Effective Listening Skill

Listening is the communication skill that many people frequently use the most. During the course of each day we are constantly called upon to listen in a variety of situations. For example, we listen when we use telephone, attend seminars and meetings, participate in arguments, give and receive instructions, make decisions based on oral information.

Studies have shown that one of the major limitations in establishing and maintaining relationships in the business world is inability of the partners to listen effectively, yet only few of us make deliberate effort to listen actively.

Mark Twain famously emphasized the importance of listening:

If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear. — Mark Twain, writer and publisher.

What then is Listening?

Listening is a process of receiving and interpreting the spoken word. It involves recognizing what is said and comprehending the message.

According to the International Listening AssociationOpens in new window,

  • Listening is “the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages.”

Michael Purdy in his views offers an extended definition that includes memory:

  • Listening is the active and dynamic process of attending, perceiving, interpreting, remembering, and responding to the expressed (verbal and nonverbal) needs, concerns, and information offered by other (persons) human beings.”

Some theorists perceive listening as being parallel to, and the social equivalent of, reading: when we read we attempt to understand and assimilate the written word.

  • And when we listen we attempt to understand and assimilate the spoken word.

Interpersonal listening requires that we listen or pay attention to what is said (the verbal or content level of the message) and the manner in which it is conveyed—the nonverbal or relational level of the message.

Therefore, we have to listen to the words that are being spoken and, at the same time, ‘listen’ to the nonverbal cuesOpens in new window that accompany the words. This is because the nonverbal part of the message made up of body languageOpens in new window carries the feelings and emotions of the speaker, and often ‘says’ more than the words that are used.

Listening actively and effectively therefore helps us interpret messages and response more accurately and thereby gain a better understanding of the people with whom we come into contact.

Note this !

A mark of having truly heard someone else is to respond appropriately, even if that means making some change in what you do. but just how far we should go in adjusting our actions based on what another says is itself a matter of some controversy. — Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author.

Understanding the Process of Listening

Listening is often explained by distinguishing it from hearing. Unlike hearing, which is a passive process, listening is a mental skill which can be developed. We are all born with innate ability to hear—hearing is the physical act of receiving aural stimuli (sounds).

Listening, like all acts of perception, is a dynamic, active process involving the speaker and the listener. Listening occurs when the signals or sounds sent to the brain are processed and used—that is, when we attend to what is being said, select what is relevant and then understand and interpret it for ourselves.

The processes involved in listening can be likend to perception processOpens in new window. Efficient listening also requires that we remember what has been conveyed to us and that we respond to the speaker. To develop listening skills it is important you understand the listening processOpens in new window.

Types of Listening

There are many reasons—to relax, obtain information, express interest, and discover attitudes—as to why people listen. When you listen to music, usually you are listening to relax.

What's this?

Listening to gain directions for a task, taking part in an interview, and getting feedback from a customer are examples of listening to obtain information.

In most cases you are motivated to listen just so people know that you are interested in what they have to say and that they are important. Thus, listening and responding to friends during lunch signals that their thoughts and feelings are important to you.

People use different types of listening when listening for different purposes. A first step toward becoming an effective listener is to understand the type of listening that is appropriate for particular purposes. The listening may either be passive listening or active listening. Your degree of involvement in a given interaction and the amount of energy you expend in listening distinguishes active from passive listening.

1.1  Passive or Casual Listening

Passive listening, also called casual listening, occupies a good deal of our listening time — we listen to music, our favourite television programme, or a friend sharing an interesting titbit of gossip or telling a humorous story. At such times we may suspend our critical faculties, relax and enjoy the stimulation. At other times, for example, at a concert or at the theatre, we may listen for enjoyment, but we nevertheless respond intellectually or emotionally to the music or the words of the play. Casual listening expends little energy or effort because the response is to ourselves rather than to the performers.

1.2  Active Listening

Active listening is more goal-oriented than passive listening. Active listening is hearing and trying to understand and remember a message. It has a purpose. It implies that you have a definite goal in mind as to why you are listening. You work harder to absorb the contents of the message shared by your team leader, for example, than listening to a DJ announcing your favourite piece of music. The following type of listening provide an idea of the different levels at which we listen actively.

  1. Informative listening also called comprehensive listening is one of the primary means of obtaining information. The more efficient our listening skills, the more accurate will be the information we gather. The purpose is to understand and remember the information by following the logic of the message and concentrating on identifying and separating the main ideas from the supporting material that relates to them.

    People in the sphere of business are required to listen for information. The assistant listening to his or her supervisor’s instructions, the customer listening to the salesperson’s description of a new product, or the shipping clerk listening to an order to ship 100 items to customers, are all listening for information.
  2. Evaluative listening also called critical listening is the type of listening you engage in when you suspect that the source of the information may be biased — for instance, suppose you listen to a presidential candidate’s speech. As you listen, you judge the sincerity and truthfulness of the message. This sort of listening requires skills to analyze, evaluate and challenge the content of the information. Advertisements, political slogans and persuasive messages from friends and family should be critically analyzed and evaluated before you act on them.
  3. Reflective listening involves understanding and restating the speaker’s message. A reflective listener responds to the speaker with genuine concern. However, the listener does not try to give a different point of view or judge the speaker or the message. The listener simply lets the speaker know that the message has been understood.

