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Active Listening

Carl R. Rogers and Richard E. Farson

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by Carl R. Rogers and Richard E. Farson
Excerpt from Communicating in Business Today
R.G. Newman, M.A. Danzinger, M. Cohen (eds)
D.C. Heath & Company, 1987

Active listening does not necessarily mean long sessions spent listening to grievances, personal or
otherwise. It is simply a way of approaching those problems which arise out of the usual day-to-day
events of any job.

To be effective, active listening must be firmly grounded in the basic attitudes of the user. We cannot
employ it as a technique if our fundamental attitudes are in conflict with its basic concepts. If we try, our
behavior will be empty and sterile, and our associates will be quick to recognize this. Until we can
demonstrate a spirit which genuinely respects the potential worth of the individual, which considers his
sights and trusts his capacity for sell-direction, we cannot begin to be effective listeners.

What We Achieve by Listening

Active listening is an important way to bring about changes in people. Despite the popular notion that
listening is a passive approach, clinical and research evidence clearly shows that sensitive listening is a
most effective agent for individual personality change and group development. Listening brings about
changes in peoples attitudes toward themselves and others; it also brings about changes in their basic
values and personal philosophy. People who have been listened to in this new and special way become
more emotionally mature, more open to their experiences, less defensive, more democratic, and less
When people are listened to sensitively, they tend to listen to themselves with more care and to make
clear exactly what they are feeling and thinking. Group members tend to listen more to each other, to
become less argumentative, more ready to incorporate other points of view. Because listening reduces
the threat of having one’s ideas criticized, the person is better able to see them for what they are and is
more likely to feel that his contributions are worthwhile.
Not the least important result of listening is the change that takes place within the listener himself.
Besides providing more information than any other activity, listening builds deep, positive relationships
and tends to alter constructively the attitudes of the listener. Listening is a growth experience.
These, then, are some of the worthwhile results we can expect from active listening. But how do we go
about this kind of listening? How do we become active listeners?

How to Listen

Active listening aims to bring about changes in people. To achieve this end, it relies upon definite
techniques—things to do and things to avoid doing. Before discussing these techniques, however, we
should first understand why they are effective. To do so, we must understand how the individual
personality develops.

The Growth of the Individual

Through all of our lives, from early childhood on, we have learned to think of ourselves in certain very
definite ways. We have built up pictures of ourselves. Sometimes these self-pictures are pretty realistic,
but at other times they are not. For example, an overage, overweight lady may fancy herself a youthful,
ravishing siren, or an awkward teen-ager regard himself as a star athlete. All of us have experiences
which fit the way we need to think about ourselves. These we accept. But it is much harder to accept
experiences which don’t fit. And sometimes if it is very important for us to hang on to this self-picture, we
don’t accept or admit these experiences at all.

These self-pictures are not necessarily attractive. A man, for example, may regard himself as
incompetent and worthless. He may feel that he is doing his job poorly in spite of favorable appraisals by
the company. As long as he has these feelings about himself, he must deny any experiences which would
seem not to fit this self-picture—in this case any that might indicate to him that he is competent. It is so
necessary for him to maintain this self-picture that he is threatened by anything which would tend to
change it. Thus, when the company raises his salary, it may seem to him only additional proof that he is
a fraud. He must hold onto this self-picture, because, bad or good, it’s the only thing he has by which he
can identify himself.

This is why direct attempts to change this individual or change his self-picture are particularly
threatening. He is forced to defend himself or to completely deny the experience. This denial of
experience and defense of the self-picture tend to bring on rigidity of behavior and create difficulties in
personal adjustment.

The active-listening approach, on the other hand, does not present a threat to the individual’s selfpicture.
He does not have to defend it. He is able to explore it, see it for what it is, and make his own
decision about how realistic it is. And he is then in a position to change.

If I want to help a man reduce his defensiveness and become more adaptive, I must try to remove the
threat of myself as his potential changer. As long as the atmosphere is threatening, there can be no
effective communication. So I must create a climate which is neither critical, evaluative, nor moralizing. It
must be an atmosphere of equality and freedom, permissiveness and understanding, acceptance and
warmth. It is in this climate and this climate only that the individual feels safe enough to incorporate new
experiences and new values into his concept of himself. Let’s see how active listening helps to create this

What to Avoid

When we encounter a person with a problem our usual response is to try to change his way of looking at
things—to get him to see his situation the way we see it or would like him to see it. We plead, reason,
scold, encourage, insult, prod—anything to bring about a change in the desired direction, that is, in the
direction we want him to travel. What we seldom realize, however, is that, under these circumstances,
we are usually responding to our own needs to see the world in certain ways. It is always difficult for us
to tolerate and understand actions which are different from the ways in which we believe we should act.
If, however, we can free ourselves from the need to influence and direct others in our own paths, we
enable ourselves to listen with understanding and thereby employ the most potent available agent of

One problem the listener faces is that of responding to demands for decisions, judgments, and
evaluations. He is constantly called upon to agree or disagree with someone or something. Yet, as he
well knows, the question or challenge frequently is a masked expression of feelings or needs which the
speaker is far more anxious to communicate than he is to have the surface questions answered. Because
he cannot speak these feelings openly, the speaker must disguise them to himself and to others in an
acceptable form.

