Listening Skills

by Steve Roche

When to stop listening

Listening and responding

It’s great to have a reputation as a ‘good listener’. But it’s not usually enough on its own. If listening is all you ever do, then people will get fed up because they don’t know where you stand.

Some good listeners are not so good at saying what they themselves feel, which can give the impression that they agree with everything that’s been said, and lead to problems later on. And there’s a danger you may begin to feel people are taking advantage of you and ‘dumping’ on you.

Sometimes reflective listening is all that is required: perhaps when someone is grieving or venting strong emotions, or in a counselling or therapeutic context.

But in the course of most conversations a good listener does more than simply reflect: there is usually a need for some interaction over and above listening.

A final listening skill is to know when and how to politely stop listening and do something else, such as express your own opinion in response. You may say you will consider all you have heard and come back with a response, which makes it clear that you have listened to and respect their opinions, but do not necessarily agree or disagree completely.

How to interrupt

Interrupting a speaker tends to be regarded as rather discourteous or disrespectful, but sometimes it is clearly necessary – if only because you need to stop what you are doing in order to go and do something else!

It is entirely possible to interrupt without losing rapport, so long as you say what you are going to do and then do it, respectfully but firmly.

  • I apologise for interrupting you, Mary, but what you just said sounds really important and I want to make sure I’ve understood...
  • Jim – sorry, but I’m going to have to stop you there because time is running out and we need to cover a few things before we finish.
  • I hope you don’t feel I’m being rude but we do have to end this discussion in a moment as someone is waiting to use the room. Perhaps we could...

The general formula is to:

  • Say what you are going to do
  • Acknowledge their feelings
  • Explain why you need to do it
  • Say what needs to be said
  • Move the conversation forward.

By apologising and explaining, you will avoid seeming rude and allow the speaker to feel respected and acknowledged.

Sometimes you may need to stop the speaker because they are expressing inappropriate opinions, for example, if you are confronted with racist language.
In a case such as this, it may help to remember that what you are dealing with is simply someone else’s model of the world, which is different from your own. This allows you to do two things:

  • Manage your own state
  • Get information (for example, because I need to challenge this model).

Remember to pace the other person. If the speaker is slow and hesitant, it will not be so hard to intercede. But if they are voluble and excitable, you may need to raise your energy level to match theirs, by increasing your volume and speed and using similar language...


That’s really amazing, I’ve never heard anything like that. I’d love to hear more about it, but we can’t possibly do it justice right now. How about we arrange another time...

Often your intervention will be in the form of a question. There is a lot more on this subject in the topic on Questioning Skills.

If it’s hard to find an opening for a well-formed question, remember the power of a single word:

  • ‘but...?’
  • ‘so...?’
  • ‘because...?’

A verbal interruption can be a form of mismatching, which often leads to breaking rapport. You may decide to do this deliberately when you need to bring the conversation to a close, in order to summarise and move on, to give some feedback, or just because time is running out.

There are many subtle alternatives to words which we all use in order to constructively break rapport, such as:

  • Change of posture, such as sitting upright in your chair
  • Hand, head or body movements
  • Withdrawal of eye contact
  • Tidying of papers, picking up a pen...
all of which signal that the current period of listening is coming to an end.