How to listen actively

There are many different types of listening. Active listening is a skill that we can acquire and develop with practice and it is a skill that I train in my extended version of intercultural communication trainings – because it takes time and patience to develop. Like the name suggests, active listening means to actively listen. It means to fully concentrate on what the other person is saying and listen, not only hear what is said.

All senses are involved in active listening.

Therefore it is essential that the listener is also been seen listening as the speaker might assume that the listener is not interested. The attention from the listener can be conveyed in many different ways, both verbally and non-verbally. When meeting in person, nodding, smiling, agreeing by sayin “yes” or “mmh” to encourage the speaker are some of the feedbacks an active listener can provide, assuming that these feedbacks are made with the right body language, posture and proximity that is appropriate for the situation and culture.

I can be actively listening for my parameters and culture(s) but come across as invasive or distracted in another culture. If I am listening without making eye contact with my Dutch colleague or friend, because in my culture eye contact is a sign of disrespect, the Dutch speaker will assume that I am not listening. If I speak to an audience where an Asian colleague closes his eyes during my talk, I might assume that he is bored or falling asleep, whereas he is doing exactly the opposite: closing his eyes in order to give me his fullest attention.

Knowing about what to expect from the speaker (and the listener) will make these situations easier and avoid mutual misunderstandings.

Listening is the fundamental skill for interpersonal communication

An active listener is silent/quiet. He gives the speaker the time to finish the sentences, doesn’t interrupt or ask questions in the middle of the sentence. The active listener understands the style of the speaker. He develops the knowledge to understand if the speaker needs longer pauses, is a fast speaker, uses short or longer sentences etc. and adjusts his stile.

The active listener fully focuses on the speaker and actively shows verbal and non-verbal signs of listening

There are many ways to display verbal and non-verbal signs of active listening. Here are some that need to be adjusted to the situations and culture. 

Non-verbal signs of active listening


Although smiling can be used to show that the listener is paying attention to what is being said in many Western cultures, we need to be aware that in some cultures, smiling has other meanings. In Russia for example, an attentive listener would not display feelings of happiness to encourage the speaker but rather a more neutral, serious facial expression. I always advice to observe the speaker’s display of feelings and use of smiles and adjust accordingly. 

Eye Contact

Usually the active listener would look at the speaker and make eye contact. Some kinds of eye contact can be intimidating – not only for shy speakers, but also for people used to less or no direct eye contact. 


Posture can tell a lot about the sender and receiver of interpersonal communication. An active listener will slightly lean forward or sideways whilst listening. We need to be aware of social conventions when it comes to appropriate postures though. In some cultures, showing open hands, hiding hands, crossing legs or showing the soles of the shoes are a sign of disrespect and dishonesty.


When we try to create some rapport , we tend to automatically mirror the facial expression and the body language of the speaker. We have to be careful of not attempting too much and consciously mimic the speakers body language as this can be interpreted as offensive and a sign of inattention and disrespect, which can lead to the opposite results: we will create distance and distrust instead of rapport!

A reflective expression can help to show empathy in more emotional situations.

No Distraction 

An active listener will refrain from fidgeting, looking at the clock, watch or electronic device, play with hair or picking fingernails etc.. 

Please always be aware that people can learn to mimic non-verbal signs of active listening and not actually be listening at all. Therefore it is important to accompany non-verbal signs of active listening to verbal ones:

Verbal signs for active listening

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a very strong signal of attentiveness, but it should be used carefully! Using too many positive words of encouragement can distract from the actual message the speaker wants to convey and give the impression that the listener is only partially listening.  We should rather elaborate and explain why we agree with certain points and provide a balanced feedback (if feedback is desired!).

Take notes

In order to remember what has been said, it is advisable to take notes of the key points (starting by the how to correctly pronounce the name of the speaker (!) ) as well as details, ideas and concepts. Active listening means to be able to follow the line of thoughts of the speaker. 

Ask questions

We can only ask relevant questions if we listen attentively. We should be able to read in between the lines and find out where we want to have some more details, where we wish the speaker could clarify or elaborate about the subject. By asking relevant questions the listener can point the speaker in the direction of what he, the listener, is most interested in. 


We signalize our comprehension when we reflect, repeat or paraphrase (i.e. say with our own words) what the speaker has said, by reinforcing his message and demonstrating our understanding. 


Asking open questions to the speaker we signalize that we are interested to understand their message correctly. Furthermore, the speaker will have the opportunity to elaborate aspects of the topic that he might not have mentioned in detail and it signalizes what we are interested in.


By summarizing what the speaker said (with the aid of our notes) we use our words to express what the speaker said.  Summarising generally means taking the main points of the received message and reiterating them in a logical and clear way, giving the speaker chance to correct if necessary, but it goes even further. It helps the speaker to adjust to our way of speaking and communicating, and for the listener and speaker to find a common style of communication.

Everyone communicates in his or her very personal way.
Many professional speakers have speaker-trainings where they are taught general rules and strategies of effective communication, but these communication skills can be applied to any kind of conversation!

I provide communication trainings to those who want to foster their speaking and their active listening skills.

A general rule of thumb that I tell my clients is to use their personal style of active listening with moderation and attentively observe the speakers’ communication style.

If you are interested in knowing more about my Intercultural Communication Training, contact me at

Also read:

10 Principles of Effective Listening

The importance of Listening in Intercultural Communication

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  1. Pingback: The importance of developing multilingual listening skills - Ute's International Lounge

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