Passing judgment, whether critical or favorable, makes free expression difficult. Similarly, advice and
information are almost always seen as efforts to change a person and thus serve as barriers to his self-expression
and the development of a creative relationship. Moreover, advice is seldom taken, and
information hardly ever utilized. The eager young trainee probably will not become patient just because
he is advised that “the road to success in business is a long, difficult one, and you must be patient.” And
it is no more helpful for him to learn that “only one out of a hundred trainees reaches a top management
position." Interestingly, it is a difficult lesson to learn that positive evaluations are sometimes as blocking
as negative ones. It is almost as destructive to the freedom of a relationship to tell a person that he is
good or capable or right, as to tell him otherwise. To evaluate him positively may make it more difficult
for him to tell of the faults that distress him or the ways in which he believes he is not competent.

Encouragement also may be seen as an attempt to motivate the speaker in certain directions or hold him
off, rather than as support. “I’m sure everything will work out O.K.” is not a helpful response to the
person who is deeply discouraged about a problem. In other words, most of the techniques and devices
common to human relationships are found to be of little use in establishing the type of relationship we
are seeking here.

What to Do

Just what does active listening entail, then? Basically, it requires that we get inside the speaker, that we
grasp, from his point of view, just what it is he is communicating to us. More than that, we must convey
to the speaker that we are seeing things from his point of view. To listen actively, then, means that there
are several things we must do.

Listen for Total Meaning.

Any message a person tries to get across usually has two components: the
content of the message and the feeling or attitude underlying this content. Both are important; both give
the message meaning. It is this total meaning of the message that we try to understand. For example, a
machinist comes to his foreman and says, “I’ve finished that lathe setup.” This message has obvious
content and perhaps calls upon the foreman for another work assignment, Suppose, on the other hand,
that he says, “Well, I’m finally finished with that damned lathe setup.” The content is the same, but the
total meaning of the message has changed - and changed in an important way for both the foreman and
the worker. Here sensitive listening can facilitate the relationship. Suppose the foreman were to respond
by simply giving another work assignment. Would the employee feel that he had gotten his total message
across? Would he feel free to talk to his foreman? Will he feel better about his job, more anxious to do
good work on the next assignment?

Now, on the other hand, suppose the foreman were to respond with, “Glad to have it over with, huh?” or
“Had a pretty rough time of it?” or "I guess you don’t feel like doing anything like that again,” or anything
else that tells the worker that he heard and understands. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the next work
assignment need be changed or that he must spend an hour listening to the worker complain about the
setup problems he encountered. He may - do a number of things differently in the light of the new
information he has from the workerbut not necessarily. It’s just that extra sensitivity on the part of the
foreman which can transform an average working climate into a good one.

Respond to Feelings.

In some instances, the content is far less important than the feeling which underlies
it. To catch the full flavor or meaning of the message, one must respond particularly to the feeling
component. If, for instance, our machinist had said, “I’d like to melt this lathe down and make paper clips
out of it,” responding to content would be obviously absurd. But to respond to his disgust or anger in
trying to work with his lathe recognizes the meaning of this message. There are various shadings of
these components in the meaning of any message. Each time, the listener must try to remain sensitive to
the total meaning the message has to the speaker. What is he trying to tell me? What does this mean to
him? How does he see this situation?

Note All Cues.

Not all communication is verbal. The speaker’s words alone don’t tell us everything he is
communicating. And hence, truly sensitive listening requires that we become aware of several kinds of
communication besides verbal. The way in which a speaker hesitates in his speech can tell us much about
his feelings. So, too, can the inflection of his voice. He may stress certain points loudly and clearly and
may mumble others. We should also note such things as the person’s facial expressions, body posture,
hand movements, eye movements, and breathing. All of these help to convey his total message.

