen.

Active listening is the foundation of any effective communication. The basis on which we can understand, resolve crises, negotiate but also improve relationships with people.

How did you feel the last time you really felt really listened? That it is in a moment of difficulty but also only during a simple outlet for a trivial problem.

Maybe you happened to complain about a disservice and you found a person who listened to you. Usually, it takes little to make a customer happy and, conversely, if the customer service is not willing to listen, a crisis may break out.

When you are listening to a person and you want to relate to it, understand it and cultivate an empathic relationship, you must try to keep two aspects at bay. Two human tendencies that create distance between people and can annoy others.

  1. The tendency to correct: that is, to say how the other should behave, should feel, etc.
  2. Giving advice: that is, giving solutions to the problems and difficulties they tell us, which often a person had already thought of and who is not asking you.


These are some techniques you can use to try to improve not only your active listening but also the way you relate to others.


Active listening is an intentional act that commits our attention to grasping what the other refers to us both explicitly and implicitly, that is … It commits us to reflect on what we listen to through a conscious reflection effort on communication .

Words carry different meanings: the content of the message and the associated emotion (or the attitude with which the message is brought).

For example, an employee goes to his boss and says, ‘I finished that job’ smiling. The content is fairly obvious and the employee probably expects him to be assigned a new task.

But let’s take another example of an employee going to the same boss and saying, ‘ I finally managed to finish that job’  in a tired and frustrated tone. If the boss reacts by giving him another task, how will the worker feel? Will he feel understood and work hard immediately, happy to have gone to give the news of having finished the boss?

I don’t mean that the boss has to spend an hour talking to this employee. Not even that I have to give him a day off. But even just noticing the emotion behind this communication could change the quality of their relationship.

Many times the verbal message is less important than the emotion with which it is accompanied. What most people do, though, is to answer only the verbal part. If you want to communicate effectively try to respond to the emotions that accompany words.

– ‘I finally managed to finish that job’
– ‘Was it heavy?’

– ‘Yes I wasn’t expecting it but it put me in difficulty’
– ‘I guess you have little desire to get back to work. Unfortunately we have a hard pace lately. I hope things can change in the short term, but now I would like you to get back to work on this task, can I count on you? ‘

In this way it responds to emotions, so you give value to the point of view of others and make the other person feel understood. It illustrates a difficult situation and gives value to the person and his contribution by asking for an assumption of responsibility


The use of minimal encouragement is fairly trivial. These are all those little elements of communication that say  ‘go ahead, I’m listening to you with interest’.

The least encouragement, however, are usually non-verbal communications or simple exclamations / sounds. For example ‘ah’, ‘mh-mh’  , nodding, nodding, etc.

Reading these words will not revolutionize the way you communicate. But now you have learned a new term. Try to notice when you use the least encouragement and how others respond to you.

– ‘Yes I was not very convinced … then he pointed out a couple of things that did not convince me …’
– ‘Mh-mh’
– ‘Yes, in short, there were these problems that could give trouble … ‘


Repetition was the technique most used by Carl Rogers, the psychologist who gave rise to the current of humanistic psychology. Still this approach is at the basis of some approaches to counseling .

Repetition consists simply in repeating the last sentences spoken by the other. It may seem strange but it works. Obviously you have to keep a serious attitude. This technique works very well to encourage a person to proceed in his story.

– ‘No in the end I was no longer behind that speech, you know how it is … I talked about it with Lucia and then I gave up …’
– ‘You let it go.’
– ‘Yes I wasn’t very convinced … then he pointed out to me a couple of things that didn’t convince me …’
– ‘You noticed some things that didn’t convince you’
– ‘Here, in reality, they didn’t convince her … I would be went on! ‘ 
(with annoyed tone)

If you use  repetition  carefully it can give you more control in the conversation. If the speaker gives you a lot of different information, you can direct where to carry on the conversation depending on which phrase you repeat.

– ‘Yes I was not very convinced … then he pointed out a couple of things that did not convince me …’
– ‘He pointed out things to you’

– ‘Yes, he said that according to her, the requirements were missing minimum safety ‘

Imagine repetition like a torch: the point where you want to see more.


If you’ve read the Gordon active listening part, you know what we’re talking about. Reflecting is a fantastic ability which if you master well allows you to understand people and develop relationships based on empathy.

To reflect you have to make explicit in words how you think the other person feels. Do it in an affirmative and non-interrogative tone ( ‘are you frustrated’  and not ‘are you frustrated?’ ).  This  may sound strange but it greatly favors both conversation and relationship.

If you keep a calm tone and focus on the other, if you understand how he feels he will feel understood and continue with other details otherwise he will correct you. Obviously you don’t have to say it in an aggressive tone or by exclaiming as if you’re sure (‘ you’re frustrated! ‘).

– ‘Here they really didn’t convince her … I would have gone ahead!’ (annoyed)
‘It bothers you for letting go’


Summarizing is useful to make sure you understand correctly and to take stock of what has been said. When you summarize, you must try to stay true to what you are told. Use the same words used by the other person and stick to the facts.

Whenever you summarize, give the other person the opportunity to confirm what you say and correct any inaccuracies.