    The listener may repeat or paraphrase what was said or make statements that reflect the speaker’s feelings. Suppose a coworker says to you, “I am at a loss about how to tackle this project.” A response that shows reflective listening might be, “So you’re not sure where to begin. Tell me more. What’s your understanding of the goals of the project?” This feedback reflects what the speaker has said and prompts the speaker to think further about the project and his or her objectives.
  4. Empathic listening is listening at its peak— it is the deepest level of listening. It differs from reflective listening in an important way. In empathic listening, the listener tries to understand the speaker’s point of view, attitudes, and emotions, as well as the spoken message — for instance, suppose a customer calls a help support line to complain about a printer that does not work properly. The support person might say, “I understand how disappointing it can be when a new product does not work properly. Let me ask some questions to learn what the problem might be.” The support person is showing understanding of the customer’s frustrations with the new printer. This understanding makes for resolving the problem easier.

    When we listen empathically, we try to step out of our own perspective and view things from that of the speaker’s. This requires listening nonjudgmentally. We cannot empathize with others if we are judging them. This does not mean that we agree with or condone what a person is saying, only that we are willing to step out of ourselves long enough to see how the person views what he or she is saying. Learn more about empathic listening!Opens in new window

Guides for Effective Communication at the Workplace

Listening is so basic and central to human existence that we often take it for granted. We are accustomed to thinking about the influence we have as speakers or writers and have failed to recognize the power we hold as listeners.

Note this !

It takes two people to share a feeling – one to talk and one to listen. — Michael P. Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships.

Effective listening is an acquired skill achieved by constant practice. An effective listener prepares to listen by getting rid of physical and physiological listening barriers. When someone approaches you at your desk or in a meeting to start a conversation; keep an open mind and stop talking or doing any task. Get your mind cleared of distracting thoughts and give the speaker your full attention.

What's this?

As the speaker begins talking, quickly determine the type of active listening that will be appropriate. Is the speaker giving you instructions? If so, make do with informative listening. Does the speaker seem worried or upset? Emphatic listening may be the right option to help you communicate effectively in this situation.

Do not allow biases or previous experiences keep you from listening with an open mind. Perhaps you have heard a speaker presents ideas at several meetings and have found none of the ideas helpful. Things might be different this time. Do not miss important information because you prejudge a speaker or a topic. When receiving instructions from someone or listening to someone speak in a meeting, quickly note questions that you will ask later to help clarify points you do not understand.

Note also that when conversing with someone, you don’t start thinking about your response while the other person is still speaking. Doing so might cause you to miss part of the message. A nod or an encouraging smile can show the speaker that you are interested in his or her message. Restating important points of the message at an appropriate time can verify that you have understood the message.

Follow these tips for effective listening:
  • Establish common interests with the speaker and theme for the message.
  • Listen with an open mind. Do not allow prejudices or assumptions cause you to miss the message.
  • Keep your emotions in check. Do not let an emotional response to a message distract you from listening.
  • Wait until the speaker pauses to begin framing your response.
  • Judge the content—not the delivery—of the message.
  • Take notes on the important points.
  • Concentrate on listening; stay alert.
  • Avoid or ignore physical and physiological distractions.
  • If there be need; ask questions or give feedback.
  • Review and evaluate or analyze the message (information) after the speaker is done speaking.
Listening in Specific Situations

In the sphere of business, you are bound to find two common listening situations — listening in a small group and listening in a conference setting.

Listening in a Small Group

When in a small group, several communication skills, including your listening skills, are important. Practice active listening. Listen for both ideas and feelings. Use effective eye contact and nonverbal cues that indicate to others that you are listening. Check your understanding by asking questions or restating ideas as appropriate.

Listening in a Conference Setting

As an employee, you will continue to learn new skills and information related to your line of job. You may attend meetings, seminars, or conferences designed to improve your skills and knowledge. In such settings, you will be bound to use effective listening skills in order to listen effectively and ultimately to learn. The following are guidelines for taking part in a seminar or conference.

  • Know your why by clearly understanding the reasons you are a participant at the conference. What do you need to learn or accomplish at the conference?
  • Choose comfortable seating where you can see the speaker and any visual aid that may be used.
  • Avoid judging the speaker’s theme, ability to present, and appearance before hearing the message.
  • Take advantage of effective note-taking.
  • Ask questions when appropriate or permitted.
  • When the session is completed, review the content of your notes and add more details base on what you have understood.

Being an effective listener can strengthen your productivity and improve your relationships with co-workers and clients. Most managers agree that effective listening is the most crucial skill for becoming a successful manager because it improves work quality and boosts productivity.