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7.3: How Can I Become a Better Listener?

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    • Identify verbal listening responses.
    • Recognize nonverbal listening responses.
    • Explain how active listening can be used in interpersonal relationships.


    Imagine what could be possible for you and all of your current and even future relationships if you became familiar with a variety of listening responses. Listening is a cognitive activity, but within the communication context, it is perceived behaviorally. Imagine how your interpersonal relationships might be even further enriched if you could combine the two. Applying what you have been reading about in this Unit on listening has not been addressed, until now. In this module you will first learn several verbal listening responses and then you will learn several nonverbal listening ones.

    Verbal Listening Responses

    In face-to-face conversations listeners provide feedback and comments at the same time as the speakers are uttering their words and sentences. Listeners, through short verbalizations and nonverbal signals, show how they are engaged in the dialogue. Responsiveness is a key element of effective communication in most relationships. Speakers usually want listeners to demonstrate they are listening by responding appropriately to what they are saying. In fact, research demonstrates that perceived partner responsiveness or relationship quality depends on beliefs about a relationship partner’s responsiveness--that is, on the perception that a partner understands, values, and supports important aspects of the self (Reis & Gable, 2015). These discernable reactions and responses of a receiver to a sender’s message is known as feedback. Feedback is any form of response to the speaker's message and can include both verbal and nonverbal elements. It is feedback to the speaker that makes listening a more active process. Keep in mind that culture does impact our listening behaviors (Imhof & Janusik, 2006). Furthermore, people differ in how they display emotions. For example, people that listen without challenging the speaker, may be members of collectivistic cultures. They tend to be more attentive to and concerned with the opinions of others. On the other hand, people from individualistic cultures, such as people that grew up in the United States, tend to view their primary responsibility as being to themselves. Several examples of common verbal listening responses follow:


    In a conversation, paraphrasing demonstrates that the listener is understanding the speaker. It is an effective form of verbal feedback. One example is provided below:

    Speaker: “I feel really awful today.”

    Listener: “Sounds like you're under the weather.”

    Speaker: “No...I just found out that I got a really low score on my science quiz.”

    In this example, when the listener paraphrased what they believed the speaker meant, the speaker clarified for the listener what they really were trying to communicate. Paraphrasing is not using the same words the speaker used. When paraphrasing, it is important to keep the original meaning so that the facts remain intact.

    Sophisticated Questions

    The best conversations are interactive. Sitting silently nodding your head does not provide any evidence that you are listening to a speaker. People perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions. In your efforts to become a better listener, asking a sophisticated question which is “a question that shows you have been listening, but still have some confusion” will work effectively (Janusik, 2017, p. 200). The question first paraphrases what is known or understood and then asks a question[1] . For example, “I understand that you want to have a meeting with me next week, and that it sometime in the morning, What I do not know is where exactly will the meeting take place. In your office or mine?” In this example, the listener has asked a sophisticated question because while they were uncertain about the location of the meeting you were listening and knew that the speaker had asked to meet.

    Perception Checking

    This is another effective way that a listener demonstrates that they are actively listening and being attentive to the speaker. Perception checking occurs in three steps. The first step is the listener describes the speakers’ behavior. The second step is the listener offers two interpretations of the speakers’ behavior. The third step is the listener asks for confirmation about the two interpretations. One example is provided below:

    Speaker: “I feel really awful today and I don’t feel like talking.”

    Listener: “I noticed that you haven’t been saying much.” (describe behavior)

    “Do you have a migraine?” (interpretation #1)

    “Or, did I say something to upset you?” (interpretation #2)

    “Are either of these interpretations accurate?” (request for confirmation)

    Speaker: “Neither are right. I got a really low score on my science quiz.”

    In this example, the listener did not decode the behavior or verbal messages accurately. If the listener had not used perception checking and just listened to the verbal message, the outcome of this relationship might have started to slowly deteriorate over time.

    Nonverbal Listening Responses

    In face-to-face conversations, speakers usually expect listeners to display nonverbal signs of listening. Nonverbal listening behaviors show others that you are listening. The top four most important behaviors in the United States that show others you are listening are eye contact, facial expressions, posture, and head nodding (Bodie et al., 2012). As these are addressed in this section, review these, keep in mind that many of these nonverbal listening responses displayed in U.S. culture are not perceived the same in other cultures.

    Eye contact

    It is usually encouraging and normal for a listener to look at a speaker (Bavelas, Coates, & Johnson, 2002). However, too much eye contact can be intimidating, especially for more shy speakers. In some cultures, too much eye contact is disrespectful, viewed as shameful or even a signal of aggression (McCarthy, Lee, Itakura, & Muir, 2008). In other words, make certain that you are aware of how much eye contact is appropriate for any given situation. Combine eye contact with smiles and other nonverbal messages to encourage a speaker.

