The Three A’s of Active Listening

Learning Objectives

Define attention, attitude, and adjustment as components 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.


Woman listeningYou know 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 you can process information four times faster than the rate at which 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 (Nichols, 1957).

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 ascertain the speaker’s central premise or controlling idea quickly. Once the listener has, it becomes easier for the listener to discern what is most important.

Hoppe tells us that 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. The reminder might be to write “Listen” at the top of a page in front of you in a meeting.[2]

Here’s an example: John knows that he has trouble staying focused during long business meetings. He has run into issues in the past where he has missed information he needed. So, John decided that he needs to improve his listening skills. At meetings, he started to volunteer to keep the minutes. He found that by keeping the minutes, he had to focus on specific details. The first time he took the minutes, John received feedback that he was missing details. So, John decided to keep doing recording the minutes and, eventually, did a great job. He learned how to identify the key points and main premise. He also found that he was better able to remember various details, which, ultimately, supported his work and bolstered his self-esteem.

Such memory devices can assist with your listening skills. You might think that you do not have a problem with actively listening. You will find that listening is one area that can always be improved and strengthened. Challenge yourself to take minutes, class notes that are shared, or journal a relationship interaction. Write out the details and share them for confirmation on how you are doing. You can track how you improve over time. Some of the main areas to pay attention to are distinguishing the speaker’s primary goal, the main points, and the structure of the communication. These are all easier to discern when the listener is able to listen with an open mind.


Man listening with his head on his chin

It’s hard to tell much about attitude from the outside, but each listener is responsible for listening with a positive attitude and an open mind.

Even if you are paying attention, you could be doing so with the wrong attitude. Attitude is just as important as the attention given to the speaker. Telling yourself the lecture is a waste of time is not going to help you to listen effectively. You’ll be better off deciding on 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 that impair our ability to perceive and understand things counter to our convictions. These moments can be as little as a word or phrase that might cause “an emotional eruption” causing communication efficiency to drop rapidly.[3] 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.[4] 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 the speaker is leading you.


Adjustment in listening is important. Adjustment means that the listener is willing to change, adapt, and adjust mannerisms in order to follow the speaker’s train of thought until the conclusion. Speakers could engage in storytelling with twists and turns with no end in sight. Speakers could also deliver the message very directly and fast. Of course, there are a myriad of ways that a speech could be delivered. No matter the speaker style, you, the listener, must adjust your listening to create meaning. You need to listen to the words, utterances, and pauses to know when to give nonverbal feedback, such as “I’m bored” or “wow, I didn’t know that.” You should adjust to the speaker and listen without drifting off.

A DJ adjusts a knob on his turntable.Conversation requires that each person have the presence of mind to focus upon the words to ensure shared meaning. Likewise, in a speech, the audience needs to adjust and focus so as to demonstrate that there is a shared meaning. The speaker’s role is to capture your attention and deliver a stimulating speech. The listener’s role is to pay attention, have a positive attitude and adjust to what is said. The speaker relies on the audience to provide visual cues to know that the audience is listening and that there is a shared understanding of what is being presented.

For example, imagine you are at work. Your boss called a meeting where the human resources (HR) director is giving a presentation on changes to HR policy. This presentation might not seem like exciting information on the surface; however, this is where you recognize how you feel and start to work upon your attitude. You have choices on how you plan to listen to the director. You could plan to be bored or inconvenienced. You could also plan to be interested and educated.

Once you have chosen how you plan to listen to the director, you then have to choose how you plan to pay attention to the speaker. You may decide to listen partially and get the PowerPoint later. You could decide to listen fully and not wait for the slide deck. Finally, once you are in the meeting, you can adjust your attitude and attention based upon the speaker’s style and personal interest in their subject. If the speaker does not present well, you could use one of the active listening strategies discussed later in this section to make sure that you do listen. You could also frame the experience as practice that will help increase your active listening skills. The act of reframing how to listen is foundational to improving your attention, attitude, and adjustment.

Try It

  1. Nichols, R. G. (1957). "Listening is a 10-part skill." Enterprise Publications. p. 9.
  2. Hoppe, M. H. (2006). Active Listening: Improve Your Ability to Listen and Lead. United States: Center for Creative Leadership.
  3. Kaponya, P. G. (1991). The Human Resource Professional: Tactics and Strategies for Career Success. United Kingdom: Praeger. p. 194
  4. Adler, M. J. (1983). How to speak, how to listen. New York: Macmillan. p. 96