Active Listening

Listening is a process that requires your full participation and focusing your full attention on the intended audience. Listening is a commitment to understanding how others feel and seeing their perspective. This means putting aside your own judgments, beliefs, and biases to allow the speaker to communicate their thoughts and feelings to you. This will, in turn, allow you as the listener to see the world from the speaker’s eyes impartially. By listening to the individual, you are indirectly complimenting him or her. You are showing the speaker that you care about what is happening to them and that it is important to you. People will tend to respond to active listening more and openly if they feel you are building trust and that you appreciate them.

During the course of conversation, keep in mind:

  • Listen with Empathy– Put yourself in the person’s shoes. You want to see it from the speaker’s point of view. Concentrate and focus on what they are saying.
  • Listen with Openness– Hear the entire statement before making any judgments. Give the speaker a few seconds before you join back into the conversation.
  • Listen with Awareness– Listen not only to what was said, but also what was NOT said. Sometimes you can learn as much by what the speaker leaves out or avoids in the conversation.
    • Being aware also means listening to the tone and information being presented. you relate to the speaker with any information you might already know? How does the person react to your questions or while talking? Does the tone of voice match up with the content?
    • Also, be aware of yourself. You do not want to let your own judgments or reactions cloud your thinking or interpretation of the speaker.
  • Avoid Classifying the Speaker– By putting someone into a category, we as the listener then try to fit everything they say into those classifications. It can help to know the background of an individual such as their religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, etc., but this does not mean that people fit a strict description of the category. People can be unpredictable.
  • Avoid Jumping to Assumptions– Don’t assume that you know EXACTLY what the other person is trying to say or what their intentions are. Assumptions can sometimes be correct, but more often than not they will get you in trouble.
  • Identify Type of Reasoning– This can be a daunting task when sifting through faulty and good reasoning. As the listener, try your best to pick apart faulty reasoning during the conversation.
  • Evaluate Facts and Evidence– Listen carefully for both the significance and relatedness to the argument the speaker is making.
  • Pay Attention to Voice and Reactions– You need to listen to their tone of voice, voice fluctuation, and reactions. This could be a major hint in how this person is truly feeling. It clues us in as to how to help the speaker.
  • Avoid Distractions– We usually want a quiet environment with minimal distractions. We want to devote our attention to the speaker.
  • Remember Your Role as the Listener–  We are here to listen, ask questions, provide suggestions, and refer the person appropriately.



To paraphrase is to state in your own words what you think someone just said. It keeps the listener busy trying to understand and make sense of what the other person is saying. This becomes extremely useful when you believe that the speaker has stated something of importance to their argument. You can paraphrase using such phrases as:

  • “What I hear you saying is…”
  • “In other words…”
  • “Let me understand, what was going on for you…”
  • “What happened was…”


Clarifying and Feedback

Clarifying is asking questions until you are sure you get more of the picture. Clarifying and paraphrasing can sometimes go hand-in-hand. You are gathering more information and background to understand what is being said. Hone in on the main ideas and not necessarily the specifics. Only bring the specific evidence up if it supports the main ideas you are aiming for. Clarifying helps you to focus in the main generalities, and it lets the speaker know you are listening to them.

Feedback occurs after you have clarified and understood the material presented to you. This is the point of the conversation you want to share your reactions in a non-judgmental fashion. You can share what you felt, experienced, and thought. This is immediate, honest support.


Types of Questions

Open-Ended Questions-These types of questions are those that cannot usually be answered with a few words and need further explanation. They are used to facilitate discussion and explanation.

  • “What” questions often solicit facts and gather information.
  • “What happened when you confronted your roommate?”
  • “How” questions aim to sequence information as well as gathering information about process and emotion.
  • “How do you feel about that?”
  • “Why” questions produce reasons and thought process. Often if you ask someone “why,” they need to think about it and rationalize.
  • “Why did you do it?”
  • “Could” and “would” questions facilitate self-exploration.
  • “Would you change anything in your life right now?”
  • “Could you think of a compromise?”


