Active Listening: Establishing trust and clarity as the basis for honest communication

It is not a simple skill, but it is one that can be learned and mastered. Active listening requires you to pay keen attention to what the other is really saying and meaning, and even more, finding “behind” what is being said, a sense of the inner motives for what is being said. Aware that language is a phenomenal tool and yet so frequently the source of misunderstanding, ensuring what is being heard is congruent with what is meant, requires “checking in” with the speaker at opportune times throughout the exchange to make sure that what you think you are hearing is what they are really saying.

Because active listening is a way of asking questions to ensure there is as little misunderstanding as possible, this dynamic also enables the speaker to “better hear themselves” and more accurately understand their impact on others.

This makes active listening a valuable practice for resolving conflict and misunderstanding, especially in multi-cultural environments.

Active Listening serves 3 very important purposes:

1) Sometimes we get it wrong and active listening helps us understand what the other is saying more accurately. For example in a hospice case the conversation may follow these lines: “I wish I could just go on and die.” An active listener will gently pause the exchange with a question. “Have I heard you right, that you want to die?” The person may respond with, “Yes, I just want to die,” or more often likely with, “Well no, I don’t want to die, but what I’m going through is painful and hard.”

2) Hearing what they themselves say outside their own “in-head stream of thought” (an often un-questioned steam of inner talk to boot) provides “new” opportunities for clarification and natural self-correction. Sometimes we mean those words, and sometimes we don’t. We’ve simply said them enough, they almost seem true to us!

This externalization of our own words and the added perspective of hearing “our words from the lips of another” helps us better explore, our own emotional terrain. This exploration then better informs our next decisions. Becoming more attuned to our real wants/needs/hopes/despairs (and not only the stories we have re-told ourselves) allows us to choose more appropriately to our “new” situation, even when it is difficult or even painful.

3) Active listening also segues the relationship into new places other skills, such as empathy and non-judgmental reassurance enables people to reach beyond the “stickiness” of  where we are right now (frustration, anger, hurt, etc.) to explore both what we have done right, and where we want to go. Engaging in life review can be both a celebration and a mourning, and both deserve time and attention. Yet in a person’s quest for exceptional living: for autonomy, mastery and purpose—being guided to connections between what we have done well and what we want for our future is a gift. It is a confidence-building, clarifying, re-membering of our dreams, where we “reconstruct” our deepest hopes into next steps for where we are today.

Dialogic Listening

Dialogic listening needs to be contrasted with active or empathic approaches but can be employed in the same conversation.

The dialogic approach has four distinctive characteristics. First, it emphasizes conversation as a shared activity. Usually people focus their attention on their own views in conversation. Active listening overcompensates for this tendency by overemphasizing the need to focus attention on the other’s views. In contrast, in dialogic listening the focus is on “our” views and the emerging product of the conversation.

Second, dialogic listening stresses an open-ended, playful attitude toward conversation. The authors note that modern Western culture values “hard” thinking which produces certainty, closure, and control. Speculative, metaphoric, ambiguous thinking is generally devalued. Dialogic listening seeks to recover and tap into the productive creativity of this “softer” style of thinking. In contrast to the “hard” style of most conversations, the “soft” style of dialogic listening requires modesty, humility, trust, and a robust recognition of the other party as a choice-maker.

Third, in dialogic listening, the parties focus on what is happening between them, rather than each party focusing on what is going on within the mind of the other. Stewart and Thomas say, “instead of trying to infer internal ‘psychic’ states from the talk, when you are listening dialogically you join with the other person in the process of co-creating meaning between you.”[p. 192]

Finally, dialogic listening focuses on the present, rather than primarily on future goals or on past events. Dialogic listening requires that one be fully present to the process and one’s conversation partner. This attitude of being-in-the-present helps each party to unify his or her actions, intentions, and speech. It can also reduce power differences.


Citation: Stewart, John, and Milt Thomas. “Dialogic Listening: Sculpting Mutual Meanings,” in Bridges Not Walls, ed. John Stewart, 6th edition, (New York: McGraw- Hill, 1995), pp. 184-201.