Active listening is misleading

by Dorian Minors

January 11, 2024

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt

LinkedIn invited me to contribute to a bunch of articles on active listening recently, and while I was thinking about whether I should bother answering, it actually is kind of an interesting topic. My point is not that it isn’t reasonable. My point isn’t even that people should be able to intuit this sort of thing, because although the principles are simple, it’s not always easy to take an empathetic stance during a fundamentally individualistic life. My point is that having a model for active listening almost defeats the purpose of the exercise.

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Active listening isn't about ticking boxes in conversation; it's about diving into emotions to transform surface-level chit-chat into deep, collaborative dialogue. Forget models, focus on feelings.

LinkedIn invited me to contribute to a bunch of articles on active listening recently, and while I was thinking about whether I should bother answering, it actually is kind of an interesting topic.

Active listening has obviously entered corporate culture in that way that some ideas do: in its most superficial form, and in a totalising manner. All the LinkedIn articles wanted to make mention of the RASA model. I’m not going to figure out who came up with this, nor even really look it up, but I will illustrate it just so we’re all on the same page:

  • Receive: you know, as in actually listen I guess.
  • Appreciate: make mention of the fact that they said things.
  • Summarise: paraphrase what they said back to them.
  • Ask questions: … ask questions.

Now of course, there are more words written online than you could ever read outlining the benefits of each aspect of this model with examples and whatnot. But I will assume that if you’re reading this you are socially aware enough to work it out, or at least google it.

My point is not that this, or the countless models like it, aren’t reasonable. My point isn’t even that people should be able to intuit this sort of thing, because although the principles are simple, it’s not always easy to take an empathetic stance during a fundamentally individualistic life. My point is that having a model for active listening almost defeats the purpose of the exercise. Quick tangent.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s, relationship counselling was going through a wave of of similar advice: validation therapy, also known as active listening therapy. The idea was to demonstrate empathy towards the other person’s emotions and experiences in the relationship—find out how they’re feeling, and you might actually fix the problem. It was so popular that you’ve probably heard echoes of it in everyday speech now. If you’ve ever heard someone talk about ‘validating experiences’, or ‘not wanting to invalidate what you’re saying’, you’re hearing the tail end of it.

The problem was that as it started to get popular, people stopped paying attention to what they were supposed to be doing, and instead started doing what it looked liked they should be doing. 90’s relationship research god John Gottman complained about this problem in his book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, but many therapists will complain about it anecdotally today. You had couples going through the motions—robotic exchanging of validation talk following the proformatic style: “I hear you saying x, and I want to validate it, but I felt y”, “yes, I hear you saying y, and I want to validate it, and it makes me feel z” and so on until everything was noted, but nothing was actually addressed. So, Gottman proposed his own resolution, with Active-Constructive Responding, as did others, and validation therapy slipped out of the mainstream relationship resolution programmes and into the lexicon of everyday people.

The problem is that the model of responding become the focus. Following the pattern of participation, but neglecting to get to the heart of the matter by drilling down into the meaning of the interchange.

Back on topic, the RASA model is fine. It does have all the elements that would make a good active listener. You listen, you acknowledge what is being said, you repeat it so you can make sure everyone is on the same page, then you ask questions. But, like, why? Why are we stepping through these steps? It’s not necessarily going to be obvious to someone who has to be taught how to listen to people properly, is it? They already need a model that tells them to listen, to acknowledge and to ask questions, so we can assume that they aren’t yet stellar conversationalists because they don’t really have a grasp on the basics right? What is the purpose of acknowledging? Acknowledge everything, and if not, what? Ask what kind of questions? Even the ‘summarise’ bit, which I think is the most helpful—making sure everyone has a shared understanding—isn’t necessarily going to achieve its goal.

My point is that RASA, and models like it, don’t teach you what active listening is supposed to do, it teaches you what active listening looks like and these are two different things. We run the risk of going down the validation therapy road—people stepping through the motions of active listening, but not actually doing it.

Let me give you a better model of active listening instead.1 Not necessarily to fix the problem, because it runs the same risks (to a lesser extent). But it highlights what I mean by a difference in what active listening is supposed to do, rather than what it looks like.

You can kind of think of three layers to what someone is saying:

  1. The first layer is descriptive. Like, “I’m going to be late for my train”.
  2. The second layer is emotive. Like, “I’m stressed because I’m going to be late for my train”.
  3. The third layer contains the meaning. Like, “if I’m late for work, I won’t have time to print out the documents for the meeting and I’ll look like an idiot in front of my boss again, because I already spilled coffee on her last Thursday and I messed up the presentation last quarter”.

Now, if someone says something like, “I’m late for my train”, we’re not always encouraged to go after the emotive underlayer. But when we do, all of a sudden we have access to a whole bunch of questions we might never have though to ask. From them, we start to pick up the meaning, and a descriptive statement has suddenly become a full fledged conversation.

You can do this about anything, although again, it’s not always obvious where the emotive layer is. What about ‘I like to go hiking’? You might ask why, but often this will just lead to more description. You want to get past that to the feeling layer. Maybe they like hiking because it makes them feel independent which boosts their self-esteem, because in their day-to-day life it feels like their performance is always being monitored. Or perhaps it makes them feel disconnected, because in their day-to-day life they’re inundated by requests for their attention.

Whether you use my little shorthand model or not, what everyone acknowledged following the failures of validation therapy was that emotion is the critical aspect of the kind of dialogue active listening is supposed to engender. You don’t active listen just for fun, right? You’re doing it to address something—to generate interpersonal closeness, or to have a difficult conversation at work. I’ve written a whole article about this elsewhere, but in short, conversations without emotion can be informative, but they’re empty. That article focuses on how they create relational intimacy, but the same principles can be applied to make a conversation move from an exchange of information to a collaborative effort to solve a problem.

So, I guess, don’t active listen? Yeah. That sounds right.


  1. I’m sure I didn’t come up with this, but I’ve used it for so long I wouldn’t be able to tell you where I got it from. 


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