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Dealing with Difficult People


What can frontline staff do to make those difficult conversations with customers or service users easier to handle?

Managing Stress in the Workplace


Why the best stress policies aren’t enough on their own.

Debt and Mental Health


What are the implications for organisations who employ staff dealing with debt recovery?

Customers or service users who talk about suicide


How should frontline staff respond to individuals who talk about suicide and what can organisations do about it?

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Active Listening

“It is called active because the listener has a very definite responsibility.  He does not passively absorb the words which are spoken to him. He actively tries to grasp the facts and feelings in what he hears and he tries, by his listening, to help the speaker work out his own problems.”

Carl Rogers and Richard E Fabon ‘Active Listening’


Listening is the foundation of good one to one interaction. It sounds easy but most of us, even when we think that we are good listeners, do not really listen carefully and accurately when others are speaking to us. Often that is because in many everyday conversations we can get away with not listening as well as we might. It is critical to listen well when we are talking to people who are angry or upset.


Real listening tells the other person these things about you:

  • I’m interested in you as a person
  • I value you as a person
  • I’m not trying to change you by telling you what I think you should do
  • I will try to understand your point of view even when my point of view differs a great deal


Non – verbal listening skills:

Adequate eye contact is usually the most important way of communicating one’s full and undivided attention. Focus your eyes on the other person and gently shift your gaze from his or her face to another part of the body, such as a gesturing hand or a tapping foot, back to the face and the eyes. Occasionally moving your gaze away from the person will reduce the chances of causing him or her to feel anxiety or suspicion. Avoid looking away for long periods.

Non-verbal prompts demonstrate listening while also serving to encourage the person to continue speaking. Affirmative head nodding, appropriate facial gestures and the use of silence are all helpful ways to show that you are really listening. Silence can be helpful in allowing the speaker time to think about what they have said, what you said, or to get in touch with their feelings, however uncomfortable they might be. We have to work hard within ourselves to feel comfortable with silence as for many of us our first instinct is to rush to say something either to rescue the other person or to alleviate our own discomfort.

Facing the person rather than sitting to the side, and leaning slightly forward to indicate interest are helpful tips. Crossing your arms does not help you to look relaxed.

Even when we are on the telephone our body language is important because it affects the voice, which in turn affects the way the words are spoken. On the phone this means that tone of voice plays a bigger part in how the receiver interprets the message being sent.


Verbal listening skills:

There are several of active listening techniques that help us demonstrate in our response ‘I heard what you said’:

  • Empathy - 'I can understand why you are worried by this’, ‘I can appreciate this situation has been very difficult for you and you are getting impatient’.
  • Encouraging – ‘Tell me more about’, 'You were saying earlier’, ‘Could you explain that more fully?’
  • Acknowledging – ‘I understand’, ‘I see’, ‘That sounds really important to you’.
  • Checking – ‘You seem really angry’, ‘Am I right in thinking that you said…?’
  • Clarifying – ‘I’m not sure I understand. Did you say…?’, 'Did you say this happened once or twice?’
  • Affirming – ‘I appreciate that you have been so open with me’
  • Asking open-ended questions – ‘Can you tell me more about that’, How do you feel about it?’, ‘I’m wondering what your options are here’.
  • Reflecting – ‘I can hear the anger in your voice’; ‘You look very happy about that’.
  • Summarising – ‘So there seem to be several things that you are worried about which are…’.


Helpful hints for active listening:

  • Don’t think ahead about what you will say
  • Don’t ignore or deny the other person’ feelings.
  • Don’t talk about yourself
  • Don’t change topics
  • Don’t advise, diagnose or criticise
  • Don’t pretend you have understood them if you haven’t


Barriers to listening:

  • Comparing – while someone is talking you are thinking things like ‘I wouldn’t have done that’, ‘In my experience this is what happens…’. This stops you really hearing what the other person is saying. Try to switch your internal dialogue off.
  • Mind reading – looking for hidden meanings. You are trying to guess what the person really means by paying more attention to subtle changes in intonation and expression rather than the actual words.
  • Rehearsing – you don’t have time to really listen because you are planning and rehearsing what you are going to say next.
  • Derailing – by suddenly changing the subject because you are bored or uncomfortable. You can also derail by making a joke in order to avoid the discomfort or anxiety you might feel if you really listened to the other person.
  • Placating – agreeing eagerly from a desire to please or to seem supportive. You may half listen to get the drift but are not really involved.



Interested in finding out more about our specialist communication skills courses for frontline staff and managers?  Call us or email us today to discuss your training needs further.