What We Communicate by Listening

The first reaction of most people when they consider listening as a possible method for dealing with
human beings is that listening cannot be sufficient in itself. Because it is passive, they feel, listening does
not communicate anything to the speaker. Actually, nothing could be farther from the truth.
By consistently listening to a speaker, you are conveying the idea that: “I’m interested in you as a
person, and I think that what you feel is important. I respect your thoughts, and even if I don’t agree
with them, I know that they are valid for you. I feel sure that you have a contribution to make. I’m not
trying to change you or evaluate you. I just want to understand you. I think you’re worth listening to,
and I want you to know that I’m the kind of a person you can talk to.”

The subtle but more important aspect of this is that it is the demonstration of the message that works.
While it is most difficult to convince someone that you respect him by telling him so, you are much more
likely to get this message across by really behaving that way—by actually having and demonstrating
respect for this person. Listening does this most effectively.

Like other behavior, listening behavior is contagious. This has implications for all communication
problems, whether between two people or within a large organization. To ensure good communication
between associates up and down the line, one must first take the responsibility for setting a pattern of
listening. Just as one learns that anger is usually met with anger, argument with argument, and
deception with deception, one can learn that listening can be met with listening. Every person who feels
responsibility in a situation can set the tone of the interaction, and the important lesson in this is that any
behavior exhibited by one person will eventually be responded to with similar behavior in the other

It is far more difficult to stimulate constructive behavior in another person but far more profitable.
Listening is one of these constructive behaviors, but if one’s attitude is to “wait out” the speaker rather
than really listen to him, it will fail. The one who consistently listens with understanding, however, is the
one who eventually is most likely to be listened to. If you really want to be heard and understood by
another, you can develop him as a potential listener, ready for new ideas, provided you can first develop
yourself in these ways and sincerely listen with understanding and respect.

Because understanding another person is actually far more difficult than it at first seems, it is important
to test constantly your ability to see the world in the way the speaker sees it. You can do this by
reflecting in your own words what the speaker seems to mean by his words and actions. His response to
this will tell you whether or not he feels understood. A good rule of thumb is to assume that you never
really understand until you can communicate this understanding to the others satisfaction.

Here is an experiment to test your skill in listening. The next time you become involved in a lively or
controversial discussion with another person, stop for a moment and suggest that you adopt this ground
rule for continued discussion:

Before either participant in the discussion can make a point or express an opinion of his own, he must
first restate aloud the previous point or position of the other person. This restatement must be in his own
words (merely parroting the words of another does not prove that one has understood, but only that he
has heard the words). The restatement must be accurate enough to satisfy the speaker before the
listener can be allowed to speak for himself.

This is something you could try in your own discussion group. Have someone express himself on some
topic of emotional concern to the group. Then, before another member expresses his own feelings and
thought, he must rephrase the meaning expressed by the previous speaker to that individual’s
satisfaction. Note the changes in the emotional climate and in the quality of the discussion when you try

Problems in Active Listening

Active listening is not an easy skill to acquire. It demands practice. Perhaps more important, it may
require changes in our own basic attitudes. These changes come slowly and sometimes with considerable
difficulty. Let us look at some of the major problems in active listening and what can be done to
overcome them.

To be effective at all in active listening, one must have a sincere interest in the speaker. We all live in
glass houses as far as our attitudes are concerned. They always show through. And if we are only making
a pretense of interest in the speaker. he will quickly pick this up, either consciously or unconsciously. And
once he does, he will no longer express himself freely.

Active listening carries a strong element of personal risk. If we manage to accomplish what we are
describing here — to sense deeply the feeling of another person, to understand the meaning his
experiences have for him, to see the world as he sees it — we risk being changed ourselves… To get the
meaning which life has for him — we risk coming to see the world as he sees it. It is threatening to give
up, even momentarily, what we believe and start thinking in someone else’s terms. It takes a great deal
of inner security and courage to be able to risk one’s self in understanding another.

We are so accustomed to viewing ourselves in certain ways — to seeing and hearing only what we want to
see and hear — that it is extremely difficult for a person to free himself from his needs to see things these
ways. To do this may sometimes be unpleasant, but it is far more difficult than unpleasant.

Developing an attitude of sincere interest in the speaker is thus no easy task. It can be developed only by
being willing to risk seeing the world from the speaker’s point of view. If we have a number of such
experiences, however, they will shape an attitude which will allow us to be truly genuine in our interest in
the speaker.

Carl R. Rogers & Richard E. Farson
Communicating in Business Today
R.G. Newman, M.A. Danzinger, M. Cohen (eds)
D.C. Heath & Company, 1987




...is a masked expression of feelings or needs which the
speaker is far more anxious to communicate than he is to have the surface questions answered. Because
he cannot speak these feelings openly, the speaker must disguise them to himself and to others in an
acceptable form.