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013 The Art of Effective Listening

One of the most popular classes I teach in my People Skills 101 course is a session I call The Art of Effective Listening.  Listening is the other half of communication.  Yet unfortunately, we tend to overlook this component since we often confuse the word “listen” with the word “hear.”

Hearing is the ability to perceive different sounds.

Listening is to correctly interpret those sounds and then synthesize them into intelligible information.

Just as with effective speaking, effective listening requires practice.  Fortunately, there are tried and true methods that help us to become better listeners.  In this post  we’re going to learn the four simple yet critical steps that will help you to become a more effective listener.

Words are spoken around us and to us every day.  Their settings include simple conversations, business briefings, and instructional sessions at seminars and conferences.  We hear, but how often do we really listen?


Why this Difficulty in Listening?

If we look specifically at conversation between individuals, there are three reasons why we all share some degree of difficulty with listening.

FIRST most people care about what’s going on in their own lives more than they do about the lives of others.  So realize, whatever we’re saying during casual conversation may be of minimal interest to our listener!  Each person tends to be their own favorite subject!  This is why we are considered fantastic conversationalists if we simply let the other person talk about himself/herself – and importantly – truly listen to what they say.

 How often has it been said, “All I wanted was someone who cared enough to listen to me.”

SECOND another reason most people do not apply themselves to listening 100% of the time during conversation is because mentally they’re busy preparing what it is they intend to say next.  In truth, they’re just waiting for the speaker to take a breath so they can jump in and take over the conversation.

and THIRD be aware that even when we do our best to listen, the untrained mind retains in short-term memory only 25-50% of the information it receives.  That figure drops to 10% when we realize what’s actually deposited into long-term memory.  So, if we speak to someone for 10 minutes or address a group, at best our listeners will remember for a short while only 2½ to 5 minutes of what was said!

Now, we can’t change the listening habits of everyone with whom we come in contact.  However, we can change the way we listen to others.


The Four Steps of Effective Listening

The next time you engage in conversation with a friend, do your best to implement the following four steps.  Trust me; this does take some practice to develop into a permanent habit, but the time invested is well worth the effort.

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Step 1.   PAUSE

Pause means that we stop whatever we’re doing and give the speaker our full attention.

From childhood, I was taught this step simply as a part of social etiquette.  It was just another way of being polite.  Listening respectfully creates rapport, and good rapport is the goal of good communication.



So when we pause, we stop texting, we put aside distracting thoughts; and when listening in a group (like a class or seminar), we refrain from engaging in side conversations and comments.

Pausing also allows us to be aware of distractions in our immediate surroundings.  Politeness may suggest asking the speaker to step outside or to a quieter location to conduct our conversation without those distractions, and to prevent disturbing others around us.  (Is there anything more annoying than someone loudly talking on their cell phone while in the midst of other people?)

During this preparatory step,we also position our body so it signals our readiness to engage in conversation.  That means uncrossing our arms and legs which is body language indicating disagreement or non-receptivity.  It means if we’re sitting, we lean slightly forward towards the speaker.  These, plus assuming a pleasant facial expression, all indicate to the speaker that we are open and receptive to what they have to say.

By pausing to provide such visual cues of readiness and openness, we subliminally convey that our mind is similarly open and receptive.


Step 2.   LOOK

In my culture (North America) and many others around the world, the appropriate way to indicate interest is to make direct eye contact with the Speaker.  This should be sustained, yet without the appearance of staring!  We do this simply by leaning slightly forward so that we are “leading with the face.”

That said, I urge you to be aware that not all cultures consider this a desirable habit.

Indeed, in some parts of the world eye contact would be considered inappropriate at the least, and actually offensive at the worst! This is especially true were a man to attempt direct eye contact with a woman.

However, my friends from other cultures have often told me that when dealing with “Westerners”, they try not to be offended since they know we act so only out of ignorance of their cultural practices.  For us to learn these different ways, it does of course take time and effort (and perhaps occasional error).


Step 3.   LISTEN

Now that our body, our environment, and our actions are all in alignment for effective listening, it's time to record in our mind what the Speaker has to say.

First and foremost, I urge you to keep an open mind.  The greatest deterrent to effective listening is when we close our mind to new or challenging ideas.  Remember that as strongly as you may feel about a topic or position, the Speaker feels just as adamant about his or her position!  Give them a chance to explain.

That also means, not jumping to their conclusions for them!  We all have the tendency to do this, but remember generally we don’t have all the information.  Again, allow the Speaker to develop his or her point.