    Facial expressions

    As a listener your face will reveal whether or not you are emotionally present and filled with interest. Facial expressions such as happiness, sadness, anger, surprise fear and disgust are universal meaning they are the same across cultures (Ekman, 1970). As an active listener, displaying these emotions as you are listening is not only appropriate but expected. A smile conveys a positive disposition to a speaker, while furrowed eyebrows accompanied with a frown conveys a negative or even concerned disposition. These are just a few facial expressions that reflect the level of understanding and degree of empathy the listener while listening to a speaker.


    Are your arms crossed, shoulders raised, and fists clenched while you are listening? The posture of a listener signals involvement and attentiveness to the speaker. An active listener may naturally lean slightly forward and orient their body positions completely toward the speaker (Bodie & Jones, 2012). Other signs of active listening may include resting your head in your hand or even tilting your head.

    Head nodding

    Listeners show that they are engaged in a face-to-face conversation by using head movements, primarily nodding and shaking their head (Rosenfeld, 1978). This behavior can sometimes be purposeful and other times unconscious and even arbitrary (Hadar, Steiner & Rose, 1985). For example, an active listener might occasionally, nod their head vertically – as in ‘yes’ to show the speaker they agree or horizontally as in ‘no’ following a direct question or perhaps the speaker said something that the listener did not agree with. Keep in mind, though, that there are other cultures (e.g., Bulgaria) where the horizontal means yes and the vertical means no.

    Using Listening to Enhance Interpersonal Relationships

    You can improve the quality of your interpersonal relationships by wanting to improve your listening skills and practicing your listening skills. For the most part, “good listeners” are able to adopt the other’s perspective. This view of the other is known as perspective taking and also includes the use of nonverbal signals such head nodding your head and using eye contact. In fact, having an appropriate response is crucial when listening. Listening does not mean complete silence and restraining from interrupting the other person. In interpersonal communication, listening is deeply rooted in the context of its ability to help create, maintain, and enhance positive interpersonal relationships” (Bodie, St. Cyr, Pence, Rold & Honeycutt, J., 2012, p. 2). Conversations are usually an exchange of ideas between a sender and a receiver.

    Practice Listening Using Active Listening

    Listening has become significantly more difficult, especially in the digital age. While there are benefits to technological advances that can increase capability for socialization and even a mixed blessing in the academic classroom, the virtual world leads us — quite ironically — to social isolation (Neiterman, 2019). It’s never too late to work on your listening skills, and, by doing so, improve your quality of life and deepen your interpersonal relationships. Whether they are your colleagues, clients from work, friends or members of your family, listening is the key to better communication. Scholars point out that, “listening is a daily activity that constitutes a critical aspect of interpersonal communication and of professional competence” (Imhof & Janusik, 2006, p. 79). How well we listen not only affects our understanding and responses to other people, but also it ultimately affects our relationships with them. “Being heard” is vitally important for many types of conversation and is an expected part of many relationships (Myers, 2000). One way to improve all of your interpersonal relationships is to practice using active listening.

    Active listening

    The term “active listening” was formally popularized Thomas Gordon (1975) as a description of a set of verbal and nonverbal skills essential in his training of parents and children. “In the field of communication, almost all of the most popular interpersonal communication textbooks include a treatment of active listening” (e.g., Canary, Cody, & Manusov, 2003; Devito, 2007; Adler, Rosenfeld, & Proctor, 2006; Trenholm & Jensen, 2004; Verderber & Verderber, 2004; Wood, 1998)” (Weger et al, 2010, p.35). Active listening is most often used to improve personal relationships, reduce misunderstandings and conflicts, strengthen cooperation, and foster understanding. Active listening is defined as an attempt to demonstrate unconditional acceptance and unbiased reflection by the listener of a sender’s message. Active listening means participating in the listening process by asking questions or by encouraging the speaker to share more information. This type of listening is encouraged in every interpersonal context where the participation of the listener makes the information obtained through listening more useful and effective.

    Listening Strategies

    Listening has been described throughout this unit as a complex multifunctional process. Within the context of communication, listening is increasingly recognized as an active and complex cognitive, psychosocial, and behavioral activity (Janusik, 2002, 2007; Witkin, 1990). Listening effectively requires considerable skill and practice. Often people think skill and strategy are the same; however, they are notably different. “A strategy is more complex than a skill because it includes the ability to switch thinking processes in the moment when one recognizes that one is not understanding” (Janusik, 2017, p.194). Listening strategies are techniques or activities that contribute directly to the comprehension and recall of listening input (Tyagi, 2013). Listening strategies generally are classified as cognitive, affective, psychomotor strategies and metacognitive. Cognitive strategies are comprised of thinking and making meaning. Cognitive strategies include paying attention, taking notes, making associations and analogies, asking questions, integrating information, making inferences, getting the main idea, and setting an objective. Affective strategies are comprised of emotion and feeling. Some examples in the context of the classroom include attending class on time, being motivated, staying calm, and enjoying the lesson. Psychomotor strategies are comprised of physical/kinesthetic. Some examples in the context of the classroom include being close to the board, following along with both the head and eyes, making eye contact, generating feedback, sitting up straight, and paying attention to gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and stresses in speech. Metacognition also plays an important role (Imhoff, 2000; Janusik & Varner, 2015).

