What is Active Listening? Tips from First Session Therapists

Written by Nicole Laoutaris
Last updated on: Jul 09, 2024

One of the reasons therapy is so effective is that it’s a space where you are talking to someone who is trained to listen

Yes, therapists are highly educated in human emotion and behaviours, and evidence-based therapy techniques to improve mental health. But, the art of listening makes a session truly great. 

Active listening is the process or pattern of listening that maintains engagement in a conversation. It’s about demonstrating that you’re listening by offering cues to show you’ve heard the other person while avoiding giving unsolicited advice or passing judgement. It’s about being genuine and empathetic to others when you’re speaking with them. Active listening makes the other person feel valued and it’s the foundation of a functional conversation. 

This skillset is useful in so many areas of life: it can improve meetings in the workplace, it can make you a better audience member during presentations, it can improve parent/child dynamics and your personal relationships with friends and family.

Listening is a skill you can cultivate, so we asked some of our partner therapists for their tips. Here are the top three approaches to better listening:

1. Show that you are listening

There are certain body language cues you can use to show someone you are listening. You can physically lean in slightly, maintain a soft and open body posture, and eliminate any distractions (move your phone out of the way). It’s encouraging to use movements like nodding your head while keeping eye contact to help the person know you are following along.

Conversation experts recommend using a 50/70 rule for eye contact—to maintain appropriate eye contact without staring, look in someone else’s eyes 50% of the time while speaking, and 70% of the time while listening. 

2. Avoid giving advice

Many of us want to jump into “fix it” mode when someone else is explaining their experiences to us, especially if they’re expressing challenges. Unless they ask for advice, be careful about imposing unwelcome solutions—it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that you are listening to them when you immediately tell them what to do. It may not be why they want to talk to you.

Try to take notice when you want to interrupt, pause and try another listening cue. Notice the assumptions you are making while someone is speaking. Try asking them to clarify what they mean if you are unsure. You can also try to rephrase what they said to make sure you understand, and offer a supportive statement in return. When listening, sometimes you need to put aside your own opinions and perspective and focus on the other person with an open mind. 

"Active listening isn't just about getting the facts right or knowing every detail of what someone is telling you, it's about recognizing and empathizing with the different emotions someone is having: ‘I can only imagine how painful that is’, ‘I'm hearing how low you're feeling right now’. Listen to what the person is saying and use empathy to meet them where they are emotionally." - Zoë Plant, Canadian Certified Counsellor

3. Imagine yourself emotionally holding someone

Most often people just want to be heard and seen. If they’re very distressed, you can try to ground yourselves by taking deep breaths together. 

You can emotionally show up for someone by mirroring how they’re expressing their feelings about the situation. If they are sad, you can temper your energy to mirror theirs and if they’re excited, you can show you’re excited for them too. 

"Don’t underestimate the power of listening to someone with compassion and kindness." - Kim Foster Yardley, Psychologist, First Session

Improving listening skills can be valuable in any part of life. These skills can also be helpful for people who experience symptoms associated with mental health conditions like anxiety or certain mood disorders. Active listening tactics can help you better interpret other people’s meaning to avoid negative or distorted thought patterns later, it can help build confidence to engage in social events you might otherwise avoid, and it can help ensure you understand what is being expected of you in your interactions—this last point can be especially powerful for people who experience symptoms associated with imposter syndrome.

Effective communication is a hallmark of functional relationships, so this can be an effective tool for couples therapy, family therapy and within group therapy as well.

Give it a try. In your next conversation, try following these steps to be a more effective listener:

  1. Use body language: lean in, nod, maintain 50/70 eye contact
  2. Paraphrase and ask questions: repeat back what they said in your own words instead of layering on with your own anecdotes. Try asking them questions for clarification or to gain greater understanding.
  3. Show empathy: take a moment to assess how they’re feeling, and match their energy. Use affirming language to show that you are understanding them.
  4. Avoid judgement and advice: Try to avoid telling them your assessment of a situation or offering advice unless and until you’re asked for it. Focus on the person in front of you and don’t pile on, especially if they’re complaining about someone else.
  5. Avoid distractions: Put your phone away, mute the TV or lower the music volume. If you’re somewhere outside and distractions are out of your control, try to come back to what they were saying before being interrupted instead of changing the subject.

Find a therapist with First Session. Watch intro videos, and book online or in-person appointments. Remember, many initial consultations are free. You can view our full directory or view our popular location-specific lists including Ontario therapists, Vancouver therapists, andToronto therapists.

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About the Author

Nicole Laoutaris

Nicole Laoutaris is a freelance writer and adult learning professional based in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in educational content for brands and companies in industries such as mental health, pet health, lifestyle and wellness, cannabis, and personal finance. Nicole holds a double undergraduate degree in Communications and Film studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, and post-graduate certificate in Corporate Communications from Seneca College. She currently lives in Hamilton Ontario with her spouse and her cat.