How to Improve Your Listening Skills

Sections of This Topic Include

How to Really Listen to Others
How to Make Sure Your Employees Really Listen to You
Habits to Differentiate Good Listening from Poor Listening
Additional Perspectives on Listening Skills

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How to Really Listen to Others

© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD

Listening is a critical skill for all adults to have, to learn about others. Also, it is one of the most valuable tools for you to establish a strong rapport with employees.
There are many books about effective listening skills. The following common guidelines can help you to accomplish effective listening in the vast majority of situations.

  1. Be sure you can hear the speaker. It is surprising how often people do not really listen to other people. It is just as surprising how often people do not realize that they cannot even hear other people. So always make this your first guideline in any situation for effective listening.
  2. Overall, attempt to listen 75% of time – speak 25% of time. This is one of the most powerful guidelines. Use of the guideline depends on your situation. For example, if you are making a presentation, you will speak more. Otherwise, ensure that the other person speaks more than you do – and listen to them.
  3. Adopt a culturally compatible physical posture to show you are interested. This can be a powerful means to show others that you are interested in hearing them. For example, you might lean forward and maintain eye contact. Whatever physical gestures you make, be sure they are compatible to the culture of the speaker.
  4. Do not think about what to say while you are also trying to listen to the speaker. Your brain goes four times faster than a speaker’s voice. Thus, your brain can easily leave the speaker behind. Instead, trust that you will know how to respond to the speaker when the speaker is done.
  5. Notice the other’s speaking style. Different people have different speaking styles. Do they speak loud or soft? Slow or fast? Are there disconnects between what they say versus what their body language conveys? Some people convey the central idea first and then support it with additional information. Other people provide information to lead the listener to the same conclusion as the speaker.
  6. Listen for the central ideas, not for all the facts. Experienced leaders develop a sense for noticing the most important information conveyed by their people. They hear the main themes and ideas from their employees. If you notice the major ideas, then often the facts “come along” with those ideas.
  7. Let the speaker finish each major point that he/she wants to make. Do not interrupt – offer your response when the speaker is done. If you do have to interrupt, do so to ensure you are hearing the other person. Interrupt tactfully. For example, put up your hand and say, “Might I interrupt to ask you to clarify something?”
  8. Reflect back and ask if you are hearing accurately. This is also one of the most powerful guidelines. Start by asking if you can reflect back, or summarize, to the other person after he/she has spoken. Then progress to where you can ask the person to summarize back to you what you have just said to him/her.
  9. Regularly share indications that you are listening to them. Those indications can be, for example, nodding your head, saying, “Yes” to short points that you agree with.
  10. Learn the art of supportive questioning. Coaching involves the use of powerful questions to understand yours and other’s perceptions, assumptions and conclusions. The coach must practice effective questioning skills to really understand others.
  11. Ask others to provide you feedback about your communication skills. Often, people do not know what they do not know about themselves. One example is the leader who prizes him/herself on strong listening skills, yet regularly interrupts others when they are speaking. Another is the leader who speaks only in conclusions, but does not share how he/she came to those conclusions. Thus, others do not understand the leader’s rationale.

How to Make Sure Your Employees Really Listen to You

© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD

Usually, your most frequent form of communication is spoken words. As with non-verbal communication, spoken communication is highly dependent on the particular culture in which you are working. For example, culture can affect how people speak about conflict, use humor, are honest and direct with each other, use silence and use certain wording. Consider the following general guidelines, which might be useful in a wide variety of cultures.

  1. Know the main point that you want to convey. Sometimes, people begin speaking with the hope that if they talk long enough, they are bound to say what they want to say. Before you speak, take the time to think about the main points that you want to convey.
  2. Convey one point at a time. That approach ensures that the listener is more likely to continue to understand you, rather than being overwhelmed with too many ideas delivered at too fast a rate. You might even find that you understand your own thoughts more completely.
  3. Speak too slowly, rather than too quickly. A good way to practice this guideline is to speak along with a news anchor when you are watching television. You will likely find that they speak much more slowly than you realize. They are professionals who have learned an effective rate of speaking.
  4. Vary your voice. Always avoid monotone. A monotone voice might convey to the listener that you are bored or controlled. It is likely to lull you and/or the listener into a stupor. Varying your voice takes practice, but it is well worth the effort.
  5. State your conclusion before describing how you came to that conclusion. Some speakers convey their recommendations or advice by conveying the necessary information to lead the listener to the same conclusions as the speaker’s. Instead, it is often more reliable to first state your point and then explain it.
  6. People speak more frequently and completely when they are comfortable. Therefore, get comfortable with the person to whom you are speaking. Skills in authentic expression can be useful in these situations. For example, if you are uncomfortable or confused, simply say so.
  7. Ask the listener to repeat the main points of what you just said to them. This guideline ensures that the listener is indeed hearing what you wanted to convey. Be tactful when asking the listener to repeat what you said. For example, say “I want to be sure that I made sense to you just now, so I would appreciate if you could tell me what you heard me say.”
  8. Ask others to provide feedback about your spoken communication. One of the most powerful ways to learn about yourself is to ask others for feedback. Therefore, ask others about how you might improve your speaking skills.

Habits to Differentiate Good From Poor Listening

This information is from "How to Be a Better Listener" by Sherman K. Okum, Nation's Business, August 1975, and from "Building a Professional Image: Improving Listening Behavior" by Philip Morgan and Kent Baker, Supervisory Management, November 1995. Only about 25 percent of listeners grasp the central ideas in communications. To improve listening skills, consider the following:

Poor Listener

Effective Listener

tends to "wool-gather" with slow speakers thinks and mentally summarizes, weighs the evidence, listens between the lines to tones of voice and evidence
subject is dry so tunes out speaker finds what's in it for me
distracted easily fights distractions, sees past bad communication habits, knows how to concentrate
takes intensive notes, but the more notes taken, the less value; has only one way to take notes has 2-3 ways to take notes and organize important information
is overstimulated, tends to seek and enter into arguments doesn't judge until comprehension is complete
inexperienced in listening to difficult material; has usually sought light, recreational materials uses "heavier" materials to regularly exercise the mind
lets deaf spots or blind words catch his or her attention interpret color words, and doesn't get hung up on them
shows no energy output holds eye contact and helps speaker along by showing an active body state
judges delivery -- tunes out judges content, skips over delivery errors
listens for facts listens for central ideas

Additional Perspectives on Listening Skills

Habits Which Clearly Differentiate Good and Bad Listening
The Secrets to Listening Well
Listening Skills
Listening Skills Self-Evaluation
Empathic Listening Skills
The Art of Effective Listening
Communicating Across the Twilight Zone: Can You Hear Me Now?
Talking Is Sharing, But Listening Is Caring
5 Sure-Fire Ways to Ramp Up Your Listening
ONE Step to Great Listening
Help Employees Listen When They Don't Want to Hear
Using Empathic Listening to Collaborate
Listening Is Critical in Today's Multicultural Workplace
Is Anybody Listening?
The Radical Leap to True Listening
Training in The Art of Listening
Connectivity
What’s Your Listening IQ?


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by Carter McNamara, published by Authenticity Consulting, LLC.
Includes step-by-step guidelines, tips and tools to effectively lead:
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5. As well as all functions within the business organization.

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Many of the Library's materials about nonprofit leadership and management are adapted from this book. Just click on the title of the book above to see the Index and Table of Contents.

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