Active Listening
The two primary ways we interact with one another is talking and listening. We learned all people stuff very haphazardly and we learned to talk and listen haphazardly, too.

Parents are always anxious for the first words that come from their child's mouth. The baby babbles a few syllables and Mom and Dad run to the phone to tell the relatives and friends that the baby has "learned to talk." When it comes to listening, however, there's not nearly as much fanfare. I don't recall a time when a parent has excitedly told me that her little boy learned to listen for the first time. Listening is taken for granted.

In recent years, it has become almost fashionable to tell others that they should "really listen." Men should really listen to women. Women should really listen to men. Parents should really listen to their kids. Kids should really listen to their parents. Spouses should really listen to one another. Politicians should really listen to the electorate. Doctors should really listen to their patients. People should really listen to other people. I'm not entirely sure listening for understanding and appreciation is what some of the gurus of "really listening" mean.

You have been around parents that tell their kids to do something. The kids don't do it and the parents tell them again. Finally, three or four tries later, the kids finally get up and does what the parents said to do. After witnessing these common, age-old scenes, the parents turn to you and declare, "Kids just don't listen anymore."

My personal belief is that kids listen just fine, men listen fine, women listen fine, spouses listen fine, politicians listen fine, doctors listen fine, and people in general listen fine. They just don't do what the parents, women, men, spouses, electorate, patients, and other people want. They don't hear anything that will give them the rewards they are seeking. They have a hard time finding something worthwhile in what they are being told. They aren't interested in doing things others want because in the doing they would feel like less than the somebodies they have got to feel like. Listening has come to mean people do what others say to do. If you listen to me, you do more than just hear me, you take the actions I tell you to take.

Listening for the purpose of understanding and appreciating another's point of view is much different than listening which requires us to do something, to take an action another demands. This is the kind of listening we need in our interpersonal interactions. To be understood, to be appreciated for the unique people we are, and to be accepted not inspite of , but because of the differences between us are universal goals. The first steps on the road to these goals is listening. The second step cannot be taken til the first have been and this second is being listened to.

Here are some interesting statements about listening I have collected.

The average person spends more than 50% of everday "listening".

Anxiety and confusion in life often stems from misunderstandings between people.

Most people listen with only 25 to 50% efficiency meaning 50 to 75% of what we hear is never processed.

Carl Rogers, the father of nondirective therapy, suggested, " The one who consistently listens with understanding is the one who eventually is most likely to be listened to."

He also said, "A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after awhile he'll know something."

Given these observations and statements, listening and more importantly, listening with understanding, is a skill invaluable to us all. Though we pick up listening skills very haphazardly, we can learn to listen much better. A strong case could be made that learning to listen better and using the skills is directly proportional to your success in daily life.

Poor Listening Symptoms

There are a number of symptoms and signs of poor listening which we can all recognize. See if you have experienced to some degree the following characteristics in others and yourselves.

How about the person who considerately finishes sentences for you so you won't have to.

The persons who are thoughtful enough to interrupt you in mid-sentence so they can give you the benefit of their new thoughts.

Of course, there are those who have decided that being preoccupied with themselves is infinitely more productive and interesting than paying attention to anything you might have to say.

And then there are people who want to help you broaden your conversation by abruptly changing the subject for you.

Oh, yes! The notetakers, who intend to write down everything you say so that their memoirs will be 100% complete.

There, too, are the groups who find that the best response is no response. You can have the fun of guessing whether or not they heard you, much less listened.

When the topic is mildly uncomfortable there are those who will lose their tempers and expect you to help find them.

Finally, the fidgeter whose impatience leaks out in the form of pleasing gesticulations like watch the second-hand on your watch or tapping their pencil or....

We must admit that at one time or another we are all card-carrying members of these clubs. We are preoccupied with something else, we are ready to talk about something else, we are not interested in what others have to say, we become angry with someone's point of view, and on and on. But there are times when our lives could be less confused and more comfortable if we overcame some of these poor listening habits.