    Metacognitive listening strategies are “higher order thinking where we are thinking about our thinking” (Janusik, 2017, p.194). Metacognition is basically defined as ‘thinking about one’s own thinking’, or ‘thinking about cognition’. Flavell (1976) coined the term ‘metacognition’ and, explains that, “Metacognition refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes and products or anything related to them…the active monitoring and consequent regulation and orchestration of these processes in relation to the cognitive objects on which they bear, usually in the service of some concrete goals or objectives” (p. 232). Listening strategies can be classified by how the listener processes the input.

    Given the various components described, one way to start to improve your listening skills prior to starting a conversation with friends and family members may be to make a plan to listen, before, during and after. To prepare yourself to actively listen, think about the needs of the speaker. One way to do this is to start a conversation by asking, “How would you like for me to listen?” Most people are never asked and may be surprised but share with them what you’ve learned in the previous unit in this chapter. You now know, there are many different ways to listen. Are they wanting to vent? Are they expecting, wanting and expecting advice? Should you just listen for the sake of listening? As an active listener you need to be certain that you have time to listen. If the person needs your undivided attention and it is likely they have something important to share. Do not try to cram them in especially if you need to be somewhere else in the next 5-10 minutes. Sometimes, all the speaker really needs is a listener who actively listens. Wait until the speaker has truly finished. Ask if you are not certain, “Is there anything more you would like to share?” An acknowledgement would then be appropriate. Effective listening requires a plan. This plan to actively listen could be divided into three distinct phases before, during and after.

    Step 1: Before Listening Phase: prepare mentally and emotionally for listening, remove all distractions (e.g., cell phone, electronics, turn off TV, radio, external auditory sounds. Physically, get comfortable.

    Step 2: During Listening Phase: Use active listening techniques to listen. This means using nonverbal language for approval and short words to encourage a speaker to express themselves without time constraints or any other interruptions. Withhold judgment and work on listening objectively.

    • Adapt to the speaker’s way of communication – focus on the speaker’s tone, volume and try to decipher the speaker’s emotions and feelings.
    • Be patient – allow the speaker to continue over long pauses and avoid the temptation to fill the silence with your own sounds or commentary.
    • Focus on ideas – place the speaker’s ideas into context. If you have difficulties understanding or are confused, ask a sophisticated question and paraphrase.
    • Observe nonverbal behaviors – focus on gestures, facial expressions, eye movement, while also being mindful of cultural differences about nonverbal behaviors.
    • Show empathy – use acknowledgements that demonstrate your understanding of the speaker’s point of view.

    Step 3: After Listening Phase: Reflect on what the speaker’s overall message or point of the conversation is.

    Assess your verbal responses and nonverbal behaviors. You may not agree with the speaker’s message, you may not especially like the speaker, but active listening requires that you demonstrate unconditional acceptance and unbiased reflection of a sender’s message.


    Effective listening is the foundation of strong relationships with others, at home, socially, in education and in the workplace. In interpersonal communication, listening includes providing reactions and responses for the person who is speaking. Always remember that listening is a complex cognitive skill. Like any skill, you must continually practice in order to improve. Additionally, just because you have applied one or two listening strategies does not mean you will be successful every time without fail in every context and with every person. Learning when and how to successfully apply different listening responses is a lifelong process.


    1. Activity: Journal Exercise

    Directions: Have students keep a personal journal of their listening activities for a full day. The journal should include brief descriptions of all the listening situations each student experienced during that day. It should also include the student’s analysis of how well they listened in each situation and of why they did (or did not) listen effectively in each situation (e.g., Use of verbal responses and nonverbal responses). Finally, the journal should conclude with the student’s honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses as a listener and explanation of what specific steps the student should take to become a better listener.

    Discussion: This activity is a way to get students to think about their personal listening habits and how to improve them. Some instructors have students complete a listening journal two or three times during the course, as a way for students to keep track of their progress (or lack of progress) in strengthening their listening skills.

    2. Activity: Practice Using Phrases and Expressions for Active Listening

    Directions: In class have students practice using active listening accompanied by verbal listening responses. Useful phrases and expressions are listed below: List them on a handout and then meet with your students as a group to discuss appropriate usage. During the discussion, encourage the students to ask about and/or to describe other expressions they may have heard.

