This article gives you a glimpse of what you can learn with Shortform. Shortform has the world’s best guides to 1000+ nonfiction books, plus other resources to help you accelerate your learning.
Want to learn faster and get smarter? Sign up for a free trial here .
Why is it important to be a great listener? What are the major components of active listening?
When done right, active listening shows respect to the other person you’re engaging with. You’ll show that you care about the discussion and want to know more about what the person is saying.
We’ll look at the benefits of active listening and how you can practice this essential skill in any conversation.
Benefits of Active Listening
Active listening is an important way to facilitate effective communication and connect with others. The Success Principles by Jack Canfield says that, when you don’t actively listen to other people, you’re potentially missing out on new information and perspectives. For example, if you’re thinking about something that you’d like to say instead of listening, you’ll miss out on what the other person has to say. Additionally, if you’re mentally arguing with what the person is saying instead of thinking about why they’re saying it, you won’t effectively resolve your conflict with this person.
Additional benefits of active listening include:
- Understanding people on a deeper level. You’ll learn about people’s dreams and fears.
- Building trust. Showing an interest in people’s lives and providing the space to share it creates trust.
- Gaining popularity. People tend to like those who take a genuine interest in them. Doing so will increase your popularity.
- Reducing your stress. When you focus more on others, you think about your own troubles less, which can reduce stress.
The 4 Components of Active Listening
Listening isn’t just hearing what the other person is saying. It’s analyzing, interpreting, and taking their words to heart. The following four components of active listening will make others feel understood while you’re talking with them.
1. Stay Focused
The first component of active listening is to give people your full and undivided attention. Ex-football coach Bill Campbell shares his experience in the book Trillion Dollar Coach. He observed that teams were more successful if every team member felt like his or her opinion was thoroughly listened to, especially by the manager or team leader.
Since the 1950s, communications researchers have studied the importance of this component of active listening. Staying focused means giving the person speaking your complete attention, not checking your phone for texts while they’re talking, not letting your mind wander, not interrupting or reacting, and not thinking about the next thing you’re going to say.
Today we might call this behavior “being present” in conversation with another person. It means a wholehearted attempt to fully grasp the speaker’s perspective. Campbell’s style of listening included asking many questions. It’s the classic Socratic method used in many college classrooms. When you listen closely to what someone is saying and ask relevant, probing questions that target the real issue, people feel encouraged to share more information. They also feel highly valued.
Studies on attention show that it’s typical for our minds to wander about half of the time that someone else is speaking. It’s easy to get distracted by external interruptions (e.g., loud conversations, emails, or Slack notifications) as well as inner distractions (e.g., being in a bad mood; feeling hungry, tired, or uncomfortable). Any of these can impact your ability to be an active, attentive listener.
2. Pay Attention to Nonverbal Language
Observing nonverbal language is another component of active listening. Reading people’s nonverbal cues isn’t just a matter of noticing what their bodies and voices are doing. You have to actually feel the same physical cues in yourself to empathize viscerally. For example, when psychologist Milton Erickson saw one of his sisters tense her neck, he tensed his neck to figure out what she was feeling. Only then did he realize her tension was caused by her discomfort in his presence.
Cues are often associated with common emotions. Robert Greene explains this in his book The Laws of Human Nature. Below are common nonverbal cues to spot during conversations.
The following cues often indicate that someone likes you:
- Relaxing of the face, especially the forehead and mouth areas
- Blood rushing to the face in the case of love
- Genuine smiling widens the eyes and pulls the cheeks up and is usually a response to something. Fake smiling can affect the eyes if the smile is broad, but it’s often mistimed.
- Relaxed lips
- Opening of the area around the eyes by raised eyebrows, widened eyes, and dilated pupils
- Voice pitches higher and has a purring quality; no voice hesitation or tension
- Standing closer to you
- Loose arms
- Nodding while you’re talking
- Mirroring: At its most extreme, the other person matches your breathing.
The following cues often indicate dislike:
- Squinting when you say something
- Rolling your eyes when you talk about a strong opinion
- Crossing the arms when you make a good point
- Going quiet
- Frowning or sneering while looking down
- Pursing the lips
- Tensing the neck
- Turning the body or feet away
- Tension throughout the body
- Avoiding you or responding slowly to your messages
Dominance is almost entirely communicated nonverbally because, while human social evolution has resulted in the formation of hierarchy, nobody likes acknowledging this structure or their relative position.
The following cues demonstrate confidence and power or a desire for power. (If someone doesn’t have power yet but displays all the cues, there’s a good chance they’ll get power because the cues attract others.)