Passive vs Active Listening

Overcoming our poor listening habits means learning new skills or skills which we know, but somehow forget. The fundamentals, tools, and concepts we will soon discuss are called active listening skills. When we employ the strategies and tactics of active listening, our relationships with others important to us improve and our fleeting interactions with less significant others become more manageable. In short, the challenges and problems of everyday life become less troublesome.

Before we delve into active listening, we will examine the companionship of active and passive listening. Active listening means a listener engages his or her mind with thoughts directed towards the speaker and the speaker's message, attends to the rational and emotional aspects of the message, seeks a thorough understanding of the message, and indicates, through appropriate responses, that the speaker's message is being received and processed. Active listening is speaker- oriented.

Passive listening, on the other hand, is listener-centered. Passive listeners engage their minds with thoughts trained on their own motives and needs. They attend to the rational and emotional aspects of the message as it relates to their agendas. Understanding the message is not nearly as important to passive listeners as being certain that when the speaker has finished, listeners respond with their own message. Therefore, while the speaker is still talking, passive listeners spend their energy formulating their responses.

Many of the previously discussed symptoms of poor listening find their genesis in passive listening. Inevitably, the most accomplished active listeners will passively listen. They have no choice. In order to respond appropriately, by definition, we must passively listen.

Passive listening occurs for other reasons. The human rate of speech is 125 to 175 words per minute. However, the human brain can process 300 to 400 words per minute. Since the full capacity of the brain is not used, the mind will naturally fill the capacity by paying attention to other things. For instance, physical listener distractions such as fatigue, stress, and discomfort can cause passive listening. Speakers may contribute to passive listening with their personal appearance, voice quality, preparation, or skills.

Outside distractions are other sources. Noise, disruptive activities, and interruptions promote passive listening. We will often drift from focusing on the speaker because of keywords which cause us to daydream or concern ourselves with something else. Finally, when we have our own agendas, passive listening will likely occur.

Minimizing passive listening, not eliminating it, is a worthwhile objective. To do this, the percentage of time and energy used in listening that is speaker-oriented should be increased while reducing listener-centered efforts. Paying more attention to the speaker than to ourselves is the first step in improving our listening skills.

Knowing the difference between passive and active listening, how passive and active listening work, and why passive listening happens, start us on our way to improve our listening skills. In the next section, a review of fundamentals, concepts, and tools we can actually use assists us in our goal to be better listeners.

Improving Listening Skills

So what can we do to improve our listening? There are a few things we can understand and remember.

First, the organs for listening are much different than the organs for hearing. If we can remember to use all of them, our listening immediately improves.

We can also use the Invest Model as a simple way to remember what to do when listening is critical. Next, there are listening responses we can employ to demonstrate we are listening and respect the speaker.

Finally, understanding the basic listening processes in relation to the Behavioral Principles helps us understand the impact that listening has on others.

Organs of Hearing vs Organs for Listening


Our ears are designed to gather sounds, a wide variety of sounds. This act of collecting sound is called hearing. In effect, many of us stop right there, with the collection of sound, when it comes to relationships.

Have you ever felt a sense of dis-ease when someone says, " I hear what you say" and everything they do suggests they have not understood you at all? In fact, they told you the truth. They did hear you. They did collect the sound vibrations you produced. Their ears were probably functioning just fine. But their ears are organs for hearing. Not for listening.

The definition of listening is to hear with thoughtful attention. Clearly, more is happening in listening than in hearing. We could say the listening organs beyond the ears, include the eyes, heart, and mind. Here's a look at these organs and there roles in listening.


The eyes play an important role in listening. Non-verbal behavior and communication is almost exclusively collected by the eyes. According to research and studies, as much as 75% of that which is communicated between people comes in the form of non-verbal communications. Therefore, augmenting the ears with the abilities of the eyes is essential in listening.

