Three A’s of Active Listening

Effective listening is about self-awareness. You must pay attention to whether or not you are only hearing, passively listening, or actively engaging. Effective listening requires concentration and a focused effort that is known as active listening. Active listening can be broken down into three main elements.

Know how to listen, and you will profit even from those who talk badly. – Plutarch


We know now that attention is the fundamental difference between hearing and listening. Paying attention to what a speaker is saying requires intentional effort on your part. Nichols, credited with first researching the field of listening, observed, “listening is hard work. It is characterized by faster heart action, quicker circulation of the blood, a small rise in bodily temperature.”[1] Consider that we can process information four times faster than a person speaks. Yet, tests of listening comprehension show the average person listening at only 25% efficiency. A typical person can speak 125 words-per-minute, yet we can process up to three times faster, reaching as much as 500 words-per-minute. The poor listener grows impatient, while the effective listener uses the extra processing time to process the speaker’s words, distinguish key points, and mentally summarize them.[2]

Hoppe[3] advises active listening is really a state of mind requiring us to choose to focus on the moment, being present and attentive while disregarding any of our anxieties of the day. He suggests listeners prepare themselves for active attention by creating a listening reminder. This might be to write “Listen” at the top of a page in front of you in a meeting.

While reading a book, or having a discussion with an individual, you can go back and reread or ask a question to clarify a point. This is not always true when listening. Listening is of the moment, and we often only get to hear the speaker’s words once. The key then is for the listener to quickly ascertain the speaker’s central premise or controlling idea. Once this is done, it becomes easier for the listener to discern what is most important. Of course, distinguishing the speaker’s primary goal, his main points, and the structure of the speech are all easier when the listener is able to listen with an open mind.

US Navy classroom

“American Government class lecture” by United States Navy. Public domain.


Even if you are paying attention, you could be doing so with the wrong attitude, the second A. Telling yourself this is all a waste of time is not going to help you to listen effectively. You’ll be better off determining an internal motivation to be attentive to the person speaking. Approaching the task of listening with a positive attitude and an open-mind will make the act of listening much easier. Bad listeners make snap judgments that justify the decision to be inattentive. Yet, since you’re already there, why not listen to see what you can learn? Kaponya warns against psychological deaf spots which impair our ability to perceive and understand things counter to our convictions. It can be as little as a word or phrase that might cause “an emotional eruption” causing communication efficiency to drop rapidly.[4] For instance, someone who resolutely supports military action as the best response to a terrorist action may be unable to listen objectively to a speaker endorsing negotiation as a better tool. Even if the speaker is effectively employing logic, drawing on credible sources, and appealing to emotion with a heartrending tale of the civilian casualties caused by bombings, this listener would be unable to keep an open mind. Failing to acknowledge your deaf spots will leave you at a deficit when listening.

You will always need to make up your own mind about where you stand—whether you agree or disagree with the speaker—but it is critical to do so after listening. Adler  proposes having four questions in mind while listening: “What is the whole speech about?” “What are the main or pivotal ideas, conclusions, and arguments?” “Are the speaker’s conclusions sound or mistaken?” and “What of it?” Once you have an overall idea of the speech, determine the key points, and gauge your agreement, you can decide why it matters, how it affects you, or what you might do as a result of what you have heard. Yet, he notes it is “impossible” to answer all these questions at the same time as you are listening.[5] Instead, you have to be ready and willing to pay attention to the speaker’s point of view and changes in direction, patiently waiting to see where she is leading you.

There are things I can’t force. I must adjust. There are times when the greatest change needed is a change of my viewpoint. ~ Denis Diderot


To do this well, you need the final of the three A’s: adjustment. Often when we hear someone speak, we don’t know in advance what he is going to be saying. So, we need to be flexible, willing to follow a speaker along what seems like a verbal detour down a rabbit hole, until we are rewarded by the speaker reaching his final destination while his audience marvels at the creative means by which he reached his important point. If the audience members are more intent on reacting to or anticipating what is said, they will be poor listeners indeed.

Take time now to think about your own listening habits by completing the listening profile, adapted from Brownell.[6] The next section will consider ways to address the challenges of listening effectively.

Listening Profile
The questions below correspond to each of the six listening components in HURIER: Hearing, Understanding, Remembering, Interpreting, Evaluating, and Responding. Before answering the questions, first guess which of the six you will do best at. In which area will you likely score lowest? Now respond to the following prompts gauging your listening behavior on a five-point scale (1 = almost never, 2 = infrequently, 3 = sometimes, 4 = often, 5 = almost always).
_____ 1. I am constantly aware that people and circumstances change over time.
_____ 2. I take into account the speaker’s personal and cultural perspective when listening to him or her.
_____ 3. I pay attention to the important things going on around me.
_____ 4. I accurately hear what is said to me.
_____ 5. I understand the speaker’s vocabulary and recognize that my understanding of a work is likely to be somewhat different from the speaker’s.
_____ 6. I adapt my response according to the needs of the particular situation.
_____ 7. I weigh all evidence before making a decision.
_____ 8. I take time to analyze the validity of my partner’s reasoning before arriving at my own conclusion.
_____ 9. I can recall what I have heard, even when in stressful situations.
_____ 10. I enter communication situations with a positive attitude.
_____ 11. I ask relevant questions and restate my perceptions to make sure I have understood the speaker correctly.
_____ 12. I provide clear and direct feedback to others.
_____ 13. I do not let my emotions interfere with my listening or decision-making.
_____ 14. I remember how the speaker’s facial expressions, body posture, and other nonverbal behaviors relate to the verbal message.
_____ 15. I overcome distractions such as the conversation of others, background noises, and telephones, when someone is speaking.
_____ 16. I distinguish between main ideas and supporting evidence when I listen.
_____ 17. I am sensitive to the speaker’s tone in communication situations.
_____ 18. I listen to and accurately remember what is said, even when I strongly disagree with the speaker’s viewpoint.

Add your scores for 4 + 10 + 15. This is your hearing total.

Add your scores for 5 + 11 + 16. This is your understanding total.

Add your scores for 1 + 7 + 8. This is your evaluating total.

Add your scores for 3 + 9 + 18. This is your remembering total.

Add your scores for 2 + 14 + 17. This is your interpreting total.

Add your scores for 6 + 12 + 13. This is your responding total.

In which skill area do you score highest? Which is your lowest? How would these listening behaviors affect your interactions with peers, parents, instructors, or professional coworkers?

  1. Nichols, R. G. (1957). Listening is a 10 part skill. Chicago, IL: Enterprise Publications. Retrieved from
  2. Nichols 1957
  3. Hoppe, M. H. (2006). Active listening: Improve your ability to listen and lead [ebook]. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.
  4. Kaponya, P. J. (1991). The human resource professional: Tactics and strategies for career success. New York: Praeger Publishers.
  5. Adler, M. J. (1983). How to speak, how to listen. New York: Macmillan.
  6. Brownell, J. (1996). Listening: Attitudes, principles, and skills. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.