How To Listen Properly

Published: 23rd September 2009
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Listening is something we do on autopilot, so it's easy to forget that it is a key skill in helping us to develop productive business and personal relationships. Improving your listening skills, as most of us are aware, is more difficult than you would think. Even though it's something that we really want to listen to, our minds wander and we lose concentration. Why?

The problems

One of the reasons why listening is such a problem is that people speak at approximately 150 words a minute but think at about 600 words per minute. The result is, that when we are listening to someone, we are continually jumping ahead of what is actually being said. And what do we think whilst we are waiting for the speaker to catch up? The answer is, of course, everything and anything that takes our fancy. We think about last night's TV, what we are going to do at the weekend etc., etc., etc. In a word, we tend to daydream. How often have you rejoined a conversation with a guilty start to realise that a response was expected from you and you haven't got a clue what the question is?

Another reason why listening is a problem is that we tend to listen to things and people that interest us and filter out the rest. We have personal interests, beliefs and attitudes and we enjoy it when the speaker confirms these. When they are questioned, we become emotionally involved and we begin to form responses in our mind. What we don't do is listen intently to the speaker. We do not 'hear them out'; we do not get the full story.

There may also be things about people you don't like, such as accent, style of dress or mannerisms. What if you're talking to someone who has a face covered in tattoos and more pierced parts than a punk rocker? Will you really be listening to what they are saying? And it doesn't have to be that extreme to distract you.

The last problem is physical distractions. As well as the things that may be going on around you and outside, you may have the added distraction of the obviously confidential report lying on the desk that you just can't quite read, even though you are highly skilled at reading upside down!

The solutions

There is no magic solution to improving your listening skills; there's no one great secret that once learned will solve all of your problems. There are things you can do to improve but they do take a bit of effort on your part. Concentration is the key to active listening and what follows are some pointers on how to keep your concentration up so that you can listen more actively.

Look like you are listening

Show the speaker you are with him. Face the speaker; look at their face (we all tend to lip-read, if you are listening, you will instinctively watch a person's mouth), occasionally make eye contact (not for too long, if you stare into someone's eyes for more than a handful of seconds, it either means you fancy them or you hate them), maintain an open body posture and lean slightly towards the speaker. This positive body posture not only helps you to keep alert, it shows the speaker that you are alert and encourages them to keep talking to you. The speaker can see that you are listening.

Also observe the speaker's body language. Is it congruent with what they are saying? Are they selling themselves to you with their words or are they selling you a line?

Use non-words

Make 'I'm listening' noises. Use non-words like 'um', 'uh-huh', 'yes, I see', 'really', anything will do. They let the speaker know that you are actively listening to what they are saying and, that you are interested in it. We do this automatically on the phone when we are listening. Try an experiment. The next time someone is talking to you on the phone, stay silent. It won't be long before they feel that something is wrong and they say "are you still there?". The absence of your non-words will unnerve them. (Tip - don't try this with your boss or your biggest customer!)

Take notes

If appropriate, take notes. It's another way of keeping your own concentration up and indicating to the speaker that you are still listening. It also gives you a good excuse to have a break from eye contact.

Keep quiet

Don't talk while you are listening (apart from non-words). It's like talking with your mouth full; it's rude!

Ask open questions (questions that can't be answered yes or no) and listen to the answers. If you keep butting in with your views, opinions and criticisms, then the speaker will soon get fed up. He'll soon get the message that the only thing that you are interested in is the sound of your own voice, so he'll clam up, look at his watch and stop giving you information.

We think that people feel that if they sit silently and listen, then the other person may think that we are stupid. We feel obliged to butt in and say something just to demonstrate that we are quite clever. The reverse is normally true. We've said it already; people like talking about themselves and their job and they'll get fed up if you stop the flow.

Winston Churchill was once very quiet during a debate in the House of Commons on one of his favourite topics. A member opposite noticed this and remarked on Mr Churchill's lack of opinions. Winston rose and said (something like), 'Sometimes it is better to keep your mouth shut and have people assume you are a fool, rather than like the gentleman opposite, who has opened his and left us in no doubt!'

Check for understanding

Having said that you should keep quiet, there is nothing wrong with checking your understanding of something that you are not sure you have grasped correctly. Try, 'Before we move on, can I just check that I have understood you correctly.' This is obvious common sense but is also a confirmation to the speaker that you have been listening.

Why not, sometimes, summarise what has been said so far? This will show the speaker that you have been listening. Your notes will be very useful here.

And finally, Confucius he say that you have two ears and one mouth and should use them in those proportions!


Bob Malloney, a soft skills trainer for over 20 years, can help you to make a real difference to your working life, all from the comfort and convenience of your PC. Register now for a free, no obligation 7-day trial at ®

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