An added benefit of employing the eyes accrues to the listener. He or she demonstrates that they are indeed listening to the speaker. Showing that you are paying attention encourages the speaker.


The heart is naturally a circulatory organ, but for our purposes it represents the organ of empathy. True listening does not mean we agree with the speaker. It does suggest that we intellectually identify with his or her point of view. Some communication situations can be very emotionally charged. When emotions run high, participants often feel threatened or anxious. As a result, behavior and communications become defensive and progressively unproductive.

Empathy used throughout the listening process promotes productive exchanges of facts and feelings. The heart, in this case, is necessary in effective listening.


Akin to the heart is the mind. Where the heart bespeaks the emotional nature of listening, the mind refers to the rational. "Thoughtful attention" means just that: thoughts about the content and process in listening must occur for meaning within a message to be received. Isn't that the point, getting meaning from what we hear.

The eyes, heart, and mind must work with the ears to seek understanding from messages others send. These three listening organs are called the "third ear" in discussing communications. So when the third ear is mentioned, we mean employing the eyes, heart, and mind. The goal of the ears is to hear. The third ear is aimed at listening.

The Invest Model

The Invest Model is a model for active listening. It is a simple way to remember the importance of listening and to get prepared to listen in any situation.


The first step is invest. This means establish a commitment to hearing and understanding what the speaker is saying. You, the listener, must develop a sense of purpose for listening, for instance, what you will get from listening. It also means you must truly believe in the importance of the other person's needs, values, and perspectives.


The next step is to divest yourself. This is probably the most difficult step to take. As the listener, you must give up your prejudices, opinions and pre-conceived notions about the subject and the speaker. This is not because the speaker's points of view are better than yours or he is right and you are wrong. It is suggested to help you seek objectivity and open-mindedness. Above all divesture means rising above your learned needs.


You are asked to reflect in the third step. Here you involve your reflective self in what the speaker is saying and are encouraged to listen "between the lines" and "squint" with the third ear (eyes, heart, and mind). Afterall, there generally is more there than meets the ears and your objective is to understand the words and music of the message.


All that has gone before prepares you for the respond step. This final step asks you to check out and reflect back your understanding of what the speaker said. Here you surface what you have heard and strive for congruence in the communications.

You'll notice that the structure of the model is step by step and chronological. Before the listener can reflect and then respond, s/he must invest in the process and divest him/herself of prejudice. Active listening cannot take place unless each element of the model is observed: Without "investment", the communication process is irrelevant; without "divestiture", the process is listener- centered; without "reflection", truth cannot be distinguished from fact; without "response", a shared understanding cannot be established.

The Invest Model Summary

1) Invest in the listening process by finding a sincere and genuine purpose for receiving what the speaker says.

2) Divest yourself of your values, attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and anything else that could get in the way of you listening openly to what the speaker says.

3) Reflect on the message you think the speaker is sending and the message you may be receiving.

4) Respond to the speaker by checking out your inferences and testing your understanding of what the speaker has said.

Listening Responses

Okay. The basics of listening have been laid out. The Invest Model for listening encourages the listener to respond to let the speaker know we are listening, to seek understanding, and to preserve the speaker's sense of self. But what are the responses which help us accomplish these goals. Four classes of responses assist listeners in reaching their goals. They are reflection of feelings, paraphrasing, summarizing what is said, and asking content questions.

Reflecting Feelings

Reflecting the feelings we sense within the messages of the speaker helps us to understand what the speaker means by what he says. Not all messages are laden with feelings. But most often people braid the feelings and the contents of their messages together. When we listen with the third ear, we become aware of the emotional components of messages.

Why would it be important for a listener to attend and reflect the emotional message, the music, of the speaker? As human beings, we are much more atuned to responding to emotional messages with emotional responses than with rational responses. The most common and poignant example is our response to someone who gets mad at us. The general response is emotional; we get angry, too. For instance, when I am late for an appointment, the person I was to meet might say, " You are an inconsiderate human being with no concern for others." My response may be, "I'm not considerate? You don't even give a person a chance to apologize and explain. You're the one who is inconsiderate." This is certainly an emotional response.