In fact, at any point in the conversation, resist the temptation to jump in and finish a sentence they have begun (to perhaps hurry them along)!  This is a very irritating – and rude – habit you've no doubt seen that some people have.


In any conversation or presentation, always search out the main points.  An experienced speaker will use periodic summation phrases like “My point is…” or, “The thing to remember is…”  These are vital clues we can give our listeners to help them focus on what’s important to remember.

Also be aware that listening, to be effective, should be done within a specific context.  What is the larger picture that this conversation or presentation takes place in, or pertains to?   We’re all aware of words that when taken out of context and re-quoted elsewhere convey an entirely different meaning than what the Speaker had intended.

We often can help the speaker in his/her task of communicating by providing useful feedback.  For instance, we may nod our head and use encouraging interjections like “Uh-huh… I see… Really!”

We might even prove our understanding by paraphrasing back statements like, “So what I hear you saying is…” or “What I understand you to mean is…”  This gives the speaker guidance and permits them to confirm, modify, or elaborate to help us more fully understand.

And lastly, remember that we must always listen “between the lines.”  Communication is not just a collection of words and sentences, but rather is a vehicle for conveying emotions and intent.  To do this well, we must focus on the Speaker as a unique individual (with a whole store of emotions, beliefs, and intents).

What’s the full message with all its subtle and implied meanings that he or she is attempting to communicate?


And finally, to truly understand the power of effective listening, I’d recommend you read Chapter 15 in John Maxwell’s book 25 Ways to Win with People (referenced below).  The title is “Listen with Your Heart”, and in it John encourages us when engaging in conversation to:

  • Focus not only on the content, but on the Speaker as well.
  • Perceive how the Speaker feels – do not project your thoughts and feelings onto them.
  • Do not be prideful thinking it’s not worth listening to what this person has to say.
  • Listen with empathy by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • Never view conversation as a competition you must “win” at all (emotional) costs.


Step 4.   RESPOND

The key to providing the most effective response in any conversation is to first allow ourselves time to finish understanding what we’ve just taken in.  A brief pause before speaking is perfectly acceptable as we “gather our thoughts” and carefully choose the words to formulate their expression.

Before giving a full response, don't be hesitant to request further information, or clarify what has already been said.

As mentioned previously, we can again use clarifying statements such as, “So what I hear you saying is…” or “What I understand you to mean is…”

If specific additional information is needed, we may ask simple “closed-end” questions.  Closed-end questions usually have one word answers; like, “Yes”, “No”, “Fine”, “Today”, etc.

However, “open-ended” questions will provide a greater variety of additional information.  Examples might be,

  • So, how did you deal with that situation?”
  • “What did you learn from that experience?”
  • “What factors influenced your decision?”
  • “How would you have done that differently?”

And lastly, it’s always advisable to screen our response through the filter of the acronym “THINK”.  These letters stand for,

  • T… ask yourself, is what I’m about to say... TRUE?
  • H… is what I’m about to say... HELPFUL?
  • I… is what I’m about to say... IMPORTANT?
  • N… is what I’m about to say... NECESSARY?
  • K… is what I’m about to say... KIND?

Tempering responses within the confines of this acronym will prevent many hurt or inflamed feelings, both of which can destroy the rapport we’ve made such an effort to establish.

By implementing these four essential steps to listening, you’ll soon acquire a reputation for being a caring person with whom people will enjoy conversing.


Closing Remarks

By now it should be apparent that, at least in one-on-one conversation, we should always focus on the other person.

That means, in conversation let them talk as much as they want about themselves; this is the message taught in Dale Carnegie’s classic book referenced below.  (Remember, if it’s too boring, you need not engage this person again – or next time work to gently keep the conversation on topic.)

Allowing the conversation to be “all about them” makes listening easier as people will do their utmost to ensure that your understanding of them is complete.  Always give the benefit of the doubt; do not be visibly judgmental of their views; and always "THINK" before you respond.  This not only is the way to make friends and influence people, it’s also the way to learn useful information that expands our personal knowledge base.

This is Roger Koment at NSR Development encouraging you to take another step today toward reaching your full potential by practicing and learning these four essential steps of how to listen more effectively.



          John Maxwell – 25 Ways to Win with People

          Dale Carnegie – How to Win Friends and Influence People

          Christine Knott – (Article) Tips for Improving Telephone Listening Skills

          Darren Hardy – (Blog Post) The Art of Chit Chat 


 Our images today are from 123rf.com and my private collection


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