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Are You An Active Listener?

4 min read
Mom and teacher working with toddler
Penny Gill (right), teacher of the deaf at Clarke, works with a family in Clarke's Birth to Age Three Program.
Tips for Professionals Working with Families

Have you ever emerged from a conversation feeling energized, supported and truly heard? You probably benefited from the efforts of an active listener.

“Active listening is the key to success in working with the families and children at Clarke,” says Jan Gatty, EdM, MED, EdD, director of child & family services at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech.

For 49 years, Jan has worked with families of infants and young children who are deaf or hard of hearing, helping them understand hearing loss, how to communicate effectively and providing ways to create language-rich spaces at home. Jan was also a professor at Smith College, where she’s taught courses in child development, family-centered practice and counseling.

In Counseling Theory and Education, Jan’s course in the department of education and child study at Smith, she paired students and assigned them the task of meeting once a week to listen to each other, using active listening techniques she demonstrated in class. “The students formed effective ‘listening partnerships,’ not necessarily friendships. And yet, if there was a crisis on campus, these students would often turn to their listening partner to process the experience.”

What made the active listener more appealing than a friend?

The Fundamentals of Active Listening

Active listeners use various techniques to convey their attention, including physically and verbally expressing their interest, paraphrasing to confirm what they’ve heard, reflecting emotions and avoiding interjecting or sharing their own experiences during a conversation.

Jan offers these strategies to listen actively and effectively:

  • Check your body posture. Face the speaker and use an open, relaxed body posture (e.g., uncrossing arms and legs) that communicates your interest and availability.
  • Maintain comfortable eye contact. Look at the speaker while you’re interacting but try not to stare. Keep in mind that different cultures use different patterns of eye contact for communication. In Western cultures, for example, direct eye contact generally communicates social availability. Be aware of patterns and the speaker’s use of eye contact to establish and maintain communicative connection. Follow the speaker’s lead as you interact.
  • Offer gestural and verbal encouragements. Small gestures and words can be used to encourage speakers to continue to share. “Yes,” “Uh-huh,” and nodding your head lets the speaker know you’re listening.

Simple sentences like, “Tell me more about that,” or “Could you explain what you mean by that?” both show the speaker that you’re interested and help clarify information for you as the listener. (These statements can also help slow down the conversation if the amount of information is becoming overwhelming for you as the listener. Consider it a tool.)

  • Follow their lead. When you’re actively listening to someone, the speaker controls the course and pace of the conversation. You’re following their lead. The speaker is the driver and you’re the passenger.You can demonstrate that you’re following along by:
    • paraphrasing statements when it feels appropriate to do so. Use your own words; don’t be a parrot. (e.g., “I heard you say that…” “So, what you are saying is…”)
    • and reflecting their emotions back to them. When you can verbally acknowledge and validate someone’s feelings, they’ll feel heard. “This is the most powerful strategy of all,” says Jan. Hearing and responding to the emotion behind the message provides profound support. (e.g., “It sounds like you are feeling anxious about…,” “Seems like you’re feeling really angry that…” “Wow! You must feel very proud of…”)

Why Does Active Listening Matter?

At Clarke, our team of experts provides Listening and Spoken Language (LSL) education and support customized for each family’s unique needs and communication goals. Doing this effectively requires trust among the family members and the Clarke practitioners. Active listening is one way to develop trust and cultivate strong relationships.

“Relationships are so important in working with families who have young children with hearing loss,” says Jan. She notes that the most effective professionals are excellent listeners. They’re able to coach families through a sometimes complicated—often emotional—process of learning by listening carefully.

“Professionals who are charged with teaching… often think they are teaching only when they are directing, lecturing, telling, guiding, facilitating, coordinating and pontificating,” says Jan. “I have observed a negative correlation between these kinds of behaviors and learning. Experienced, confident professionals are less controlling of the learner’s behavior in their instructional style; they listen.”

The ability to actively and compassionately listen to the concerns, questions and needs of a family is paramount when working with young children. “Listening elicits a sense of power and confidence in the speaker,” says Jan. This is vital to a successful partnership between a family and the Clarke team: caregivers must feel confident knowing that they are the expert on their child.

You Listened Well. Now What?

An active listener has done first-rate work—they’ve followed along; they’ve paraphrased; they’ve reflected the emotional register they observed. What happens next?

Here is your chance to effectively express yourself, explain your goals and learn more. Jan offers a few tips:

Speak for yourself. Use “I” statements when you talk. Take ownerships of your beliefs and opinions based on your experience. “When you speak in your own voice, the listener can respond to you rather than to vague general statements,” says Jan.

  • For example, you could say: “When I join a group, I am always nervous too,” in order to relate to what you’ve just heard, instead of “Research indicates group work can be intimidating.”

Ask open-ended questions.

  • “How” and “What” questions are open. (e.g., “How do you feel about…?” and “What do you think about…?”) They prompt expanded answers. They invite the speaker to consider, answer and reflect in a way that is more informative to the listener.
  • “Do” and “Are” questions can be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No.” Sometimes they are necessary, e.g., “Does your child wear hearing aids?” but they do not encourage conversational exchange.
  • Rephrase questions when you can. For example, instead of “Are you willing to narrate your kitchen chores to your child?” Try: “What are your thoughts on narrating what you’re doing in the kitchen for your child?” And instead of, “Are there are any activities your toddler enjoys?” Try: “What kinds of activities does your toddler enjoy?”

Avoid “Why” questions.

  • Why? They often seem accusatory and may put the speaker on the spot, limiting their ability to think clearly, answer easily and risk halting the flow of conversation. “Why” questions may mask anger as well, unintentionally making the speaker feel defensive, distracted and reactionary.

“At the end of a listening session,” notes Jan, “the active listener—in this case the practitioner—often feels depleted, tired, fatigued and in need of rejuvenation. The speaker or caregiver, however, will feel energized and ready for action. And that is our goal.”

Tom Dawson

This is very good information that I will use when communicating with my 6-year old Granddaughter. But, what if I don’t understand what the speaker is trying to say? How can I express my confusion without making the speaker feel embarrassed? I’d like some pointers on how to handle situations when I don’t quite understand what the speaker is trying to say and avoid making them shut down or get embarrassed. I’m sure this has been covered before, but maybe I missed it.


Thank you for the comment, Tom, this is an excellent question. A Clarke teacher of the deaf responds with the following:

“I would suggest you say, ‘Did you say [insert what you think the speaker said]?’ If you still have trouble understanding, you can ask the speaker to ‘say it another way’ or to describe what they’re talking about. When you ask someone to repeat something they said, sometimes it keeps coming out the exact same way, which isn’t helpful for anyone in the conversation! So, it’s best to try to get the speaker to use other words that might give you more information and avoid the person shutting down or getting frustrated.”

We hope this helps, if you have additional questions, please contact the Communications Team at

Also, we apologize for the delay in posting this response and we have updated the spam-flagging filters on our website.

Marian Hartblay

Thank you Jan! This is the essence of our work with families and each other!

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