5 min read

Have you ever been a bored listener? Have you ever sat across the table from or stood facing someone who started telling you a story that seemed to go on forever? You know the feeling. You want to listen but your mind just keeps drifting off. What can a leader do? I found help with this problem when I heard about and began practicing the art of Active Listening.

Active listening is a powerful tool in the leader’s toolbox. It can transform lives. Carl Rogers was one of the first to recognize the transformational potential of active listening. He believed it had the power to alter a person’s basic personality structure.

I don’t know enough about the persistence of personality to say whether that is true or not, but I do believe in the power of active listening. There seems to exist in human beings a profound need to be understood and it also seems that this need is seldom filled. As capacity expanding leaders, we have the opportunity to invest in the development of others simply by listening to what they have to say.

Notice I said “simply” not “easily”—there is a huge difference. Active listening is not easy (at least it isn’t for me)—It requires great effort and commitment. If you don’t truly believe in its potential for change, you will soon tire of it and regress to your old habits of merely hearing the sound of people’s voices instead of listening.

Listening is more difficult because it requires concentration. In a typical conversation the person supposedly listening is really thinking about how he or she will respond when the other person stops talking. This is possible because the brain works four to five times faster than the mouth. In other words, we get bored and our mind wanders off like a sparrow with attention deficit disorder seeking a more interesting branch where it can perch.

It’s pretty easy to identify the behavior of a poor listener. I know the behavior because I have done it all myself. Poor listeners don’t remember names. They interrupt while the other person is still talking. They complete the other person’s sentences. And they think about how they will respond although the other person has not yet finished talking.

An active listener, on the other hand, takes full responsibility for his or her own understanding. They are not passive. They see the other person’s message as a challenge for interpretation and a rich resource for ideas and insights. Here are some things you can do to practice the art of active listening.

  1. Occasionally rephrase the other person’s comments to make sure you understand correctly. Use statements like: “What I hear you saying is . . .” and follow up with the question: “Is this what you meant?”
  2. Allow for moments of silence. Moments of silence don’t always mean that the other person has completed her thought—just that she is trying to find the best way to express it. Give her time.
  3. Review the speaker’s main points. This helps both of you to stay on track and to see the big picture.
  4. Ask the speaker to clarify points that you don’t understand. If some detail went by that causes you to lose the train of thought, respectfully halt the other person and ask for clarification. “Now… are we still talking about your uncle or is this someone else?” This shows the speaker that you really are interested. It will also help them to take greater effort to speak clearly.
  5. Ask probing questions to help the other person explore and better express his own thoughts. Whereas a clarification question is intended to make the meaning more clear, a probing question is intended to help the other individual explore and formulate their own thinking. You might say: “Can you expand on that?” or “Where does that thought lead you?” Another powerful probe is simply to repeat, word-for-word, a portion of what they just said.
  6. “Repeat.”
    Exactly, because by repeating you are saying: “Yes, I’m with you, go on.”
    “With you.”
    Yes. You want to other person to know that you are hanging on every statement.

  7. Communicate to the speaker that what she is saying is important. You do this by physically leaning forward, nodding your head, taking notes, and maintaining a culturally acceptable level of eye contact.


I have often been a poor listener. But these basic techniques have shown me how to be an active listener. By listening with purposeful intent to understand, the process becomes active rather than passive. Now I can actually get excited and enthused about what the other person is saying. It’s no longer a matter of enduring until he is finished so I can get to what I want to say. I’m now a detective engaged in the pursuit of understanding. I’m seeking out the meaning behind the words and mannerisms of the one talking. I am probing, rephrasing, checking sources, summarizing, looking for the underlying beliefs and interests, and trying to unfold the speaker’s heart and mind.

Try it some time. You will be amazed at the change both in yourself and in your associates.

What do you think? Has listening been as difficult to learn for you as it was for me? Are there some additional things we can do to practice the art of active listening?

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.


Photo: I’m Listening by Melvin Gaal, July 19, 2010. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.