Close-Ended Questions– Closed questions are typically the questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” They are used to gather information and pace the conversation. These are sometimes easier to utilize sparsely. Open-ended questions allow the speaker to explain themselves.

  • “Are you comfortable talking with a counselor?”
  • “Do you live with this person?”



Another important listening skill that shows you are paying attention to the speaker and understand the content is to reflect back what the speaker said. Learning how to “reflect” can be a key communication tool in working the Hotline. An effective reflection summarizes what the person just said to you cutting to the chase, covering the main points. The reflection should be short, simple, and easily understood by the speaker. If the reflection is too long, then you may irritate the speaker or have them lose their train of thought. You also do not want to repeat back exactly what the person says. An example of a good reflection might be:

Speaker: “Recently, I feel like I have been under a lot of stress. School has really been a major issue this year. I am taking 18 credits right now, and I have never had to do this before. I don’t know if I can handle the workload of six classes on top of everyday life. I am falling apart.”

Listener: “It sounds like you have been stressed out lately by the amount of workload you have in school taking 18 credits and don’t know if you are able to keep it up.”

Realize that the reflection was close to the same as what the speaker said, and it was a short summary of the key points given by the speaker. It is not too short to take away from they said, nor too long to take attention away from the speaker. You notice the listener started off their reflection with the phrase “it sounds like…” Some other phrases to consider starting a reflection with might be:

  • “In other words…”
  • “It looks like…”
  • “So you’re saying…”
  • “You mean…”
  • “It seems that…”

When you are using reflections, it might be a good idea to have a hint of uncertainty in your voice. This will let the speaker know that you are trying to understand what they are saying, and it leaves room for clarification if need be and encourages the speaker to keep talking.

Also, keep in mind to listen for how the person is “feeling.” If you hear words like “upset” or “stressed,” then reflect those feelings back to the speaker. “It sounds like you have been upset lately.” Reflections help build rapport and can create an emotional bond if the speaker knows you are trying to comfort them and understand that they might be “upset,” etc.



A complicated, but valuable, tool in communicating with your speaker is that of summarization. When you feel the conversation starting to wander off topic and want to refocus attention, summarizing the main points can quickly bring it back. After the individual has said their piece, you want to effectively cover all the pertinent material briefly and in a well balanced summary. You want to be careful though. If the speaker thinks you are being biased or forgot information, this could hurt the relationship that we trying to build in the short time we have to talk with the individual. It could lead to potential disagreements or arguments. The best times to use summaries are if:

  • When emotion is clouding the issue.
  • When one side’s point of view is not being appreciated or understood.
  • When you feel it might be time to conclude a point, argument, or piece of the conversation.
  • When both sides have come to agree that they understand one another.

An example of summarization might be:

Speaker: “I am a freshman psychology major. I can go home on the weekends sometimes. I am pretty close to my family including my three brothers and two sisters. Let’s see, what else can I tell you? I was thinking about what you might ask before I called, and I thought something I could talk about is that I haven’t really made any new friends here at college. I had a lot of friends back in high school, but I haven’t had much time at all to socialize since I have been here. College is a lot harder than high school. I used to be an A student, but my grades have been subpar. Plus I don’t know how to go about meeting new people I guess. I’m not into drinking, which most of my peers do on the weekends, and I haven’t been here long enough to know how to meet other people around town. Also, I broke up with my boyfriend when I came here. We both agreed that we should date other people, but now I am not so sure. I guess I miss him more than I thought I would. Maybe that’s just because I haven’t met anyone here yet. I don’t know.”

Listener: “So, let me see if I can summarize what you’ve shared so far. You come from a pretty close family. You’re finding college to be more academically challenging than high school. You’re not sure how to go about making new friends. You’re also wondering if you made the right decision by breaking up with your boyfriend. Sounds like you are going through a lot in adjusting to the college lifestyle.”

Notice that the listener took away main points from the speaker’s description and narrowed it into a concise, streamlined summary of issues to focus on. The listener also demonstrated that he or she was hearing the person out and understands how much is going on in this person’s life. It did not come off as rude or biased in any manner.

Most importantly, do not forget to listen to the most important audience of all – yourself.

-The Caring Counselor

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