1. What is Active Listening?
Marie: Oh yeah, I meant to tell you: I got a message from that woman.
Oli: [stares blankly]
M: You know, the one who told me she had met me before, but in Peru?
O: [stares blankly]
M: It’s unbelievable, but it turns out I have an identical twin sister, and we were separated at birth.
O: [stares blankly]
M: And that’s… I mean… That’s big news, right?
That’s why you need active listening. Listening is often described as a passive skill. However, when you’re talking to someone, especially face-to-face, you can’t be completely passive. The listener in a conversation has to take part. If you’re listening to someone, you need to give feedback. You need to show that you’re interested, or not. You need to show that you understood, or you didn’t. If you don’t, it’s difficult for the other person to continue, and the conversation will become awkward. Sometimes, we meet English learners who have the problem you saw in the dialogue. They don’t give any feedback. It’s difficult to communicate like that. We understand; it’s because you’re focusing so much on hearing the words and understanding the meaning. You don’t have spare energy for anything else.
Anyway, what is active listening? Active listening means that you take part in the conversation even when you’re not speaking. You give feedback, either verbally or non-verbally. Active listening is essential, and it will help your English in many ways. We’ll give you one important example. Often, English learners don’t want to show that they haven’t understood something. Often, it’s because they feel embarrassed, or they don’t want people to judge them for their English. If this is your situation, you might stay silent when people are speaking, and you won’t ask the other person to speak more slowly, or repeat points, or explain things again. This makes communication difficult. The other person doesn’t know what you have or haven’t understood. They won’t know what to do to help you understand. But, if you give the right feedback, communication will become easier. You’ll be able to show what you don’t hear or don’t understand, and the person you’re talking to will have a chance to adjust. That’s just one example. There are many more; active listening is essential for clear, comfortable communication.
So, what do you need to do to be an active listener?
2. Simple Active Listening
Oli: Oh hey, I wanted to tell you something about the cottage for our Wales trip.
Marie: Oh yeah?
O: It turns out that they got the prices wrong, and the actual cost is much more expensive.
O: So, we’re going to look for something else. It’s short notice, but hopefully we can find something.
O: If we find something, we’ll have to book it fast, so check the WhatsApp group.
O: I mean, do you want to check out whatever we find before we book?
M: No, if you find something, just go for it.
One of the most important forms of active listening is simple. When you’re listening to someone, you use simple words and sounds to show that you’re listening and that you understand. Common words and sounds you can use are ‘yeah’, ‘oh yeah’, ‘OK’, ‘mm-hmm’, ‘mmm’, or ‘uh-huh’. When you use these in active listening, they’re pronounced quickly and quietly, without emphasis or much intonation. You could also show understanding and interest with basic body language, for example nodding, making eye contact, and so on. It’s simple, but it’s important.
When you’re speaking your first language, you probably do it without thinking. What about in English? Think about it: do you listen actively in this way, or not? If not, try to focus on it when you’re listening to someone. If you don’t give this feedback to the other person, it will look like either you don’t understand, or you’re not interested. This is the most basic point.
What else can you do with active listening?
3. Showing Emotion
Oli: Guess what!
O: I got a promotion. I’m the new head of the regional division.
O: Actually, it’s a crazy story. It turns out that the old manager, you know, the one we all hated? She’d been stealing from the company for years.
M: No way!
O: We found out when police officers came in and arrested her right in her office!
M: Are you serious?
O: Yeah, and that’s not all. She went crazy as they were taking her out. She was screaming, kicking the police officers, trying to bite them…
M: You’re kidding!
O: Anyway, the next day, the head office people turned up, asked to speak to me and offered me the position.
M: Really? That’s great news! Congratulations!
To be an active listener, you’ll sometimes need to react emotionally to what you’re hearing. If someone gives you some bad news, you probably shouldn’t just react with ‘mm-hmm’ or ‘uh-huh’. It could make you sound cold. To listen actively and show emotion, you can use words and phrases like ‘really?’ or ‘wow!’ Look at four different situations.
