The Art of Listening

Listening is a much over-looked communication skill. We think we know how to listen, but often we’re just hearing rather than listening. Do you know the difference? When you drove to work this morning, did you have the radio on? If so, you were hearing the music, news or a talk show. You might or might not have been paying much attention. But, what happened when they played your favorite song, or the traffic report that you’d been waiting for? You LISTENED.

Research indicates that we spend more time listening than we do talking. Unfortunately, most people use only about 25% of their native listening ability. Listening is hard work and takes practice, but it’s a skill you can acquire just like any other.

You want to learn to listen actively. You can accomplish this by focusing on the other person’s ideas or point of view and having a purpose for listening. Maybe you need to get some information about a new product your company is launching, or you have to make a decision about which new computer to buy. Your purpose might be to be an interested and helpful supervisor, to discover your child’s feelings about drugs, to get feedback, or simply to be a friend. We listen for many, many reasons.


Here are some suggestions to help you improve your listening ability.

  • No matter who the speaker is — your spouse, your boss, your student — make certain that you look at them. Looking at the floor or out the window gives a nonverbal signal that you don’t want to listen to them. It also makes it harder for you to listen and focus. People don’t trust those who don’t look at them. Look in their eyes, observe their nonverbal behavior — body language, eye contact, etc. These can help you judge the intent of the message they’re sending and determine how you’re going to respond.
  • Keep your emotions under control. Don’t get angry or overly excited at certain “trigger” words. We all have them. It might be abortion, gun control or downsizing. When you get caught up in emotion, you begin thinking about your response to the stimulus word rather than what the other person is saying. Instead, try to understand the other person’s point of view. If you need to refute their argument, you’ll be able to do so more effectively if you’ve listened clearly and unemotionally.
  • Don’t interrupt the speaker unless you need clarification. If you stop the flow of someone’s ideas, you might not get the whole picture of what they’re trying to say. Also, interrupting is rude. In general, we don’t like interrupters, so some people may avoid you. Along these same lines, don’t change the subject. This also alienates people, but more importantly, it doesn’t help you stay focused on the communication at hand.
  • Since you can listen faster than someone else can speak, don’t waste that time daydreaming. Instead, spend it anticipating, analyzing, summarizing, and asking yourself questions such as: “Where is this person going with this discussion?” “Is what is being said clear?” “Do I agree?” “Is more information needed for me to make a decision?” This would also be a good time to take some notes to help you remember what’s being said. In addition, it’s a non-verbal way of letting the other person know that you’re attentive and interested.

Here are some other things you can do to be actively engaged in the listening process.

  • Use a variety of nonverbal responses such as sitting forward in your chair or standing with your weight forward.
  • Nod your head to indicate that you are hearing what’s being said.
  • Use appropriate vocal responses such as “uh-huh,” “really?” etc.

However, it’s important not to fake it. It won’t help you listen and it won’t give the speaker the kind of feedback they need for the communication process to work.

When people find that you’re a good listener, they’ll be more likely to tell you things. This helps to keep you “in the loop.” It also helps to solidify relationships with your family, colleagues and friends. Good listening skills show that you’re confident and open to new ideas, help you resolve conflicts and reduce friction when tempers flair. It also helps to keep the channels of communication open.

Since we’re involved in listening 3 times more than we are in speaking, isn’t it important to learn to do it well?



©2017, Say It Well! Permission is given to reprint this article if the following is included: Reprinted by permission of Dr. Candice M. Coleman. She can be reached at 636-724-3761.