    Asking for Clarification Clarifying or Restating

    “What do you mean?” “I mean. . . “

    “I’m not sure what you mean.” “In other words . . . “

    “Sorry, but I don’t understand.” “The point I’m trying to make is . . . “

    “Could you explain what you mean by . . . ?” “So, you think that . . . “

    Paraphrasing Checking for Understanding

    “What she means is . . . “ “Do you see what I mean?”

    “I believe their point is . . .” “Is that clear?

    “I think she feels. . . Isn’t that right?” “So, you think that . . .”

    To reinforce these phases and expressions, give your students an optional assignment in which they observe a class and take note of expressions that demonstrate active listening. You may want to hold a follow-up meeting with the students in which they discuss their observations.


    Adler, R. B., Rosenfeld, L. B., & Proctor, R. F. (2006). Interplay: The process of interpersonal communication (10th ed.). Oxford University Press.

    Bavelas, J. B., Coates, L., & Johnson, T. (2002). Listener responses as a collaborative process: The role of gaze. Journal of Communication, 52(3), 566-580.

    Bodie, G. D., & Jones, S. M. (2012). The nature of supportive listening II: The role of verbal person centeredness and nonverbal immediacy. Western Journal of Communication, 76(3), 250-269.

    Bodie, G. D., St. Cyr, K., Pence, M., Rold, M., & Honeycutt, J. (2012). Listening competence in initial interactions I: Distinguishing between what listening is and what listeners do. International Journal of Listening, 26(1), 1-28.

    Canary, D., Cody, M., & Manusov, V. (2003). Interpersonal Communication: A Goals-Based Approach, Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston.

    DeVito, J. A., & DeVito, J. (2007). The interpersonal communication book. Pearson.

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    McCarthy, A., Lee, K., Itakura, S., & Muir, D. W. (2008). Gaze display when thinking depends on culture and context. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 39(6), 716-729.

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    Active listening: An attempt to demonstrate unconditional acceptance and unbiased reflection by the listener of a sender’s message.

    Affective strategies: Listening strategies composed of emotion and feeling.

    Cognitive strategies: Listening strategies that involve thinking and making meaning.

    Feedback: Any form of response to the speaker's message; any discernible reactions and responses of a receiver to a sender’s message is known as feedback.

    Listening strategies: Techniques or activities that contribute directly to the comprehension and recall of listening input

    Metacognitive listening strategies: Higher-order thinking skills that aid in understanding the control of one’s thinking processes where we are thinking about our thinking

    Paraphrasing: An effective form of verbal feedback and also a way to make sure that you have correctly understood what the other person has said.

    Perception checking : Three-part method for verifying the accuracy of what the listener believes the intended message.

    Psychomotor strategies: Listening strategies that highlight physical/kinesthetic aspects of communication.

    Speech-thought differential: The difference in our rate of speaking versus our rate of thinking.


    1. Effective Listening Responses: The Big Bang Theory - Chess Clock Conversation:

    In this clip Leonard (played by Johnny Galecki) is really hoping Sheldon (Jim Parsons) to listen to a problem he is having, however Sheldon can’t seem to think let alone listen to anything other than his own concerns. Leonard initiates a plan to get Sheldon to give him advice. Use this video to talk about different effective listening responses.

    2. Characteristics of a Competent Listener: Teaching Dwight active listening - The Office

    In this brief clip Dwight claims to be using active listening however he is not very convincing. Listening involves not only appropriate verbal responses but also nonverbal behavioral actions. Discuss how Dwight could improve by using characteristics of a competent listening. Here is the link:


    1. Podcast: Oscar Trimboli, Deep Listening

    Listen to any one of 67 episodes featured in Oscar Trimboli’s podcast, Deep Listening and implement two or three suggestions into your next conversation.

    Discussion: After listening to this podcast, reflect on the following questions:

    • What were your key takeaways?
    • What did you learn about listening that you didn't know before?
    • What is something you plan on doing to improve your listening based on listening to this podcast?

    2. Podcast: FrankGarten’s “Clarity in Conversations”; Why it’s so hard to listen to others; featuring Dr. Laura Janusik.

    Discussion: After listening to this podcast, reflect on the following questions:

    • What were your key takeaways?
    • According to the guest why is it so hard to listen to others?
    • What did you learn about listening that you didn't know before?

    3. Podcast: Hosted by Tuck Self, The Rebel Belle; featuring Dr. Carol McCall: The 9 Tools of Mindful Listening.

    Discussion: After listening to this podcast, reflect on the following questions:

    • What were your key takeaways?
    • According to the guest why is it so hard to listen to others?
    • What did you learn about listening that you didn't know before?

    This page titled 7.3: How Can I Become a Better Listener? is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Daniel Usera & contributing authors.

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