The essence of the technique is that you listen to what the other person says and then, in your own words, say back to them what it is that you have understood from their communication. It is key that you do this before attempting to add any communication or comment of your own. It is also crucial that the other person has the opportunity to tell you whether you have understood what they were saying correctly.
If in the process of active listening you were to use exactly the same phrases as the other person it sounds as if you are simply parroting what they have said. This does not work because it does not convey your own understanding of what they have said. So it is generally better to paraphrase and précis using slightly different phrases. Sometimes this will cause the other person to clarify what they meant but this is an advantage, not a problem.
The key things to do in active listening are
(a) give the person speaking your undivided attention. If interrupted summarise their communication up to the interruption and invite them to resume.
(b) look at the person communicating.
(c) do not interrupt the person
(d) when they have completed a communication, reflect on what you have understood and say it back to them in your own words
For two people having difficulty understanding each other it is best to take it in turns to explain their point of view. So the first person explains their position, this is then spoken back by the second person and clarified if necessary. Then the second person communicates their point of view, without referring to the first communication. Then the second person’s communication is verified by the first person saying what they have understood. If necessary this understanding can be clarified.
A good way to achieve this alternation is to have a time limit on each communication. Two minutes is about right. If you go on for much longer than this then it gets hard for the listener to remember enough to summarise their understanding correctly.
It is also essential that in communication structures of this sort each person only makes statements about themselves. It is a disaster if one person makes a statement like “You are always telling me…” or “When you are angry at me ….” because the statement is attributing something to the listener that may or may not be true. It can sometimes take a little longer to only say stuff about yourself, but in the end it always clarifies what is going on. So statements like “I am afraid whenever anyone is angry around me…” or “I feel told off and feel a bad person when I am corrected..” are far more helpful in sorting out misunderstandings.
What most people notice is that using this technique the conversation goes really slowly – but there is a dramatic increase in mutual understanding. Many people also notice how hard it is to listen carefully – they are normally thinking about their reply rather than how to summarise what they have heard! So try this out for a minimum of ten two minute turns each. It is also best to try it out before arguments get to to crisis levels.
Here is a short version of these instructions Active Listening.