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Active Listening

There are several ways to enhance listening effectiveness, especially when engaged in a complex or emotional exchange. A fundamental technique is active listening. 

by Mark Gorkin
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Techniques for Changing Self-Centered Listening into Compassionate Communication

There are several ways to enhance listening effectiveness, especially when engaged in a complex or emotional exchange. A fundamental technique is active listening. CPRS provides an acronym to help transform less-than-attentive or self-centered listening into clear, concise and compassionate communication. If you are ready to revive a give-and-take relationship with members of your laboratory staff and are interested in becoming an assertive and empathetic communicator, below are the fundamental principles and guidelines of active listening.

C – Concern and Clarification

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The best way to start an engaging conversation is to give the other person undivided verbal and nonverbal attention. A relaxed yet alert posture, eye contact, modulated voice tone, etc., are essential for effective listening. (Naturally, as the communication begins to flow, there is more room for a wider array of facial expressions, bodily gestures and shared laughter.) As much as possible, the active communicational receiver wants not just to get the sender’s message, but to better understand the person and his or her situational context. Asking questions that give the other party a chance to speak his or her mind (and if desired, to also speak from the heart) defines “concern.” Yet showing empathy doesn’t mean there is not room for difference. As I like to say, “Acknowledgement does not necessarily mean agreement.” That is, a communicator can listen both attentively and respectfully and, after taking in the message, share his or her differing and even troubled perspective.


Clarification involves asking the other party to provide more information, elaborate upon a statement or answer specific questions. A clarification attempt is not an inquisitorial “Why did you do that?” It is more a recognition that something is not clear. Perhaps the listener has some confusion and desires more information, again, for better understanding. And clarification should not be the springboard to a harsh or blaming “you” message and/or a dismissive judgment, e.g., “You are wrong” or “You don’t really believe that, do you?” A much better response is “I disagree,” “I see it differently” or “My data says otherwise.”

P – Paraphrase and Pause


Paraphrasing involves repeating the other person’s message in his or her words or in your own distillation to affirm that the message sent is the message received. Sometimes, especially if you have conveyed a significant amount of information or complex instructions, it is wise to say, “I know I just said a lot. Would you paraphrase back what you heard?” Again, the motive is not to catch the other person, but to have both parties on the same page.


In a “T ’n T” (time- and task-driven) world, communicators often feel they have to cram in the information, as time is limited. Providing people with a lengthy, seemingly endless laundry list almost assures that key issues and ideas will be lost in the verbiage. Learning to pause and segment or chunk your message helps the receiver catch the gist without fumbling the ideas, intentions or implications. (The communicational analogy might be writing concisely, using short and to-the-point paragraphs.) Momentary breaks from the back-and-forth also allow the parties to ponder and posit new possibilities. Now active listening can morph into creative listening.

R – React vs. Respond and Reflect Feelings

React vs. Respond

Reactive listening usually occurs when you feel threatened or angry and then immediately engage in a counterargument (covert or verbalized). Unbiased or flexible listening has ended. Upon sensing an opening—for example, a perceived inconsistency or irrationality in the message—you reject or talk over the message and basically dismiss the messenger. Or sometimes you end a contentious listening process with a quick and reactive retreat: “You’ve hurt me” or “You made me upset,” and then the receiver vacates the communicational field and avoids an honest exchange. (Clearly, if one party is being abusive and does not feel safe to voice his or her position, then retreating is a wise strategy.) In contrast, a response often blends both head and heart and involves the use of an “I” message: “I’m concerned about what I’m hearing” or “I sense there is a problem. Is my assessment on target?” An “I”-message response is the opposite of a wildly emotional or knee-jerk reaction; it takes personal responsibility for both receiving and giving feedback. Shifting from blaming “you” messages to assertive and empathic “I” messages transforms a defensive reaction into a reasoned response. So, “count to ten and check within.”

Reflect Feelings

To reflect someone’s feelings means to lightly or kindly ask about or acknowledge overt or underlying feelings that are attached to the other party’s communication. A tentative or tactful approach is often best: “I know you are on board, still it sounds like you may have some frustration with the decision. Care to discuss it?” Sometimes you may not know what the other person is feeling. Instead of trying to guess or saying “Gee, you must be angry,” if you want to comment, better to say, “When I’ve been in a similar situation, I found myself becoming…” And then pause; give the other person time to respond or not. Also, especially regarding the emotional component of messages, both listening and looking for verbal and nonverbal cues—voice tone and volume as well as facial and other bodily gestures, for example, lowered head and eyes or arms crossed over the chest—will facilitate more accurate reflection or discretion.

S – Strategize and Summarize


Strategic listening takes active listening to a next level. The goal is more than awareness and empathy. Now you want to invite the other person to engage in a mutual problemsolving dance. In addition to common and disparate as well as structured and spontaneous ideas, emotions and objectives are shared freely, akin to brainstorming. Though in this strategic interplay, questioning for understanding and triggering imaginative possibilities is encouraged. The purpose of such strategic back-and-forth is synergy—a sharing-listening-sharing dialogic loop yielding an expanded understanding: The consciousness whole is greater than the sum of the communicational parts.


Finally, you are ready to review and pull together such problem-solving elements as mutual agreements, outstanding differences—factual as well as emotional—broad strategies and action plans to be executed (including the parties responsible for implementation), time frames, ongoing monitoring or interim reports, and follow-up procedures. And depending on the communicational context, a written summary is often advisable.

Here is a succinct summary of the “Keys to Active or CPRS Listening”:

Concern – verbal and nonverbal attention, empathy and acknowledgment with room for difference

Clarification – clear up confusion and foster greater understanding without passing premature judgment  

Paraphrase – two-way repeating or distilling of the message so that the message sent is the message received  

Pause – take time to chunk your message, allowing the other person to get the gist and ponder possibilities  

React vs. Respond – “count to ten, check within” to respond with assertive “I”s, not blaming “You”s

Reflect Feelings – tactful questioning or sharing acknowledges self/other and invites emotional reflection

Strategize – generate mutual listening-sharing loop for both idea generation and insightful imagination

Summarize – review and record agreements, unresolved differences and future problem-solving steps