Developing Active Listening Skills

by Julie Andersen, MA on May 01, 2008

Career Path

Can you hear me now? How effective communication will enhance your career.

In an age of advanced communication technology, we believe we are communicating more than ever before, but are we communicating effectively? You may be armed with your cellular network and all the latest technology, but that won’t help if you haven’t mastered the art of active listening.

Discover the benefits of active listening: what it is and how you can use it to enhance your relationships with your fitness clients, co-workers and managers.

Why Active Listening?

According to, active listening is an intent to “listen for meaning.” The listener checks with the speaker to see that a statement has been correctly heard and understood.

What someone says and what you hear can be amazingly different! Personal beliefs, assumptions, judgments and filters can distort what you hear. Active listening will help eliminate barriers that keep you from hearing accurately.

You can use active listening to get the results you want, meet your supervisor’s expectations, build teamwork, enhance relationships and avoid conflict. Active listening improves your understanding of what others are saying, thinking and feeling and, therefore, increases your ability to meet their needs and yours. Too often we respond without fully understanding our counterpart and make inappropriate responses or rush into ineffective solutions. The more accurately you hear, the more effectively you can meet the other person’s needs. The more you help others, the more valuable you become and the more respect you engender.

How to Actively Listen

Effective listening begins with passive listening or attending. This nonverbal form of communication demonstrates your interest in the speaker. As you listen, you look him or her in the eye, leaning forward, nodding and smiling. You may also respond by saying “uh-huh” or “I see.”

Once you are practicing passive listening, you are ready for the four skills of active listening:

Skill 1: Clarify. Ask open-ended questions to clarify content and to gain more information.

Skill 2: Paraphrase and Verify. Restate in your own words what you hear the other person saying, so the speaker can confirm that you are hearing correctly. Use phrases like “If I understand you correctly . . . ” or “So what you are saying is . . . .” If your understanding is incorrect, the speaker will be able to correct the misunderstanding and avoid conflict. In turn, your response or any actions you take will more likely meet the other person’s needs and expectations.

Skill 3: Reflect or Empathize. Let the speaker know you not only understand the content of the message but also perceive the feelings or thoughts involved. To reflect the feeling or thought the speaker is conveying, make statements such as “It seems like that bothered you a lot” or “It sounds like you believe . . . .” Reflecting does not mean you agree with the speaker, but rather that you comprehend what he or she is feeling and thinking. If you do agree with the speaker and want to empathize, you may add “I understand how you feel; I would feel the same way if I were in your place” or “I agree with you; I believe the same thing you do.”

Skill 4: Summarize. Briefly sum up what has been said. Restate action items and commitments. Ask for confirmation or agreement from the speaker.

For insights into what active listening might sound like in a conversation between fitness professionals, read the following two examples.

Example 1: Instructor and Student

An instructor calls a student to check in. The words in parentheses show the active listening skill the instructor is using.

Instructor: Hi, Becky. This is Angela from the gym. I’ve missed seeing you on Tuesday nights in class this month. How is your fitness program going?

Student: I’m sorry I haven’t been to class. My shoulder has been killing me.

Instructor: (Clarify) Has it been hurting for long?

Student: For a month now. I miss working out with you, but I’m concerned about my shoulder.

Instructor: (Verify) What I hear you saying is that you would like to come to class, but are afraid of the pain in your shoulder. Is that correct?

Student: Yes, but I also have to work overtime many nights and that keeps me from getting home in time to come to your class.

Instructor: (Reflect) It sounds like you are discouraged by your shoulder pain and are frustrated by your long hours at work. (Empathize) I understand how you feel. I feel the same way when I miss a day or two at the gym.

Student: I don’t like missing my workout, but I like the overtime because I can use the extra money.

Instructor: (Clarify) Would you like to make an appointment with our athletic trainer to evaluate your shoulder? What do you think would help you make time for exercise when you have to work late?

Student: Yes, I’d like to make an appointment with the athletic trainer. I guess I could try to exercise before work.

Instructor: (Summarize) Let me have the athletic trainer call you today so he can help you figure out what is causing your shoulder pain and get it taken care of. I teach a gentle exercise class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:00 am. If you come, I’d be happy to show you how to modify the moves to decrease stress on your shoulder. Would you like to come next Tuesday? Do you feel we have addressed your concerns? Is there anything else we could do that you feel would help?

Student: Have the athletic trainer call me between 4:00 and 5:00 pm. And I’d love to come to class Tuesday. Thanks for helping me get back on track.

Example 2: Personal Trainer and Supervisor

A trainer and his boss discuss customer service. The words in parentheses show the active listening skill each person is using.

Supervisor: I want you to focus on providing better customer service to your clients.

Trainer: (Clarify) What exactly should I do?

Supervisor: I think you could increase your client base if you took time to personally get to know your clients and build rapport with them.

Trainer: (Verify) What I hear you saying is that I should ask my clients personal questions about their interests, family or job.

Supervisor: Yes, and I think you should go the extra mile to service them. When they tell you they cannot keep their next appointment, rather than say you will see them the following week make an effort to reschedule them for a more convenient time.

Trainer: (Reflect) So you do not think I am a good trainer and feel I do a bad job.

Supervisor: (Correct misunderstanding) No, that is not what I am saying. I think you are tremendously knowledgeable and provide your clients with excellent training programs. What I am saying is that I think you will attract and retain more clients if you show them you care and are willing to do whatever it takes to help them meet their goals.

Trainer: (Summarize) You believe I will improve my effectiveness and increase my clientele if I take a personal interest in all my clients and make a greater effort to accommodate their schedules. I am committed to getting to know more about each of my clients, and I will offer alternative dates to accommodate changes in their schedules. My goal is to reschedule every client as quickly as possible. If I do these things, will I meet your expectations for customer service?

Supervisor: Yes.

Julie Andersen, MA, who has a degree in exercise physiology, is a management consultant specializing in leadership development. She is also a certified trainer for Ken Blanchard’s program, Lead Like Jesus.

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About the Author

Julie Andersen, MA

Julie Andersen, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Julie Andersen, MA, who has a degree in exercise physiology, is a management consultant specializing in leadership development. She is also a business and life coach based out of San Diego.