How To Become a Better Listener

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
– Epictetus

An important life coaching lesson is that there’s a difference between listening and hearing, and it’s the difference between passive listening and active listening. Active listening is just that — active.

When we’re actively listening, we’re making a conscious effort to stay actively engaged in a conversation. Instead of passively letting the other person’s words pass through our ears, we’re processing what the other person is saying and trying to truly understand them. This is something that life coaches need to be particularly good at. Listening actively to what your clients are saying is perhaps one of the most important jobs for a life coach.

Active listening can be a challenge, but it’s worth it.

Misunderstandings are often the root of arguments. However, misunderstandings are often avoidable through being an active listener.

One reason is that active listening involves completely hearing a person out. A misunderstanding can occur when we conclude that we know what a person is saying after only a few sentences, and we then tune them out to begin formulating our response. When we do this, we miss the full explanation of that person’s feelings and concerns, as well as the subtle nuances — such as body language, tone of voice, and facial expression — that provide a good deal of insight into a person’s meaning.

Formulating our rebuttal while the other person is speaking is, arguably, the greatest barrier to active listening. We pick up bits and pieces of what the speaker is saying and begin thinking about what we want to say in response.

A related barrier to active listening is judging the content of what a person is saying instead of listening to the person’s intent. Certain words or topics can really push our buttons, triggering anger or an urge to get defensive.

When we’re upset by what a person is saying, we stop listening all together and focus on our anger, thinking, “How dare he say that!” or, “Boy, do I have something to say to that!”

Emotional responses to statements are completely normal and even healthy. What we can do to avoid emotion overpowering our ability to listen is to simply take note of how something makes us feel and temporarily tuck it away — avoid dwelling on the anger.

Then, when it’s time to respond, share the emotion in a productive way by saying something like, “When you said X, it made me feel upset, frustrated, etc.” A statement like this one has the added benefit of repeating back to the speaker what he or she said. Rephrasing a speaker’s statement lets that person know you were truly hearing what was said and can help ensure that your understanding of that statement is accurate.

The rebuttal-planning that often goes on while we’re listening is why passive listening is also sometimes referred to as “argumentative listening.” It seems like an oxymoron to pair up the words passive and argumentative. However, passive listening can easily lead to argument because it doesn’t promote understanding; it promotes conflict. We’re being argumentative listeners because we’re more concerned with forming come-backs than with resolving the situation amicably.

But active listening isn’t just appropriate for situations involving conflict. We should also be active listeners in daily conversations and also in situations, such as classrooms or meetings, when we’re listening to learn rather than participating in two-way dialogue. I’m sure we’ve all got to admit that we’ve been passive listeners during a lecture or two at school. It’s forgivable. Who hasn’t had the occasional Ben Stein-esque professor?

Passive listening does have its place.

For instance, we’re usually passive listeners when watching TV or listening to the radio. There is at least one other time when passive listening is acceptable and even desirable. Sometimes a friend or co-worker is looking to vent about a frustrating experience or a bad day. In that case, our buddy is just looking for a sounding board—someone to nod sympathetically and not necessarily provide feedback.

As you can see, passive listening isn’t wrong. Instead, we’ve just got to know when and where it’s appropriate.

When we need to be active listeners, and most of the time we do, we’ve first got to know how to do it. Here are some tips for being a good listener:

1) Don’t finish other people’s sentences.

2) Don’t daydream while the person is talking (it’s easy to space out and start thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner).

3) Plan your response after the person has finished speaking, even it means there will be a delay in the conversation. A bit of silence is well worth it.

4) Provide feedback in the form of rephrasing what you heard.

5) Take note of non-verbal cues. They’re an important part of communication.


  1. You remind me those classes i took as part of MA prerequisite requirements. Thanks for the refresh reminder.

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