- Relaxed body and face
- Slight closing of the eyelids
- Making frequent eye contact
- Less frequent smiling
- Smiling tightly in response to something said
- Touching people, such as back pats
- Tall posture
- Taking up physical space in a meeting and creating space around themselves
- Arriving late
- Punctuating (when there’s an argument, they’ll find a way to make it look like the other person started it)
- Showing feelings such as boredom and annoyance
- Being imitated by others
People who have power but are scared to lose it exhibit the following cues:
- Speaking with tension or hesitation
- High-pitched voices
- Talking animatedly without moving the body
- Frequent blinking and controlled eye movements
- Nervous wide eyes
- Fake smiling and laughing
- Touching themselves to calm themselves
- Being over-assertive to cover up insecurity
- Giving off mixed signals
Humans are inherently gullible because we want to believe that nice-sounding things—such as that all people are good—are true.
People purposefully use the following cues to try to distract you from whatever it is they’re really feeling and thinking:
- Over-animation, such as smiling frequently, joking, and being very friendly
- Expressing conviction
- Expressing mixed signals in which one part of the body is expressive but other parts are tense. The face and mouth are easiest to control, so this is often the animated part, but the animation can also be gesturing.
- Freezing when questioned
The best deceivers are aware of the above cues and do the opposite by:
- Stilling their faces and acting serious
- Giving logical explanations
- Acting competent
- Being boring
3. Use Nonverbal Cues
According to Debra Fine’s The Fine Art of Small Talk, body language accounts for most of the social meaning of a situation. We’ve just discussed paying attention to the other person’s body language. Another component of active listening is using your body language to communicate your interest and engagement.
When you converse, Fine recommends you act as if there were no distractions in the room. Face your partner openly and directly, and smile. Nod at appropriate times, showing that you’re tracking with them.
Making eye contact also contributes to the conversation. In How to Talk to Anyone, Leil Lowndes argues that strong eye contact is more likely to invite a positive response because it makes the recipient feel like they’ve captivated you. If you have trouble maintaining eye contact, Fine suggests you look at the space between their eyes instead of directly at them; they won’t be able to tell the difference. If you must look away, do so slowly and reluctantly—as if you’re so enthralled that you can’t look away. To make it less intense, let your eyes bounce between your recipient and what else you’re looking at.
Be aware of what your body language implies. Don’t cross your arms and legs, place your hands on your hips, or rest your chin in your hand. Don’t fidget or keep your head down. Fine notes that these signs are typically interpreted as disinterest, disagreement, or hostility.
Alternatively, leaning forward communicates interest in the other person, The Like Switch by Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins explains. Generally, people with good rapport orient their torsos toward each other during a conversation.
4. Be Mindful of How You Respond
Verbal cues, The Fine Art of Small Talk explains, add to the reassurance provided by visual cues. Verbally indicating that you’re present and aware encourages the speaker to keep speaking.
Fine notes that you can use verbal cues to show you understand, agree, disagree, or want to hear more. For example, you can say, “Hmm, I see … ” or “What makes you feel that way?”
You can also use verbal cues to transition to another topic. Here are a couple of examples:
- “That reminds me—I’ve heard that … . What do you think about that?”
- “Since you’re an engineer, I wonder if you could explain … .”
Like the visual cues we display through our body language, the purpose of verbal cues is to inform the speaker that you’re still listening, that you’re still interested, and that you’d like them to continue speaking. In short, you’re giving encouragement and reassurance. If you have trouble seeing the value in this, imagine you’re describing your symptoms to a doctor and she just sits there, staring at you, until you finish. That would be disconcerting! Instead, you’d likely prefer that she nodded along, hummed thoughtfully, and occasionally asked elaborating questions, like, “How long has this been going on?”
One helpful verbal cue, the author suggests, is to paraphrase and repeat. This technique lets you clarify that you understood the other person correctly or helps them recognize where you misunderstood what they were trying to say.
Here are some common ways to paraphrase and repeat:
- “Wait, you mean he actually said that he doesn’t care what you think?”
- “So, it’s the left outlet you want me to plug it into?”
- “Sir, I just want to be sure. You’re asking me to order seven thousand copies?”
The other person will appreciate you using each of these components of active listening in your conversation. If you’re lucky, they’ll reciprocate your respect for them by taking the time to listen to what you have to say with their full attention.
Are there any other important components of active listening? If so, leave us your suggestions in the comments below!
Want to fast-track your learning? With Shortform, you’ll gain insights you won't find anywhere else .
Here's what you’ll get when you sign up for Shortform :
- Complicated ideas explained in simple and concise ways
- Smart analysis that connects what you’re reading to other key concepts
- Writing with zero fluff because we know how important your time is