How to be a better active listener

Two people practising active listening

Active listening is a skill that involves consciously tuning in to hear not only the words that are being said but also the complete message being communicated

Active listening skills

Everyone knows what it feels like when the person you are having a conversation with is clearly not listening to you. It’s hurtful isn’t it?

When a person is going through or recovering from cancer treatment, it is vital for their wellbeing, to feel listened to and to have their changing emotions recognised.

In her role as a volunteer Cancer Coach facilitator for Cancer Support UK, Caroline Beckett says that one of the key skills that she has developed is active listening. Caroline has written this useful article about how to become a better listener.

Active listening – a vital tool for supporting people living with and beyond cancer either in the workplace or at home

Through the Cancer Coach programme, Cancer Support UK supports people who, having completed their cancer treatment, are in need of a safe space to say what is on their mind, without needing to be fixed or given solutions. Active listening is an important skill for supporting anyone who is facing a cancer diagnosis or who has finished treatment. It is also one of the core topics covered in the Workplace Cancer Support Training courses run by Cancer Support UK for organisations who want to acquire the knowledge and skills to support people with cancer in the workplace.

Did you know, the word listen contains the same letters as the word silent?

Consider the impact of allowing space for silence in conversations, especially when the speaker is clearly digging deep to think about something, or is becoming emotional.

What is active listening?

Active listening is a skill that involves consciously tuning in to hear not just the actual spoken words, but also the complete message being communicated. This means focusing consciously on things like body language, as well as the pitch, tone and speed of words. This gives additional clues about how the speaker is feeling and what they really mean. Active listening is also one of the key skills that Cancer Support UK teaches in its Workplace Cancer Support Training courses.

What is the origin of active listening?

In 1957 two American psychologists, Rogers and Farson, first developed the term ‘active listening’.

The adjective ‘active’ suggests that the listener has a definite responsibility. This is the idea that a person can choose to focus actively and try their best to absorb the words, which are spoken, as well as trying to understand the meaning behind the words. Active listening means that you engage with the speaker and, by asking questions, show that you are invested in what they are saying.

Why is active listening an essential part of effective communication?

We all have friends, colleagues or family members who are naturally good listeners, but this is a skill that can be learned.  Active listening is an essential part of effective communication because when you use it the speaker feels truly heard.

What are the different levels of listening?

There are three distinct levels of listening. Take a few moments to consider the conversations that you have had today and ask yourself which level you were in?

Internal Listening

We are likely to be preoccupied with our own thoughts, focusing on the things we like, dislike or think are important.

Focused Listening

This is where we listen carefully, but at the same time, we are forming our own opinions as well as formulating responses, questions or counter-arguments. In this level we are listening to our own internal voice more than what is actually said by the other person.

Global Listening

Here, we are fully focused not only on what is being said, but also on how it is being said, because we have a deeper awareness of other things like the energy and meaning behind the words. This is deep listening because the person speaking feels heard and understood.

What can I do to improve my listening skills?

As Stephen R. Covey (American educator, author, businessman and speaker) said:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

If you want to improve your listening skills, take some time to practice some of the techniques below. Think about the impact your improved listening skills has on friends, work colleagues or family members affected by cancer. You will probably find that they notice and appreciate your time, your effort and your attention.

Listen with intent

Set your intention to listen and bring your attention back to the conversation when you find yourself temporarily distracted.

Pay more attention

Practice becoming more focused during conversations. Are you listening to what is being said with a view to understanding?  Or are you planning your next question, thinking about how you can offer solutions? Or are you thinking about how the issue relates to you?

Concentrate on the other’s person’s agenda

Sometimes we hear what someone says and in an effort to make sense of it, we refer to things we understand ourselves. If so, our attention is actually focused on our own thoughts, feelings and judgements, rather than on the person talking to us. So be aware of this and refocus on the speaker.

Keep your body language open

John Baer (Professor of Educational Psychology) said: “Psychologically, crossed legs or arms signal that a person is mentally, emotionally, and physically blocked off from what’s in front of them.” So, open body language is another key tool to demonstrate that you are actively listening.

Tips for better active listening

Think about the unspoken

Consider the meaning behind the words that are actually spoken and develop more awareness about what is not being said. This also include clues in body language, pitch and tone of voice.

Make eye contact

By making eye contact you are showing the speaker that you are genuinely engaged in the conversation.

Ask questions

By asking relevant questions you are showing the speaker that you are listening to what they are saying and are interested to know more.

Avoid distractions

Keep distractions to a minimum so put down the phone, turn it into silent mode and turn off the TV and radio so that you show the speaker that you are fully engaged in what they are saying.  This will show them that you value them enough for you to make real time to listen.

Keep practicing these techniques to improve your active listening skills and see the impact you can have.


Caroline Beckett is a volunteer Cancer Coach facilitator for Cancer Support UK. She is also founder, coach and trainer at

For more information about our free Cancer Coach programme for people who have completed their cancer treatment, or our Workplace Cancer Support training courses, which provide an introduction to cancer, cancer treatment, cancer side effects and tools/strategies to support someone impacted by cancer, please visit

For further information about visit our Workplace Cancer Support Training page, or to arrange an exploratory conversation with our training service, email: