The Four Components of Active Listening

The Four Components of Active Listening

There are four basic components that allow active listening to take place, and the onus for these is on the listener. These are: acceptance, empathy, honesty, and specifics.


Acceptance is about having respect for the person you are talking to, not on the basis of what they have to say, but rather based on the simple fact that they are a human being who has the right to express their thoughts. This acceptance should be as unconditional as possible, with the provison that there may be instances where the beliefs or opinions expressed are so outside the boundaries of the law and morality that acceptance must be withdrawn.

Accepting means trying to avoid expressing agreement or disagreement with what the other person is saying, at least initially. This encourages the other person to be less defensive and more open to further exploring their situation and revealing more of themselves.


This is usually interpreted as the listener’s ability to understand the speaker’s situation on an emotional level, based on the listener’s own frame of reference rather than a sense of what should be felt – which is sympathy, not empathy. In other words, to empathize with the speaker, you should know how they are feeling because you have experienced the same or very similar feelings yourself. For example, you cannot properly have empathy with a bereaved individual unless you have experienced a similar loss of a loved one.

Empathy may also be defined as the listener’s desire to feel the speaker’s emotions, regardless of their own experience, but this does not really get to the heart of the matter. True empathy is a rare and wonderful thing, and requires that there is a genuine emotional reaction in the listener based on personal experience.


This is self-explanatory. This refers to openness, frankness, and genuineness on the part of the listener. This means that the listener is open about their reactions to what they have heard. This must necessarily come after the acceptance component, and once the speaker has divulged as much as they are going to. Honest reactions given too soon can easily stifle further clarification on the part of the speaker.

The aim is that candor on the part of the listener evokes candor in the speaker. When one person comes out from behind a facade, the other is more likely to do the same.


This refers to the need to deal in details rather than generalities.

Often, a person who has a problem will avoid painful feelings by being abstract or impersonal. They may speak about general situations that “other people” experience, without directly involving themselves or suggesting that they are in any way affected. For communication to be worthwhile, the listener should therefore request that the speaker is more specific. This may necessitate a direct challenge to the speaker to open up on a personal level and “own” the problem they are pussy-footing around. Clearly, this could work two ways.

For these four components to work effectively, they should be clearly evident in the listener. Whilst some people may speak openly in the vain and unsubstantiated hope that their listener will respond correctly, others will require upfront signs that their words will be received as they would wish. This is a decidedly tough ask, especially in a business environment where the two people may be manager and employee and have little knowledge of how the other person usually behaves. In this case, it has more to do with the speaker’s intuitive assessment of the listener than on the listener’s ability to create the perfect listening persona.

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