– ‘So if I understood correctly you were working on a project. Did you show it to Lucia who told you that they would not approve it for lack of safety requirements and so you gave up? ‘


Paraphrasing is similar to summarizing, the difference is that you use different words. Taking the liberty to say the same thing by paraphrasing with different words is useful to make sure you understand well enough to say things differently.

Always using the same words is useful if you talk about facts and behaviors. If you want to shed light on what happened and think about what is objective.

If you really want to understand a person, when he talks about thoughts, feelings and desires it is better to paraphrase. Under these circumstances people often speak using a very subjective lexicon. So if I use some words – sometimes even with metaphors and similes – I am communicating my subjective experience.

If we repeat these same words , they can answer ‘yes exactly I meant that’ but maybe it is not said that we understood what it really means  ‘I feel really at fault’  for that person If now I ask ten people to define I feel really at fault I get ten different answers.

Each time you paraphrase you give the other person the opportunity to confirm what you understand correctly and what you don’t.

– ‘I don’t know I don’t feel like doing this anymore. It is no longer as before, it seems to me years have passed! At the time it wasn’t perfect but we were doing really well. We were a team, now instead … then to work with Marco … well you know how not? Here I don’t know I would need something stimulating, different … ‘
-‘ If I understand what you’re saying you think things have changed for the worse. Do you seem to have ended up working alone (team opposite) and would you prefer to work with other people on other projects? ‘

Deepening: The ‘I message’ to manage difficult communications without offending others


The three biggest barriers to active listening are:

  1. Distraction
  2. Interpretations
  3. Personal values

These barriers can make understanding others more difficult.


We become distracted when we are not focused on the other person and what he says.  This can happen because we are paying attention to other things or we are in an environment that distracts us. It can also happen that you keep thinking about what to say next. So  maybe you find yourself talking to you as long as the other is talking to you.


Interpretations are a big problem. We tend to interpret everything automatically and without realizing it.

So often we don’t react to what a person does or says. But rather to the interpretation that we give of it . A classic example is to think that a person is angry with us or does not consider us. While maybe we met her on a bad day, she is going through a period of stress or she is like this and behaves in this way with everyone.

As a psychologist what I understand is that the skill of a psychologist is not given by being good at interpreting. But rather by  understanding when he is interpreting and not trusting his interpretations. But rather try to ask the right questions so that the other person can tell us clearly what we want to know. This is a forgery process  .

In other words,  if I think of something, I do  n’t take it for granted, but rather  I look for elements that give me wrong. This is because our brain is usually very good at seeking confirmation of its interpretations. This is called  confirmation bias.  Or a  mechanism of human mint to get an idea and then interpret everything to be consistent with that idea.


Very often our values ​​become something that can make us judge others. To motivate us to try to change the ideas of others and their behavior. If you are firmly convinced of something you may feel justified or even in a duty to defend and promote these ideas.

This can lead us to deny the right of others to have a different point of view. Be it politics, religion, ecology or even family and work. When you meet people who have values ​​other than yours, you are careful not to consider them people who do not respect your values. Maybe they simply follow different ones.

Try to cultivate an open and non-judgmental attitude towards those who think differently from you. After all, it’s an excellent opportunity to try practicing active listening.


psychologist Thomas Gordon has identified 12 types of common reactions that do not represent a form of listening. These reactions become real obstacles that hinder communication making it difficult:

  1. Give orders, directives or commands.
  2. Warn, scold or threaten.
  3. Give advice, suggestions or solutions.
  4. Persuade with logic, argue rationally or give lessons.
  5. Tell others what morals should do or do.
  6. Dissent, judge, criticize or reprimand.
  7. Agree, approve or praise.
  8. To be ashamed, ridiculed or labeled.
  9. Interpret, analyze.
  10. Reassure, understand or console.
  11. Question, investigate.
  12. Being estranged, distracted, humorous or changing the subject.

Gordon also called his 12 obstacles ‘roadblocks’, or obstacles blocking the road.

These obstacles not only block communication, but imply a relationship in which one person is in a position of authority over the other. The underlying message is: ‘trust me what you have to do’.

Unless someone openly asks us for advice, saying what to do to others is experienced negatively. Shift dynamics from collaboration to competition.

Furthermore, very often we end up giving advice that a person has already given himself.


In the first place it is worth dwelling for a moment on a short exercise of self-observation. This is to understand where to work. Then I will recommend some exercises to practice when you talk to others.

In addition to these exercises, try practicing the active listening techniques described above.

If you learn to use those techniques automatically, without having to think about it, I assure you that you will become much more effective in communicating and dealing with others.


Try to reflect for a moment on the following questions:

  • What are your difficulties in listening to others?
  • What are the characteristics of the other that facilitate your listening?
  • What are the characteristics of the other that hinder your listening?


The next time you talk to someone, try asking these questions:

  • What emotions did the other show?
  • What clues did I understand?
  • How did I react to his words?
  • How did I react to your emotions?


The next time you talk to someone try to understand their vision of the problem they tell you:

  • Watch and try to curb the tendency to give advice and solutions.
  • Watch and try to curb the tendency to correct and argue to be right.
  • Assume that – given what you think – your reaction is justified.

Try asking yourself what emotions you feel and what it explains:

  • What are you afraid of happening?
  • What expectations did he have? Is there anything you cared about that didn’t happen or something negative and unexpected happened?
  • What do you expect from the people you speak of?


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