Top Tips for Effective Listening
We all know and understand that listening is far more than merely hearing. It requires you to use your eyes and ears, to understand both verbal and non-verbal communication, and your mind to interpret what you are seeing and hearing on both a logical and an emotional basis. It is, therefore, a complicated process.
How can you start to develop your listening skills? You might start with our page on Listening Skills, or Effective Listening—or even with our Interpersonal Skills Self-Assessment to identify particular problem areas.
However, if you’re in a hurry, you might prefer to start right here: with a page of top tips for effective listening drawn from all of our content on listening skills.
Top Tips to Improve Your Listening Skills and Make Listening More Effective
1. Start by Stopping (Anything Else)
When someone is speaking, it’s time to stop what else you were doing, so you can focus on listening.
Put your phone away, turn away from your computer, put aside your thoughts about what you’re going to have for lunch, and simply concentrate on what they’re saying. Make eye contact with them to show that you are listening, and focus your attention on them.
Effective listening requires your full attention. You can’t do it while you’re distracted or thinking about something else.
If you’re doing something else, then you’re NOT listening effectively.
2. Consciously Set Aside Any Judgement or Assumptions
Effective listening means putting aside your prejudices, assumptions and biases. It is also important not to make making any kind of judgement about the speaker or their message.
Try to listen WITHOUT considering whether you agree or disagree, or how you are going to reply, or any feelings you have about the speaker.
Certainly do not start preparing a counter-argument in your head. Quite apart from anything else, if you listen to their whole message, you may find that your early impressions were wrong.
This ability to set aside judgement is particularly important for empathic listening. However, it can help you to avoid making assumptions or misinterpreting the message in any listening situation.
You can find out more about the different types of ineffective listening, and what can prevent you from understanding the speaker’s message, in our page on Ineffective Listening.
3. Remove Any Physical Barriers to Effective Listening
We said above that you should remove any distractions. However, it is also important to consider any (other) physical barriers to effective listening. These include, but are not limited to:
A lot of background noise, for example, because you are in a crowded room, or you have the television or radio on. Turn off the noise, or go somewhere else where you can hear and listen effectively.
Being in physical discomfort, for example because you are hungry or thirsty, or your chair is uncomfortable. With the speaker’s agreement, stop and get a drink, or something or eat, or change your chair.
Being distracted by some characteristic of the speaker, such as their looks or their accent. Under these circumstances, the most effective thing that you can do is to be aware of your issue. You can then concentrate harder to overcome the effect.
These factors will prevent you from listening effectively—so remove them from the equation.
4. Show the Speaker You Are Listening
There are a number of signs that you are listening, both verbal and non-verbal.
For example, when people are listening attentively, they tend to make eye contact with the speaker, nod, and make affirmative noises such as ‘Mm-hm’. This encourages the speaker to continue, because it shows that the listener is interested.
By contrast, if someone is fidgeting, looking out of the winter, yawning, or checking their phone or watch, it suggests that they are not paying attention. Under these circumstances, it is much harder to continue to talk.
Eye Contact or Not?
Eye contact is generally a sign that someone is listening attentively.
However, lack of eye contact may NOT show inattentiveness.
For example, someone who is shy may find it harder to make eye contact, especially for a long period. People with autism also find it hard to make eye contact.
You can also show that you are listening by briefly summarising what you have heard and/or taken from their words. We are not talking about a full summary. However, short phrases like ‘Wow! That must have been exciting!”, “Goodness, that sounds awful!”, or “It sounds like that was very nerve-wracking” show that you are paying attention to more than just their words, but also their feelings.
There is more about the signs of attentive listening in our page on Active Listening.
5. Listen for Both Words and Meaning—including Feelings
The words that we choose when we speak are important. However, a huge amount of communication—some people suggest up to 80%—is non-verbal.
In other words, the tone, volume and pitch of voice, facial expressions, body language, and behaviour, convey an enormous amount of information and meaning. Your non-verbal communication is particularly important in conveying emotion. For example, when we are excited, we tend to talk faster, and more loudly, and the pitch of our voice goes up. When we are upset about something, our voices drop, and we tend to avoid eye contact.
As you listen to someone talking, take time to consider their non-verbal communication as well as their words—and ask yourself what message that is sending to you.
TOP TIP! Trust non-verbal over verbal communication
If there is a clash between the messages from verbal and non-verbal communication, the non-verbal communication is generally more reliable. It is much easier to lie with words than with our bodies or faces. They tend to give us away.
There is more about this in our pages on Non-Verbal Communication.
6. If Your Mind Wanders, Bring it Back
Everyone’s mind wanders at times. In fact, most people’s minds wander an awful lot of the time. That’s understood—but effective listening means noticing when it is happening, and stopping it in its tracks.
As you are listening to someone, pay attention to whether your mind is wandering.
If it is, just bring it back to the speaker. Refocus your mind, and consciously pay attention again.
You can find out more about this idea in our page on Mindful Listening.
7. Be Prepared to Ask for More Information or Clarify Your Understanding
Listening does not mean never talking yourself.
An important part of the listening process is making sure that you have fully understood the message. It is perfectly acceptable—and indeed, actively desirable—to use techniques like reflecting, clarifying and questioning to make sure that you have correctly understood.
These techniques are also helpful for showing the speaker that you are listening. They demonstrate your interest in the subject, as well as your understanding.
They therefore encourage the speaker to say more—and that, after all, is part of the point.
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.
8. Wait for the Speaker to Pause Before Responding
It’s good to seek clarification or show that you are listening—but wait for the speaker to finish speaking, or at least pause.
Interrupting potentially tells them that you value your views or ideas more than theirs.
As a general rule, don’t jump in until you’re sure that the speaker is ready for you to do so. However, there are exceptions to this, including if someone is talking too much, and you need to interrupt to give someone else some air-time. Equally, if you want to check your understanding of a particular point, then do so. However, try to be mindful of whether they have finished making their point first.
9. Be Patient
The best, and most effective, listeners are those who are prepared to wait.
They are in no rush to move on in the conversation. They have the patience to wait for the speaker to order their thoughts, manage their emotions, or do whatever they need to get the right words—and the right message—across. They know that sometimes communication takes longer, and they do not interrupt, or rush to fill in pauses in the conversation.
This, in turn, means that those who are speaking to them trust them to listen, and to wait if necessary.
This is especially true when you are talking about something difficult or emotional—but it follows at any time. Giving people time and space to speak is the mark of a truly effective listener.
You can find out more about how to develop this most underrated of personal skills in our page on Patience.
10. Put Yourself in the Speaker’s Shoes
It is impossible to over-emphasise the importance of empathy in effective listening.
This is the quality of feeling ‘with’ someone: of putting yourself into their shoes so that you genuinely understand their point of view.
Listening with empathy can help you to fully understand someone’s situation. It allows you to connect more fully with them on a more emotional level. This, in turn, makes communication more open and more effective in both directions.
There is more about this in our page on empathic listening. You may also be interested in our page What is Empathy?