It’s often thought in conversation between two or more people, that one person talking means others are listening. Sadly, this is not the truth in variety of situations. People can get distracted from other people's voices, by their own thoughts, by creating a plan of what to say next, or by many other variables. Active listening is a type of structured way of conversing, especially between two people, where focus is on truly hearing the communications of the other person. It's a conversation model used in many settings.
The easiest way to understand active listening is to think of it in a one-on-one conversation model. While one person speaks, the other listens, and they do so with great attention to the speaker. The listener gives cues of continued focus, like nodding in agreement, saying the occasionally "uh-huh" or "yeah," and tries to withhold any personal reaction that might occur if the experience sparks off negative or difficult emotions. The goal remains to keep centered on what the speaker is trying to communicate while withholding judgment.
There is a place to talk in an active listening model. Listeners can encourage the flow of conversation by asking questions of the speaker or by paraphrasing some of what the speaker has said. This helps the speaker reflect on his or her own words and clarify them, retract them or continue with more detail to explain the issue at hand.
Consider this model in a classroom with many potential active listeners trained on the teacher. As the teacher lectures, students may or may not signify they are listening. Some act very interested and enhance the lecture by asking for examples, or clarifying with the teacher what she or he is saying through questions. The interest of the student who wants to know more is one example of active listening, because the student is intent on the teacher's words, straining for understanding, and is not as the more passive listener might be, merely partly occupied with whatever the teacher might say (or asleep in the back of the classroom).
This type of focus can be brought to bear in numerous settings. It can occur in mediation where people must resolve a problem together. It's a technique that is used by counselors with the people they counsel, and it can be taught by counselors to clients, especially in family or marriage therapy. Learning how to do this may feel a little constrained at first, since it goes against many poor communication habits people have evolved, and which may have brought them to counseling or mediation in the first place. Nevertheless it’s a skill worth having because it demonstrates respect and value for the communications of others.
Learning how to do active listening doesn't mean people have to employ it continuously, which might be exhausting. A person doesn't have to paraphrase a quick statement from a pal, such as, "It will be sunny" with, "So you're saying you think it will be sunny." That would get a little absurd. Yet in the appropriate context, when communications are very important, active listening can prove extremely helpful in creating better communication.