Listening Skills

by Steve Roche

How to listen well

The first question for listeners to ask themselves is:

Why am I listening: what are my objectives?

Answers might include:

  • to gather information
  • to build the relationship
  • to give the other person time to explore
  • to challenge their thinking.

Being aware of all your objectives allows you to choose the optimum attitude, state, body position and attention for listening.

Listening choices

  1. What attitude will best serve you as a listener? For example, will it be respect for others and their individual model of the world?

Bearing in mind the attitude you wish to convey, what initial state would best serve you? Curiosity? Fascination? Concern?

Different states are useful at different times. You are likely to move through a series of them during an interaction. Observing your own state change (which may be non-verbal) gives you information about the other person (for more information on controlling your state see States in NLP and also Emotional Intelligence).

  1. Think about your physiology or body position. A common listening choice is the logical and distant stance that suggests ‘perhaps we should take a moment to step back and review the situation’. But is this position (known as the ‘computer’), the most helpful to you? (More information can be found on this subject by looking up Satir categories). Also see the topic on Body Language
  2. The Transactional Analysis model (as popularised by Eric Berne in Games People Play, and by Thomas Harris in I’m OK – You’re OK), also offers helpful insights. In any social transaction, both parties are operating from one of the three ego states (Parent, Adult, Child). (More information can be found on this subject by looking up Transactional Analysis

Recognising these states and having the ability to switch between them is a valuable skill. Examples:

  • Musts, oughts, shoulds... suggest that the speaker is in Parent state.
  • Shan’t/can’t, don’t want to, why should I... suggest that the speaker is in Child mode.
  1. It is helpful to maintain a small part of your attention in the position of an observer of yourself, monitoring how well you are listening. If you notice your attention wandering, interact with the speaker, perhaps by asking a question: ‘what you just told me about... set me thinking and I missed the bit about... please repeat it’.
  2. Another useful technique, from Tim Gallwey and his Inner Game series of books, distinguishes Self 1 (the critical voice in your head which distracts you) from Self 2 (the adult self that other people see).

Occupy Self 1 by concentrating on the details of what you are doing. Set it a task related to the speaker, for example: What are you learning here? What is really interesting about this person? This will leave Self 2 free to get on with the task in hand.


This is useful when listening to a lecture or presentation you find boring. Hold the presupposition that there is always something useful in the content. Perhaps listen in order to learn how not to do such a presentation. Or listen so you can give constructive feedback: then you are noticed and remembered from the crowd.

  1. Good listening is not always intensive; it has to be right for the occasion. For example you may listen to the radio with ‘half an ear’, but your attention is immediately captured if a familiar name is mentioned, such as the name of someone you know, your home town, or your sports team.