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TACTICAL TRAINING: Active Listening – Listening for Meaning


Active listening is a skill that can benefit anyone, all the time. The huge majority of most people’s day is spent interacting with others – what better way to improve our performance than by making sure we are truly paying attention to those interactions?

Active listening is not a difficult skill to acquire. It is not simply listening, but concentrating on the action of listening. Our culture has built multi-tasking into such an integral part of society that we never focus on one thing anymore. Texting, watching TV, and talking to your ex-girlfriend on Facebook all at the same time is a pretty common occurrence.

Active listening means focusing on only one thing – the conversation you’re having. There are four steps to effective active listening. I’ll use the example of a suicidal 911 caller.

Keep in mind the basic premise of communication – there is a sender, and a receiver. The sender is the one with the message, the receiver is the listener.

In the example conversation, I have been told by a 55 year old female that she’s thinking about suicide. She lives in the south-west corner of the county, so I’ve got a good 15-20 minutes to talk to her before deputies arrive. I’ve already got the important questions out of the way (do you have a plan, are there any weapons in the house, have you hurt yourself yet). Now I’m moving on to the active listening phase, to try to build a rapport with the caller.

1.    Clarifying: Seeking additional information. Typically this means asking them to elaborate on a statement, or just asking them specific questions.

Me: Rita, what do you mean when you say you don’t want to be here anymore?

Rita: My husband died last year, none of my kids talk to me, and I lost my job this week.

2.    Paraphrasing: Parrot back what they said to you in your own words. It tells the other party you’re receiving their message clearly.

Me: So you’re saying you don’t think there’s anything left for you here.

Rita: Yeah.

3.    Reflecting Feelings: Acknowledging that you recognize their feelings, and that they are valid.

Me: Sounds like you must be pretty lonely, Rita.

Rita: That’s for damn sure. I raised those four kids and none of them even make the effort to call and see how I’m doing. And now without Ted, and no job, I don’t know how I’m gonna make it.

Me: I’d be pretty scared if that were me.

Rita: You’re damn right it’s scary! Now what am I supposed to do?

4.    Summarizing: Pretty self-explanatory. This means summarizing not just the factual issues, but their emotional ones as well.

Me: That must be hard. I have a 4 month-old, my first, and it’s already a LOT of work. It must be tough, raising four children and feeling so abandoned by them. And not knowing how you’re going to make ends meet can make me feel pretty powerless.

I’m now relating with Rita in a way that would be impossible if I didn’t use the Active Listening techniques. And there’s nothing complicated to them. You don’t even have to remember the four steps – just remember to listen closely, repeat things back to them, and try to understand how they’re feeling.

These skills aren’t useful just for emergencies – they’re helpful in every-day situations. Talking to your spouse, resolving conflict with a coworker, or helping a friend work through a tough situation; all can benefit from an active listener.


~Papa C.
Contributing Correspondent

Papa C. is a 911 Dispatcher for a metro Sheriff’s Office. He has been working in public safety for 4 years, and prior to that worked in television production. He has experience and training in general communication, crisis resolution, domestic intervention, and hostage negotiation.


  1. Great article, clear concise, you convey what needs to be said.

    Have you gone through special training for it, or have you self taught yourself? I know they go through some of this in EMT training, but not as in depth as it needs to be.

    I can see this translating into other areas of life such as office work, hostage situation, hostile situation, spousal issues (um, isn’t that hostile situation?).

    Again, loved the info, great article.

  2. Norm – thanks. I’ve gone through a fair bit of training. It actually goes back to college, where I majored in Communication – active listening was one of the most important topics covered in my Interpersonal Communication class.

    For formal job training, our initial training for my agency is 3-4 months of full-time, and it covers a decent amount of active listening and rapport building skills. I’ve also attended an FBI class on active listening\hostage negotiation taught by one of their national HRT negotiaters, and several FEMA courses on effective crisis communication.

  3. Great article Papa. I have a certificate in counseling that I received along with my masters. And this is great advice to give. Most people just want a sounding board to bounce off of. After all the key to being a good psychologist is to allow the person to realize themselves the issues and how to alleviate or rectify their situation. Active listening is one of those methods. They just want to know someone cares enough to pay attention to them and is actually listening to them.

    And Norm as for training and books to read up on to learn more of this. I personally found Verbal Judo as a good practical application of active listening. And any books by Carl Rogers or Richard Farson, a little less known therapists than say a Freud or a Jung. Both were big proponents and probably some of initial founders of the idea of active listening. So any of their books that are more science based rather than close to the realm of self help would be sufficient. Rogers- On Becoming a Person; Client centered Therapy; Counseling and Psycho-therapy are all top notch. The only book that sticks out for Farson though is Peopl: Managing your most important Asset. He was more of a Journal article writer.

    But any of those would be a good start to get a decent working knowledge of active listening.

  4. Eugene – I haven’t read Farson, but I have read several of Rogers works and all were very good. Another one I would suggest is “How to Win Friends & Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. It’s an oldie (1937) but goodie.

  5. Papa C- Farson is hard to find in book form. The only one I know of, which is the one I listed has been out of print for a while. Most of the stuff I get of his is off my university library website which has access to a plethora of journals Articles, research and various other Academic writings. However you might be able to find some of his stuff on Google Scholar.

    And good suggestion with Carnegie’s book. I recommend it as well.

  6. Took a class on communication, though the teacher was dreadfully not interesting, the book and material on all the aspects of listening and how to have a constructive conversation was.

    Definitely good info that a majority of people don’t seem to grasp. Not being Clear and Specific is unfortunately a common problem with most team leaders that I have met. Thankfully I know how to ask the right questions to get the specifics out.

  7. I’ve been participated in active listening course with various organisations and came away every time thinking what a waste of time. Unless the “active listener” is VERY skilled it can come across as very wooden and patronising.

    Here’s a short summary on AL from one of the organisations I used.

    I file it in the same cupboard as – NLP, powerful is used correctly, but all too often fails due to the limitations of the practitioner.


  8. It amazes me how bad people’s listening skills are in the corporate world, but I’m also amazed at the poor verbal skills I encounter. It makes for some torturous meetings sometimes. Fortunately, as a remote worker, most of my meetings these days are teleconferences, so I can get other work done when my participation is not required. Great article.

  9. You know active listening is a skill that you use a lot when you work in customer service. Having worked in customer service I can say that most peoples complaints can be resolved just by listening to them and making sure you know what they’re saying. I’ve learned that most of the times when people complain they just need someone to chew out, and then they’re fine.

  10. Great article, man.

  11. Excellent article.

    A whole lot of food for thoughts…



  12. You know active listening is a skill that you use a lot when you work in customer service. Having worked in customer service I can say that most peoples complaints can be resolved just by listening to them and making sure you know what they’re saying. I’ve learned that most of the times when people complain they just need someone to chew out, and then they’re fine.  (Quote This Comment)

    Spot on with that! Just let them rip you a new ass for about five minutes, be nice, and next thing they are apologizing and you have a loyal customer for life.

    Papa – great article. I took a class just yesterday on this very thing. Dumb me really didn’t realize how I about half-listen to a person because I’m also doing three other things. Lucky to have a good instructor in my class (he teaches at the police academy). Good skill to cultivate.

  13. I`m using this everyday…I`ve even know that!

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