I could reflect my friend's feelings to promote understanding. If I had responded differently, there is a chance our interaction could have gotten off to a better start. For instance, I could have said, "Jeff, you sound very angered, frustrated, and offended by my being late. I'm very sorry, I had no idea you would feel this way."

Another reason to reflect the feelings we think we heard in the message is to discover the importance of the speaker's message. We can learn so much more when we understand how someone feels about something.

Finally, we validate the speaker by recognizing their feelings and demonstrating that we want to understand. Therefore, simply reflecting the feelings the speaker seems to send is important and valuable in our interactions and relationships.


Paraphrasing is putting into our own words the ideas and feelings in the speaker's message. This is an especially useful response to be absolutely sure that you are understanding the other person. When accuracy is the goal of an interaction with others, we have a problem. We can never be sure we know exactly what they meant. Paraphrasing gives us the opportunity to test our understanding and gives the speaker the chance to modify the message to be certain we have gotten the proper data and information.


Summarizing what someone has said is particularly useful when the speaker gives us a message that contains complicated or detailed information. Frequently, when a speaker has a lot of information to give to us, we can feel overwhelmed. Summarizing allows the listener a chance to catch up with the speaker. If we, as the listeners, feel overwhelmed by the message, we can interupt the speaker and condense what the speaker has said to check out our understanding. Otherwise, we will miss the total message trying to catch up to the speaker.

Content Questions

Finally, asking content questions using closed or open questions, helps us further our understanding of the speaker's message. You may need to interupt the speaker. But speaker's often appreciate a good question about what they are saying. To ask a question indicates that you are paying attention and interested in what is being said.

Listening Responses Summary

1) Reflect the feelings the speaker appears to be sending in his or her message.

2) Paraphrase, in your own words, what the speaker has said to confirm your understanding.

3) Summarize the message the speaker has sent when you feel overwhelmed by the information.

4) Ask Content Questions, either closed or openned questions, to further understand the speaker's message.

Listening and the Behavioral Principles

Listening is a complex behavior in the context of the Principles of Behavior. It naturally involves two people, each with their own set of learned needs, sense of self, and patterns of behavior. The Data-Inference-Prophecy process and Words & Music concept play significant roles in how listening operates. Of course, listening means working within the Circularity of Behavior. So, what is going on when we listen to others? When we give others our attention, what are we really giving them?

EBGTFLS & "No. 1 Job"

Listening can show others that we honor them as worthy human beings. If the number one job of every human being is the protection and enhancement of his or her sense of self, then listening certainly helps the speaker accomplish that job. And if "everybody's gotta feel like somebody", listening to them can send the message that we feel and think they are somebody.

Remove the Sense of Threat

When we don't listen, the speaker frequently knows it from the signals we give. When we don't listen, we could threaten the person's sense of self and should not be surprised if she acts defensively towards us. Listening and showing that we are listening often removes the sense of threat.


Listening means that we are gathering data, what is said and done and how it is said and done. We have no choice but to play the data through our perceptual filters and come up with inferences about what we have gathered. When we are listening effectively, we are gathering more and more data, avoiding selective perceptions, challenging our perceptual filters, checking out our inferences, and prophesizing more carefully.

Words and Music

The data we gather while listening is exclusively words and music. We don't just listen to the rational and factual part of a message. We try to understand the underlying meaning and genuineness of the words the speaker uses. Without both, there is a very good chance we are missing a majority of the message.

Circularity of Behavior

Of course, listening is integral to a positive Circularity of Behavior. A sure way to get a Malevolent Snoball rolling is by listening poorly to someone who needs for you to listen very much and the only way to begin turning a negative situation around is by listening and paying attention to what is going on.

This is a snapshot of how listening and the Principles of Behavior relate. Listening is a valuable skill to effectively use the principles in our daily interactions.

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