Elderly couple talking on couch

What is active listening and how can you be a better listener?

Ever had to tell someone they listen too much? Or can you recall ever being told you over-listen?

Didn’t think so.

When we think of listening and how it relates to conflict and disagreements, so often it’s a case of one person perceiving that someone else “doesn’t listen” or is “a terrible listener”.

Effective listening is the key to good communication — and resolving conflict. Whether it’s a disagreement at work, an argument with a family member, or a misunderstanding with a friend or acquaintance, having effective listening skills means there’s a better chance of a good outcome.


Why aren’t we listening?

Many of us wish we had better active listening skills. When unresolved conflict arises, often the cause is “a breakdown in communication”. A classic example is a relationship breakdown: a couple seem unable to resolve their differences, often because a lack of effective communication becomes an argument. Underneath it all, one or both parties in the relationship isn’t listening properly — or rather, one or both feel the other doesn’t listen properly.

That’s just one specific example. In a broader sense, our capacity to be effective listeners is often affected by what goes on around us during the day.

For example, we have conversations throughout the day, but sometimes we’re not listening as well as we could. It could be that we’re distracted by our phone, or someone could be telling us something we don’t want to hear. As a result, the other person could form the opinion that we’re ignoring their feelings and opinions.


So how can we get better at effective listening?

By showing that you are actively listening, you are not only making a conscious effort to understand what the other person is saying, but you are actively demonstrating this to them as well.

Here are some great ways to get better at active listening.


Active listening examples

  • Try to relax and set a comfortable tone.
  • Look at the person.
  • Nod and give positive prompts such as ‘uh-huh’ and ‘I see’.
  • If the person says something you don’t understand, ask for clarification. For example, ‘What do you mean when you say…’
  • Ask open questions that begin with who, what, where or when. These will open up the conversation.
  • If your mind wanders, admit it and apologise.
  • Try to summarise what they are saying and how they feel. For example, ‘It sounds like you’re saying…’ or ‘The thing you feel most important is…’


Things not to do to become a better listener

  • Don’t get distracted by things that are going on around you.
  • Don’t criticise the person or enter into a debate, as this will likely lead to an argument.
  • Don’t cut the person off before they have finished speaking.
  • Don’t try to correct the person or defend yourself.
  • Try not to leap to a solution. The person may just want you to listen, rather than offer a suggestion.


Being good at active listening takes practice. The benefit is that it will show the other person that you are listening and are interested and considering where they are coming.


Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online social and mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.