The 10 Principles of Listening
It is tempting to think that because you can hear, you must be a good listener. However, there is far more to listening than merely hearing. A good listener will listen not only to what is being said, but also to what is left unsaid or only partially said. Effective listening therefore involves observing body language and noticing inconsistencies between verbal and non-verbal messages, as well as what is actually being said at any given moment.
For example, if someone tells you that they are happy with their life but through gritted teeth or with tears filling their eyes, the verbal and non-verbal messages are in conflict. It is therefore possible that they don’t mean what they say. Effective listening involves using your eyes and mind, as well as your ears.
This page describes some principles to help you improve your listening and make it more effective.
Ten Principles of Effective Listening
There are ten principles behind really good listening.
1. Stop Talking
Don't talk, listen.
If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.
When somebody else is talking, it is important to listen to what they are saying. Do not interrupt, talk over them or finish their sentences for them. Right now, the most important thing that you can do is simply listen to them. As the saying goes, there is a time and a place for everything—and that includes both listening and speaking.
…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak…
The Bible, Ecclesiastes 3:7
Just listen: hear what they are saying, watch their body language, and think about their meaning.
When the other person has finished talking, you may need to ask them questions, or reflect back what you have heard, to clarify that you have received their message accurately.
There is more about these techniques in our pages on Clarification and Reflecting.
2. Prepare Yourself to Listen
Focus on the speaker. Put other things out of your mind. The human mind is easily distracted by other thoughts, such as wondering what’s for lunch, or what time you need to leave to catch your train, or whether it is going to rain later.
When you are listening to someone, try to put other thoughts out of your mind and concentrate on the messages that are being communicated.
Our page on Mindful Listening explains that it is natural for your mind to wander. However, just as you would when meditating, the trick is to catch your mind as it starts to do so, and bring it back to the speaker.
The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention.
3. Put the Speaker at Ease
Help the speaker to feel free to speak.
It is not always easy for someone to talk freely, especially if they find the topic is difficult, or it causes an emotional reaction. However, as a listener, there are actions you can take to make the speaker feel more confident. For example:
Nod and smile, or use other gestures or words to encourage them to continue;
Maintain eye contact but don’t stare;
Echo back their last few words, in a technique known as mirroring, which is part of reflecting; and
Summarise or paraphrase what they have said, finishing with a question (or a questioning tone) to encourage them to continue.
These techniques are part of active listening, and will show the speaker that you are listening and understanding what is being said. This, in turn, will make them more comfortable about speaking freely.
4. Remove Distractions
Remove as many distractions as possible so you can focus on what is being said.
The human mind is prone to being distracted. It is therefore important to ensure that you don’t give your mind too much opportunity for escape.
When you are listening to someone, it is a good idea to remove possible distractions. Put down your phone, or turn away from your computer screen. It is also a good idea to avoid unnecessary interruptions. For example, at work, you might leave your desks and go to a meeting room, leaving your phones behind.
Avoid behaviours like doodling, shuffling papers, looking out of the window, picking your fingernails or similar.
These kind of behaviours are unhelpful for both you and the speaker. They are likely to distract you from the process of listening, and making your listening less effective. They will also suggest to the speaker that you are not interested, which makes it harder for them to speak.
Try to understand the other person’s point of view.
When you are listening, it is important to see issues from the speaker’s perspective: to empathise with them. This helps you to understand their point of view, and to understand their concerns.
The best way to do this is to let go of preconceived ideas.
By opening your mind to new ideas and perspectives, you can more fully empathise with the speaker. If the speaker says something that you disagree with, then wait. Keep listening to their views and opinions without comment, until they have finished speaking.
After all, your first impression could be wrong. Their argument could be more nuanced when you listen carefully to it in full.
You should only start to construct an argument to counter what is said, if necessary, once they have finished, and you have fully assimilated their argument.
See our pages: Empathic Listening and What is Empathy? for more.
6. Be Patient
A pause, even a long pause, does not necessarily mean that the speaker has finished.
Sometimes it takes time to formulate what to say and how to say it. Be patient and let the speaker continue in their own time. Never be tempted to interrupt or finish a sentence for someone. This is particularly important if the speaker has a speech impediment such as a stammer.
People with a stammer—a hesitation in their speech that means that they tend to repeat the initial sound of a word—may have a sound to which they default when stammering. They may also have developed tactics that enable them to overcome their stammer, such as changing the word they planned to use.
It is therefore important that you do not try to guess what word they want to use from the first letter, or fill in for them—because you are quite likely to be wrong.
Our page on Patience has more information about how to develop the skill to wait when necessary.
7. Avoid Personal Prejudice
Try to be impartial.
Our personal prejudices can lead us to pre-judge someone’s words and meaning based on their habits or mannerisms. This prevents effective listening, because you have effectively already decided whether their words have value.
Don’t become irritated and don't let someone’s habits or mannerisms distract you from what they are really saying.
Everybody has a different way of speaking. For example, some people are more nervous or shy than others, some have regional accents or make excessive arm movements, some people like to pace whilst talking, and others like to sit still. These behaviours can be distracting for listeners.
However, try to focus on what is being said and ignore the style of delivery or the accompanying mannerisms.
Top Tip: Be Aware of Your Distractors
We all find some elements of delivery more distracting than others. For some, it may be a particular regional accent that is so fascinating in its tone that the words or meaning are lost in transmission. For others, arm waving may prove to be too interesting.
Be aware of the aspects of speech that you find particularly distracting.
When you are aware, you can take action to overcome your tendency to be distracted, and focus on the words and meaning again.
8. Listen to the Tone
Volume and tone both add to what someone is saying.
A good speaker will use both volume and tone to help them to keep an audience attentive. Equally, everybody will use pitch, tone and volume of voice in certain situations. Effective listening means using these non-verbal cues to help you to understand the emphasis and nuance of what is being said.
See our page on Effective Speaking for more about how you can interpret and use volume and tone when speaking.
9. Listen for Ideas – Not Just Words
You need to get the whole picture, not just isolated bits and pieces.
Words are the most basic elements of communication, but they do not occur in isolation. You may hear people say something like:
“Well, I understood all the words individually, but not really the overall sense.”
What they mean is that they were unable to grasp the idea behind the words.
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of listening is the ability to link together pieces of information to reveal the ideas of others.
However, with proper concentration, letting go of distractions, and improving your focus this becomes easier. It is also helpful to use techniques like clarification and questioning to help you make more sense of ideas.
10. Wait and Watch for Non-Verbal Communication
Gestures, facial expressions, and eye-movements can all be important in understanding someone’s full meaning.
We tend to think of listening as being something that happens with our ears—and hearing is of course important. However, active listening also involves our eyes.
Some experts suggest that up to 80% of communication is non-verbal. That includes hearing the volume and tone—but a substantial element of any communication is body language. This is why it is much harder to gauge meaning over the phone.
When listening, it is vital to watch and pick up the additional information being transmitted via non-verbal communication.
See our pages on Non-verbal Communication for more about this aspect of listening.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about the key communication skills you need to be a more effective communicator.
Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their interpersonal skills and are full of easy-to-follow, practical information.
It takes more than hearing to listen effectively.
Following these ten principles should help you to develop better listening skills. This, in turn, will help to improve your interactions and relationships with others.