Listening is the unsung hero of communication. We love to praise great orators and recite lines from famous speeches, and rightly so. Words are powerful. But listening can be equally so.
If you improve your listening skills, you’ll probably never win an award for it or make it into the history books for being a great listener. But that’s OK. Good listeners don’t listen because they want a pat on the back. They recognize that the benefits of listening well are much greater. As columnist and editor Doug Larson said, "Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk."
Despite the benefits that good listening offers, however, many people struggle with truly listening when others are speaking. To build a better foundation for personal and professional success, master the art of listening with the tips below.
Why Listening Takes Work
Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply
Stephen R. Covey
How many times have you walked into a meeting or conference and thought, "Oh good, I can relax now because I only have to listen?" Or maybe someone thanked you for letting them talk, and you responded with something like "No problem, all I did was listen."
We mistake listening as easy because it looks passive and instinctive, but in reality it’s hard work. Really listening (and not just appearing to listen) requires intense concentration and a good deal of mental energy.
Listening can be difficult for a few reasons. Perhaps the hardest is that we think three to four times faster than people speak. That means we could listen at a rate of up to 450 words per minute, but the average person speaks only 125-175 words per minute, making it easy to become impatient or let your mind wander.
Listening is also difficult because when we’re in a conversation, our tendency is to do one of four things, according to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen Covey:
Evaluate: You judge what someone is saying and agree or disagree.
Probe: You ask questions from your own frame of reference.
Advise: You give counsel, advice, and solutions to problems.
Interpret: You analyze others' motives and behaviors based on your own experiences.
"If you're like most people, you probably seek first to be understood," Covey writes. "You want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you're listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation, or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely."
The good news is, anyone can learn to become a better listener.
What Makes a Great Listener?
Great listeners share a few important qualities:
They ask great questions
I used to have a teacher who loved to say, "The word listen has the same letters as the word silent." Silence is indeed a part of listening, but good listeners don’t have to be completely quiet.
In a study on the differences between great and average listeners, researchers found that people who ask questions that promote insight and discovery are perceived as better listeners.
Good questions act as evidence that you’re listening and show that you’re interested in building on what you heard. And beyond mere perceptions, those questions might help you learn more from what the speaker is saying.
They pay attention to more than what’s being said
How someone says something (Are their arms crossed? Brow furrowed? Pitch higher than normal?) is just as important as the words they say.
"Words are important, but words don’t always match perfectly to meaning or action," writes Meta S. Brown, author of Data Mining for Dummies. "Superior listeners gather more information than just the words that people say, and use all of that information to infer meaning."
They don’t take word-for-word notes
If you spend all your mental energy trying to capture what someone says word-for-word, it’s harder to be an engaged listener.
Typing notes, especially, can make us worse listeners. Good listeners often forgo taking detailed notes so they can pay better attention.
Use an app instead to catch the details. UberConference and Zoom, among other conferencing apps, include a record feature, while Ecamm can record your Skype calls. Many notes apps, including OneNote and Evernote, also include recording tools. Let those apps—or even the Voice Recorder app built into your phone—do the work, so you can pay attention to ideas and context.
They listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to respond
As Stephen Covey wrote in our section-opening quote, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply."
Good listeners instead focus on understanding what’s being said, rather than thinking of what they want to say next.
"You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc," Covey writes. "You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating."
They make people feel heard
Part of listening is making others feel like you’re listening. In fact, research shows that people who feel listened to are more likely to engage in future interactions with you.
Lack of eye contact during a conversation makes listeners seem insincere, found one study. And being distracted by background noises makes listeners seem inattentive.
What's more surprising is that your level of attentiveness can even affect how the speaker talks. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts conducted an experiment in a college classroom and found that when students didn’t display behavior that indicated they were listening—including an interested posture and eye contact—the professor’s lecture was uneventful, spoken from notes with a more monotone voice. However, when the students displayed interested behavior, the professor became more lively, gesturing more often and speaking at an increased verbal rate.
They follow up on what matters
It feels really good when someone remembers something you said and brings it up with you later. Good listeners make a point to circle back around to follow up on key points or important issues.
"No matter how good a listener you are, you lose credibility if you fail to follow up on an issue raised in a conversation," according to Poynter Institute's Jill Geisler. "It may be one of a long, long list of things you have to handle, but it is likely at the top of the other person's agenda. Telling people when you will get back to them is a commitment worth making--and keeping."
How to Practice and Sharpen Your Listening Skills
Good listening skills can be learned and improved, and there are plenty of opportunities every day to practice.
Here are a few things you can do to improve:
Part of being a good listener is being able to be fully present and aware.
To listen with thoughtful attention, Marie-Claire Dean, designer manager at Atlassian, suggests a simple daily exercise:
1. Sit comfortably 2. Close your eyes (it will be easier if you withdraw the other senses) 3. Listen to the sounds that are furthest away from you. 4. Listen to the sounds that are closest to you. 5. Now listen to the sounds that are somewhere in between.
Dean says you should be able to sit comfortably for 20 minutes without:
- Fidgeting - Your mind wandering & losing concentration - Hearing the sound of your own voice inside your head - Having a conversation with yourself - Waiting for this exercise to end - Labelling all of the sounds individually - Effort
The exercise might be difficult at first, but the more you do it, the easier it’ll get.
Treat it like a test
To practice comprehending what you hear, act like there’s going to be a test on what you understood.
This might be a bit tortuous for one-on-one conversations, but if you’re in a large meeting or at a conference, this could help you retain a lot of more of what’s said. That frame of mind will help you pay better attention and think about the right questions to ask.
Mind the gap
One reason listening is so difficult is the gap between how fast we think and how fast people talk.
To make up for that gap, as you’re listening, review and summarize the speaker's main points. Then, when they are finished, you can restate the points and ask the speaker if you've understood the message by saying things like, "What I hear you saying is..." or "When you say that, do you mean...?"
Clarify and paraphrase to better process information and make people feel heard—and to force yourself to pay more attention to what they mean.
Try just one day
Challenge yourself to one day of listening, suggests Robin Sharma, founder of The Titan Summit.
"Today, just for a day, make the decision to listen masterfully," Sharma writes. "Don’t interrupt. Don’t rehearse your answer while the other person is speaking. And don’t dare check your email or search for text messages while another human being is sharing their words. Just listen. Just hear. Just be there for that person."
Listening can do a great deal for you as a professional and in your personal relationships. Research shows that good listening skills make us better collaborators. They also make us better at lots of other things, like making small talk, managing people, understanding our customers’ needs, moving up in our careers, and negotiating.
Becoming a great listener will make others enjoy being around you more and help you learn more from them. With some attention and practice, you can learn how to be a better listener and apply those skills in so much of your work and everyday life.
Sometimes conversations are less consequential—but you still need to be a good listener. Here's how to master small-talk conversations to make new connections and learn from others during social and professional events.
Listening matters in design and development, too. With a touch of anthropology background, here's how to listen to your customers and design better products.
Are you the one speaking? Learn how to make every word count and nail your next presentation.