Effective Listening and How to Be a Better Listener

Public speaking classes have been around for decades. Our society assigns a lot of value to articulate and engaging speakers, but in reality, listening is one of the most important life skills you can cultivate.

It's so important, in fact, that some top businesses now require employees to take listening skills training.

Why is listening one of the most valuable skills to cultivate?

  • Listening increases productivity
  • Students who are good listeners learn more.
  • Attentive listeners have better negotiating skills.
  • Listening skills help you to avoid conflicts and misunderstandings.
  • People who are suffering find great comfort when someone truly listens to them
  • Relationships are stronger between people who genuinely listen to each other

And this is just a brief list!

Woman laughing during a discussing with friend.

Listening is hard work. It's far more than the mere ability to hear and identify the sounds of another person's speech. To really listen, you have to focus your attention and apply both mental and physical effort.

There's more than one aspect to listening. Listening to a podcast is totally different than concentrating on the words of a real live person sitting in front of you. The invaluable skill of listening to people requires a determined, multi-faceted approach.

Listening Attentively

Listening attentively is a learned behavior that gets stronger the more it's put into practice – whether it's at work or in your personal relationships. It's exactly what it sounds like.

We have to choose to pay full attention to the other person, block out distractions around us, and work very hard at keeping the focus on what they are saying. This is a time to turn off or put away phones, laptops, or TV's and eliminate side conversations.

One crucial element of this is catching ourselves when we're formulating counterarguments while the other person is still speaking. It's a bad habit that derails the role of listening in communication and makes people question if we're even hearing them. If you're mentally preparing a rebuttal, you're not attentive.

Since our brains think faster than people speak, it's tempting to start planning how to reply after hearing just a couple of sentences. But when we let ourselves do this, we get distracted and don't hear the rest of what the person is saying.

Let the speaker finish any points before you begin asking questions, and even then, just ask questions to understand.

"Mindfulness" is a buzz word applied to nearly all areas of life these days. Where it was once thought of as connected to meditation, it's now a mainstream practice to help bring peace to our overly-stimulated and sometimes chaotic lives.

It's a concept that ties in beautifully with skills in listening. Listening attentively is mindful listening. It's about being "all there", and "in the moment," rather than allowing your thoughts to bounce around and think about other things.

If you're not familiar with this idea, try googling The Amazing Power of Being Present. You'll learn how the art of focusing on one thing at a time lessens stress levels, makes you more productive, and gives you the ability to ignore distractions.

You'll have to practice. It can be tiring at first to rope in your thoughts. Growing in mindfulness will translate to better focus when you're listening to others. That type of listening is what you would want others to do for you, right?

When we listen attentively (mindfully) to people – in such a way that they're confident of being heard – they can become more receptive to hearing a different point of view, and may be persuaded to change their perspective. If you do disagree, do it respectfully.

Listening to Visual Cues

Group listening to coworker talk during meeting.

When another person is involved, the act of listening turns into a visual exercise as well as an auditory one. What's visual about it? Well, you need to pay attention to the entire message that's communicated, not just receiving their spoken words.

Some research indicates the majority of human messaging comes not from words, but from body language and facial expressions! Nonverbal communication frequently expresses emotions far more than words do. You're often able to tell just by looking if someone is enthusiastic or irritated, even if their words don't reveal that.

Edward G. Wertheim, author of The Importance of Effective Communication, describes how non-verbal communication interacts with the verbal form: "We… reinforce, contradict, substitute, complement or emphasize our verbal communication with non-verbal cues such as gestures, expressions and vocal inflection."

One recent Psychology Today article suggests watching for certain behaviors as an important observation skill for listening. People may:

  • Look down or away as they change their tone of voice
  • Hesitate or become silent
  • Get louder or more animated
  • Change the subject
  • Stress the words "always" or "never" when describing other people's intentions or behavior.
  • Use the word "really" accompanied by a heightened tone that accentuates a declaration, such as "what I really want" or "what I really can't stand."

Any of these signals can be a clue to something happening internally. The article explains that if you aren't sure what these shifts in their expressions mean, ask. Share what you observed and invite them to tell you what was happening internally.

Keep an open mind while listening. Try to feel what they may be feeling – be empathetic. You may find that your perspective needs to change just as much as the person you're listening to!

Listen by Asking Good Questions

Two people listening to each other in a meeting.

Asking the right questions is part of interpreting the listening process. The goal of questions should be to gain information but also to clarify certain points discussed, to "reflect" them back to the speaker.

Keep questions simple and specific, and don't turn them into "multiple choice" questions where you're doing more of the talking. Sometimes you'll have to wait in silence for a reply. Don't be thrown off by silences.

Even after the speaker replies, it's a good idea to wait a moment before moving on. They may have more to say and interrupting their train of thought slows down communication. Interrupting is one of the most common obstacles to being a good listener. It frustrates the person speaking, and it wastes time.

Author Shane Snow explains that questions beginning with "who, what, when, where, how, or why" result in thoughtful responses. Questions beginning with "would," "should," "is," "are," and "do you think" often end with only a yes or no response, so they're not as helpful.

When the goal is open-ended and you're looking for advice, then "What would you do?" is good. "Would you do X?" is bad, but even worse is "Would you do X or Y or Z or Q or M or W or … ?" That's a great example of the "multiple choice question" error!

Ask questions to clarify a point when you're not confident you understood. For example, "What I think you just said is XXX. Is that what you meant?” or “Is this what you expressed when you said…?” This is what's meant by reflecting – you're reflecting back to the person what you believe they said, to make sure you got it correct.

Listening to Improve Job Performance

Aside from personal relationships, job listening skills can make or break a career. The same rules apply to both. You'll find fabulous examples of effective listening at thebalancecareers.com. Here are just a few:

  • A counselor nods and says, “I hear you,” to encourage a client to continue to talk about their traumatic experience.
  • A meeting facilitator encourages a reticent(uncommunicative) group member to share her views about a proposal.
  • An interviewer asks a follow-up question to gain further clarification on the ways in which a candidate has applied a critical skill in a past job.
  • A manager summarizes what her team has said during a staff meeting and asks them if she has heard things correctly.
  • At the end of a performance review, an employee restates the specific areas in which his supervisor asks he improve.
  • At a client meeting, a salesperson asks an open-ended question like, “What can I do to serve you better?”

Old habits are hard to break. It's going to take practice and determination to become a great listener, but as you grow in listening comprehension, advantages will be evident in multiple spheres. You'll be a better communicator, improve your personal relationships, and be more productive in the workplace. Make it a goal to get started today!


Recent Articles

Everything You Need to Know About Communication Disorders

Communication disorders affect nearly 1 in 10 people, and almost 6 million children have a…

Keys to Being a Better Public Speaker and Beating Your Anxiety

At some point in each of our lives, we will be required to give a…

Preventing Workplace Conflict: 3 Essential Strategies for Better Communication

Between demanding clients, tight deadlines and a never-ending barrage of emails, the contemporary workplace can…

Careers for Master’s in Communication Graduates

A master's degree in communication opens the door to a variety of career possibilities across…

Getting Back to the Basics in Journalism: Lessons from the Sinclair Group Debacle

If you currently work or have ever worked in the field of mass communications, you've…

Empathy: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How You Can Improve

Empathy is a word that is used often by many people. It's commonly known that…

Relationships 101: 3 Ways a Communications Degree Helps Your Personal Life

Communications, at its essence, is the study of human interaction and expression. Students pursuing a…

The Truth About Fake News

Growing up in pre-internet America, there were really only two ways to find out what…