Improving Listening Skills

Jean Palmer Heck

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I am working with a corporate client who would like to get some practical tips for improving her listening skills in large, small and/or individual meetings. Do you have any tips to share?

— Ray Mulvihill

Keep listening. Let a person finish what they are saying. Let them finish the story. Resist the temptation to add or suggest words or to help the speaking person finish a sentence.

— Rick Wemmers

  1. Look in the eye of speaker.
  2. Ask clarification questions during conversation.
  3. Repeat their name 3 times during the first 3-5 minutes.
  4. Ask them to repeat a point.
  5. Nod head and say, “Hmm,” occasionally.
  6. Give a WOW now and then.

— Karen Bockman

My favorite listening quote from Mark Nepo: To listen is to continually give up all expectation and to give our attention, completely and freshly, to what is before us, not really knowing what we will hear or what that will mean. In the practice of our days, to listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.

— Jenny Herrick

How I improved my listening skills was to join a local Toastmasters club. Since we evaluate other speakers and then need to stand up and share the evaluation with the others, you listen very intently, take notes, and always make sure you give some helpful suggestions on how the speaker might improve; and include what you truly enjoyed about their presentation.

— Bobbie White

In addition to being a speaker, I also work in a bank. We encourage our staff to take notes while listening. There’s something engaging about looking at the paper and knowing you have to pay attention. It keeps me focused and my mind from wandering. I use this tool on the phone or in-person.

— Sam "Gentoku" McCree

  1. Repeat their words back. Even if you don’t know what they are saying repeat back what you heard and ask if it’s right. Letting people know you are trying to listen is essential for listening. It also keeps you from hearing something other than what they mean.
  2. Ignore the content and look for meaning, especially feelings and needs. For example, “Our vendors never pay us on time. I get so frustrated because it’s hard to make plans when we don’t know when we are getting paid.” You could say, “Yeah, vendors suck.” But it’s better to say, “So you’re feeling frustrated because the vendors payments aren’t predictable.”
  3. Give empathy before advice. First repeat back and then ask them how you can help them? If they ask for advice great if not they might just need to vent. If you do have advice try this phrase: “I have some advice that might help you, would that be helpful?”
  4. Help them with options. If you help someone talk through their options they will be more receptive. If you come up with the solution they might resist. So ask them questions about what they might do. if they miss one option then mention it. If they get defensive make the situation hypothetical. Get them talking about change instead of feeling attacked.

— Mary Westheimer

Do not think ahead or focus on what you want to share about whatever topic is being discussed. Fully focus on what the other person is saying. If your point is pertinent, you will remember it.

— Jodi Blackwood

  • Always turn and face the person who is speaking. Make eye contact and let him/her know you are paying attention. It shows you are in control of your actions and you are not being distracted by everything going on around you and the speaker.
  • Non-verbally acknowledge what the person is saying by using your body position and language — leaning forward, nodding head — to signal your encouragement and interest. Actively respond to questions and directions, and encourage the train of thought with “I understand” type of comments.
  • Pay attention to the person’s body language and tone of voice; do they match up with the words?
  • Pay attention to your body language — no fidgeting, clicking of pens, swinging of feet, tapping of fingers.
  • Stop thinking about what you want to say and just listen. The moment you think of your rebuttal, or story to support or “out-do” the other person, you stop listening. If necessary, take notes. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason!
  • Don’t assume you know what is going to be said; you will tune out.
  • Do not interrupt or finish sentences (no matter how much you may want to!). You appear impatient and rude.
  • Listening to understand does not mean you agree with what is being said — there is a tremendous difference between the two.
  • Put away all electronic devices. The person speaking in front of you always takes precedence.

— Karen Wright

One tip I give people is to be “curious” whenever they listen to someone. When a thought enters their head that begins to distract them, remember the word “curious.” It can jolt you back into listening.

— Judy Clark

Sit in a cafe with a friend and don’t talk. Just listen to everything that is going on around you and take notes. Allow at least one hour. When you are finished, compare notes and see what information you picked up. It’s amazing how much each person misses. If you practice this exercise you will improve each time.

— Dina Eisenberg

Each day, preferably the morning or any other quiet time, sit or lie down and relax. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. With each breath, try to identify a sound in your environment for three minutes: a car driving past, birds, the sound of trees rustling, and the actual quiet.

The benefits are numerous. Not only do you get a few minutes of relaxation and meditation, you begin to understand listening as a multi-layered thing. There’s always more to hear actually and figuratively, like what’s not being said.

— Kristy Rogers

Ask, “What else?” This is especially good for getting to get those unspoken details, needs or ideas.

Listening without interrupting creates a sense of safety for the talker which helps the talker be authentic, honest and feel connected to the listener. It’s really powerful to listen without interrupting and for most of us it takes practice and commitment. Most of us are compelled to respond, get our two cents in, react, say how what’s being shared applies to our life, etc.

Some people hide behind listening so they aren’t vulnerable, known, or at risk of any negative reaction. A tip for this “shy” type is to look for ways to engage. When you speak up, contribute and share, you’ll feel more connected and fulfilled by that conversation. And if you’re talking to someone who doesn’t interrupt you, you’ll really feel connected and have satisfaction of being known by the person(s) in the conversation.

— Jim Bouchard

Listening skills center on: FOCUS. Focus cannot be forced. It’s the process of letting go of distractions. Our brains are wired for distraction. Letting go of distractions is a conscious effort and must be practiced.

Too often distractions create barriers to effective listening. These distractions include:

  • Your own agenda
  • Your desired outcome
  • Actual environmental conditions (noise)
  • Personal opinions and beliefs
  • Time constraints
  • The urgency or importance of the topic (or lack thereof)

Eliminate or mitigate as many distractions as possible. You need to practice to put aside your opinions, for example. Listening is receptive, not responsive.

Schedule time for listening — not for a conversation, but simply to listen. Make sure the other person knows in advance how much time you can commit to listening.

Your desired outcome is a distraction. Practice putting it aside. Make your short term objective simply to gather information.

— Tom Krauska

  1. Turn off the phone.
  2. Take notes. You are not going to remember everything.
  3. In some cases I have used a video camera or recorder to make sure I get all the information.
  4. Create an action plan after the meeting so that you can move on the items you learned.

— SamLeslie Korenko

For me the secret was figuring out how I best retain things. I listen but don’t really retain much, but I see things and remember them quite well. So now, I take notes, lots of notes, and I write down names. This serves two purposes: first, I HAVE to pay attention to catch it all; and, second, I can always refer back to my notes. I use a lot of key words when taking notes so it doesn’t look like I’m not paying attention.

— Melanie Szlucha

I do improv comedy, and have found many exercises build up that listening muscle.

Improv is two people on stage, who without any prior preparation, need to create characters, a situation and an entire scene (think a Saturday Night Life skit) based on a one-word suggestion from the audience. If I’m not listening and completely clued into my scene partner, the scene won’t make sense to the audience who will see and hear everything.

Some exercises I’ve used are:

  • Alphabet Game (each sentence has to start with successive letters of the alphabet)
  • One Word Story (4–5 people in a group, each contributing one word to create an entire story)
  • Zip-Zap-Zop (fast-paced circle game of passing a sound with eye contact to someone else, the goal is to keep it in a Zip to a Zap to a Zop as it flies around the circle).

— Leah Carey

Listen as though you will be teaching the material later. It helps you stay tuned in and key in on the important stuff as well as the more subtle details.

SpeakerNet News is produced by Rebecca Morgan and Ken Braly. It is not affiliated with the National Speakers Association. Send comments or suggestions