The Power of Active Listening in Difficult Conversations

The Power of Active Listening in Difficult Conversations

Have you ever found yourself avoiding a topic or person in order to avoid discussing something uncomfortable? Difficult conversations are rarely something we look forward to. It doesn’t matter if it’s a romantic partner, a family member or a co-worker, tackling a tough topic is challenging. 

However, in order to be in any type of relationship with another person, one needs to be able to handle the task of talking about emotionally-charged topics.

So, what is a good tool to use if you find yourself engaged in one of these conversations or even an argument?

Active listening and reflecting. These skills can be used at any time, but are great life preservers to cling to if you’re found floating in a difficult interaction with another person.

Active Listening

Active listening is when you are literally in an active state of listening. Your goal is to be in a psychological mindset of just hearing what the other person is saying. This means that you are not interpreting by using your own lens, but you are hearing the other person as an OTHER.

Active listening requires full attention in order to be able to really hear the words that the other person is saying. It also requires being in a cognitive and emotional space of curiosity. When listening with curiosity, it doesn’t mean you agree with the other person, but you are genuinely interested in their perspective.


Reflecting is when you tell the other person what you heard and then ensure that it is correct. In Imago Relationship Therapy, a type of couples counseling, I encourage clients to use the prompt, “What I heard you say is…,” and then repeat the message they heard from the other person. After repeating what they heard, it’s important to ask, “Did I get that right?” This allows the other person to clarify, if needed, and also demonstrates that you aren’t assuming anything.

Why is this helpful? Well, for one thing, it slows things down. This process allows you the time to fully understand what the other person is saying before responding.

On that same note, difficult conversations are typically saturated with emotion. By switching to active listening, it nudges you toward your rational mind. All of us are able to respond more thoughtfully when we use our rational and emotional mind (also known in Dialectical Behavior Therapy as the “Wise Mind”).

Lastly, when listening actively and reflecting, the other person will naturally feel heard. This too, will deescalate the emotion of the conversation.

Here’s a pro tip: Try these skills of active listening and reflecting when in a regular conversation. Try it with friends, family or possibly a co-worker.

It will never be harmful to hear people and clearly understand them. You may actually realize that there are nuances in what people say or assumptions that you make when listening. Regardless, practicing the skills of active listening and reflecting will allow you easier access to the skills when you need them.


Authored by:  Alison Trenk, MA, LCSW