- Reacting to good news
- Reacting to bad news
- Showing surprise
- Showing frustration
Can you think of words or phrases that you could use for each situation? And, how could you pronounce them? Pause the video if you want to think about it by yourself.
To react to good news, you might say ‘that’s great!’, ‘wow!’ or ‘amazing!’ To react to bad news, you might say ‘oh no!’, ‘that’s too bad’ or ‘what a shame.’ To show surprise, you might say ‘really?’, ‘no way!’ or ‘are you serious?’ To show frustration, you might say ‘oh come on’, ‘you can’t be serious’ or ‘no way!’ Of course, there are other possible answers.
Here, you need to think about pronunciation, too, specifically intonation in English. You saw that you could use the phrase ‘no way!’ to express surprise or frustration. But, the intonation is different. To show surprise, you’d say it like this: ‘no way!’ [surprised intonation] To show frustration, you’d say it like this: ‘no way!’ [frustrated/annoyed intonation] This is true for many words and phrases. For example, you could say ‘really?’ [happy intonation], ‘really?’ [concerned/worried intonation] or ‘really?’ [surprised intonation] Again, think about whether you do this in English already. Do you use words and phrases like these to react when you’re listening to someone? Think about it!
Another question: do people do something similar when they’re speaking in your language? This is important. Some cultures and languages do this differently. It might be normal in your language to show little reaction or emotion when listening. But, in English, you might appear cold or uninterested to the person you’re speaking to. If you don’t do this in your language, you’ll need to focus on it more when you’re having a conversation in English.
Next, let’s look at one more important part of active listening.
4. Showing Incomprehension
Marie: Hey, Dave! Happy birthday! Are we going for tacos later?
M: I heard we were going out for tacos, right…?
O: Wha…? I don’t… I’m not Dave.
M: Huh? But… Who are you, then?
O: I’m Oli!
M: Aah… I thought you were Dave. That’s embarrassing.
O: Dave’s over there.
M: What? *He’s* Dave? I’ve been calling him Gareth for months.
O: Gareth? Who’s Gareth?
M: [confused reaction/shrug]
If you don’t understand something in a conversation, it’s generally better to show this immediately. If you show the other person that something isn’t clear, you can deal with the problem right away. If you don’t, it’s more difficult—and more uncomfortable—to go back to something which was said one minute, or two minutes, or ten minutes ago.
To show that you don’t understand, use a word or sound like ‘what?’ ‘wha?’, ‘uh?’ or ‘huh?’ As before, intonation is important. A sound like ‘huh’ can also be used to show understanding, or show surprise. To show that you don’t understand, it should have a high, rising intonation: huh? [confused intonation] Often, showing that you don’t understand is enough. The person you’re talking to will see that something is not clear, and try to help, by explaining or repeating what they said. However, you might need to do more. The question is: why didn’t you understand something? Did you not hear? Did you not understand the words? Did you not understand the situation? Was it something else? You can give the other person more feedback by explaining or asking a question. For example, you could say:
- I didn’t catch what you said.
- I don’t get what you mean.
- I have no idea what you’re talking about.
Of course, this depends heavily on the situation. But, if the other person doesn’t know what you do or don’t understand, it’s difficult to communicate. If you make it clear where the problem is, you have a chance to solve it.
There’s one more point about active listening: non-verbal communication is also important. Facial expressions can show that you’re interested, or bored, or confused, or surprised, and so on. Also, gestures, like shrugging or holding out a hand with the palm facing up—or down—can be part of active listening. Again, think about how this is in your language and your culture. You might use facial expressions and gestures more, or less, or differently than English speakers. When speaking English, you might want to adjust your non-verbal communication as well.
Let us know in the comments: are these ideas similar in your language, or not? How are they different? Tell us, because we’re curious! Also, try to use the ideas in this video when you’re speaking and listening. You can even practise when watching a YouTube video, or listening to a podcast, or things like that. Active listening is a useful habit, but like all habits, you need to practise it if you want to use it naturally and comfortably.
Get more examples of active listening with other free listening lessons from Oxford Online English!
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