Interpersonal Leadership: Communication
“Practicing Active Listening” (SL#47)
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® 7.3
Interpersonal Communication

  1. Active listening, a vital part of interpersonal communication, means to listen with your heart, as a whole person. Such communication in a given situation is from a total person to a total person including intellect, emotions, volition, relationships, and actions. The dictionaries capture part of this as attentiveness, mental sensing, perception, awareness, observance, even mindfulness. An old saying: “The Lord gave us two ears to hear and one mouth to speak; we should listen and speak in about that ratio.”
    • Glossary–listen
      1. to give close attention with the purpose of hearing; to give ear; to hearken; to attend. When we have occasion to listen, and give a more particular attention to same sound, the tympanum is drawn to a more than ordinary tension. 2. To give heed; to yield to advice; to follow admonition; to obey. (Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary)
    • Glossary–active
      Having the power or quality of acting; causing change; communicating action or motion; acting; –opposed to passive, that receives; as, certain active principles; the powers of the mind. . . . Given to action; constantly engaged in action; energetic; diligent; busy; –opposed to dull, sluggish, indolent, or inert; as, an active man of business; active mind; active zeal. . . . Give to action rather than contemplation; practical; operative; –opposed to speculative or theoretical; as, an active rather than a speculative statesman. (Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary)

    Listening, really listening, is the hardest part of communication, so don’t be surprised by it. At my house (or office) it goes like this: “Lloyd, I know we’re in the same room, and I’ve been talking, but you haven’t heard one word I’ve said.” Now, don’t be embarrassed for me–the same thing has happened to you. Right?

    David Johnson, a teacher of psychology and prolific writer, describes what we are calling “active listening” as “closely,” or “helpful,” or “responsive listening.” It is a powerful component of effective interpersonal communication.

  2. Active Listening in Action
    In the practice of interpersonal communication, there are valuable listening elements that have been identified, proven in practice, can be learned or improved, and become a rewarding part of your life and leadership. Let’s examine them one by one for reflection and application. “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice.”–Polonius (Hamlet), Shakespeare

    • Active listening: really hearing what someone has to say, using your ears and eyes, your insight and relationships. _____
    • Active listening: seeking to understand; going beyond the words to get inside the real meaning being expressed. _____
    • Active listening: reflecting on what is communicated by taking time to think about the background, relationships, and immediate situation. _____
    • Active listening: responding to the message sent and the behavior or action called for by the sender. _____
    • Look people in the eyes while you are listening; if your eyes do not wander, perhaps your mind won’t. Focus, but do not gaze or stare at the communicator. _____
    • Find areas of common interest, even if you have to keep moving the conversation around; so, take that cordial, brief bypass. _____
    • Assess the content/meaning of the message rather than its delivery; just as you do, at times other senders let the delivery get in the way of the message. _____
    • Hold your fire: don’t rush in to respond before you understand the intended message. Defensiveness is a low-grade, nonproductive type of active listening. _____
    • Listen for basic ideas and significant information: “You’ve helped me see this in a new light.” _____
    • Don’t sweat all the details: “Could you expand on the larger picture to give us a context for prioritizing the specifics?” _____
    • “Listen,” (sense, watch) for the nonverbal messages, not just the words and sentences: Why is this person so agitated by a small matter? _____
    • Be flexible as you listen; do not control the conversation by a preconceived plan; if it swerves off course, don’t rudely yank it back because the detour may hold the real message. _____
    • Keep your mind open, active and probing–even when you have the gist of the thought. If you get through listening before the sender is finished sending, beware shaping your response too soon. _____
    • Listen with your body–posture, hands, feet, eyes, face; and listen to the other “talking body,” not just the words. This is one of the limitations of the note, e-mail, or even telephone call. _____
    • Take a few personal notes only if the nature of the conversation makes it necessary for effective communication; don’t just “doodle.” _____
    • Resist distractions and the temptation to wander off to other, more important matters: What you’re saying may be so, but what I want us to discuss is . . . .” _____
    • Use your “mind speed” to the benefit of communication: you speak at about 125 words per minute, but can listen at about 500 words per minute. You can use this for other “active listening” elements, or you could simply loose track of the incoming message. _____
    • Listen for a stopping point–conversations or meetings should not go beyond reasonable limits or purpose: “You just summarized nicely what we have decided, so . . . .” _____
  3. Graphic Cycle: Disclosure, Listening and Feedback
    Articles SL#47 and SL#48 seek to expand our knowledge and practice of navigating two essential elements of interpersonal communication: active listening and responsive feedback. Work through the cycle as a guiding visual.


    An interpersonal communication cycle begins with a sender’s message or disclosure; it may include cognitive information, personal feelings, and a desired understanding or even changed behavior.

    Active listening:
    The message has a chance of understanding if there is “active listening” by the receiver– an effort to be receptive, helpful, understanding.

    Responsive feedback:
    The receiver seeks to give open, relevant, helpful feedback, including perceived understanding, affirmation and/or differences, and personal feelings.

    The message sender becomes the receiver, and the communication may be completed, achieving mutual understanding and/or desired changed behavior.

    Continuing Cycle:
    Or, more than likely, in communication between two or more persons (a group or team), the cycle of disclosure, listening, and feedback continues until there is mutual understanding and behavior change.

  4. For Reflection/Assessment/Application
    • As you re-read these critical elements, reflect on your own patterns and practices. How can they improve? Should you choose one or more and go to work on improvement?
    • Could you ask a mentor to objectively assess your “active listening style,” and talk to you about it.
    • You could thoughtfully assess your active listening style, rating your practice of each element: (seldom) 1 to 5 (often); that’s what the ___ is for.

    On a scale of 1(low) to 10 (high), how would you rank your skill as an active listener? Circle your (honest) answer:
    Low 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 High

    On a good day, the best I can do is about a 7; But that’s what this article is about–improvement! We just can’t emphasize enough the importance of active listening as a vital skill for leadership as a relationship. It contributes to team-building, improves performance, and often leads to ministry results.

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 © 2006; hosted and copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership