Listening Skills

by Steve Roche

Good listening versus poor listening

What is good listening?

Good listening entails attending carefully to all information given by the speaker – not just the words, but also their non-verbal signals, including intonation, gestures and body language.

Good listening demonstrates that you are attending to, and trying to understand, the other person’s experience of the world. So it is an active process that includes the listener also speaking, primarily by reflecting back.

To be a good listener, you need first to take some time to listen to yourself, in order to identify your own core values and goals. This will give you a sense of being grounded – of knowing where you stand – which is an essential starting point when seeking to understand others.

By acting only in ways that are consistent with those values and goals, it becomes possible for you to behave as you believe the person you wish to be would behave.

Empathy and understanding

The next stage is to listen to others, becoming aware of the other person’s values and goals. This enables you to find common ground and thus maintain productive relationships. This ‘empathic listening’ is essential to effective communication.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood is widely regarded as the most important principle underlying success in handling interpersonal relationships. It emphasises the power of opening up to the talker to the point where you are actually feeling what they are feeling, not just going through the mechanical responses required for ordinary listening.

Achieved through deep, empathic listening, this experience of standing for a moment in another’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes is something everyone is capable of, but most of us rarely deliberately do.

It takes time to listen empathically, and practice to become adept at it. The reward for acquiring the ability to see a situation simultaneously from multiple points of view is that you will reach a whole new level of communication and problem solving.

Poor listening

In contrast to the empathic nature of good listening, poor listening includes:

  • interrupting, and finishing sentences
  • waiting impatiently for your chance to speak
  • communicating with someone else in the room
  • correcting or undermining what was said
  • re-interpreting what the speaker said in your own terms
  • telling them about your experience, making theirs seem less important
  • having an answer for their problem before they’ve finished telling you what it is
  • giving advice when it has not been asked for
  • inappropriate level of eye contact (too much or too little)
  • mismatching, and breaking rapport
  • staying silent and giving no non-verbal signals
  • stopping listening because you assume you know what the other person means/is going to say.

Think back to a recent conversation, at work, or at home.

Were you really listening?

Was the other person really listening?

Most of the above annoying habits result from listening purely with the intent to reply. When people switch off in this way, they miss vital information. Instead of becoming aware of the other person’s version of reality, they remain stuck with their own preconceptions and this leads to crucial mistakes.

How many of these bad habits have you experienced when you have been speaking?

What kind of effect does it have on you?

...perhaps the most important thing we could do with our life and with our leadership was to listen to people so expertly, to give them attention so respectfully, that they would begin to think for themselves, clearly and afresh.

Nancy Kline: Time to Think