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Improving Your Listening Skills

Effective listening can make you more efficient and more productive. People who improve their listening skills are worth more to their companies. And they enhance their chances of advancing in their careers.
In fact, listening is so important that Lee Iacocca, the former chief executive officer of the Chrysler corporation, once said that it can make “the difference between a mediocre company and a great company.”
Unfortunately, most people are only 25 percent effective as listeners.
Yet, they can improve their listening skills by following a number of simple techniques. And when they do, they will become more valued employees – and more effective human beings.
The following tips and suggestions can help you become a better listener.
The Benefits of Listening
Want to increase your self-confidence? Handle conflicts better? Solve more problems? Relieve stress and tension?
According to Madelyn Burley-Allen, author of Listening: The Forgotten Skill, these are just some of the benefits she received after improving her listening skills.
Some other benefits of listening:
  • People will respect and like you more because you have shown that you care about them and what they have to say.
  • You’ll be better informed, because when you actively listen, you learn more.
  • You’ll be better able to get things done, because you’ll understand how to motivate people when you pay attention to what they’re really saying – and thinking.
  • People will listen to what you’re saying, because they realize that you have made them feel important – and they will want to please you.
  • Things You Should Know
Many people – especially managers – spend 42-45 percent of their listening time, 30-31 percent talking, 15-16 percent reading and 0-11 percent writing. Yet our schooling has failed to prepare us to be good listeners.
Hearing and listening are not the same things. Hearing is a physical process that takes place naturally. Listening is a mental process that requires effort. You have to muster a willingness to concentrate, to interpret, to evaluate and to react to what you hear. Yes, it works. And it’s well worth the effort.

What Poor Listeners Do
Poor listeners are inattentive and their minds often wander. They tend to interrupt speakers and finish thoughts and sentences for them. Too often poor listeners change the subject of a conversation or jump to improper conclusions.
Attentive listeners, however, often question speakers to clarify points. They don’t rush or interrupt people speaking.
What Good Listeners Do
Look at the person who’s speaking.
Question the speaker to clarify what’s being said.
Repeat some of the things the speaker says.
Pay close attention to what the speaker is saying.
Don’t interrupt the speaker.
Don’t change the subject until the speaker has finished his or her thoughts.

Why We Listen Poorly
We get bored. When we lack interest in a subject or in the way it’s presented, we fail to listen.
We refuse to put forth the energy to really concentrate. Concentration requires effort and we prefer not to exert ourselves to that extent.
We take our mind off the message and place it on the speaker. We focus our attention on how the speaker is dressed or what mannerisms he or she exhibits.
We become impatient with the speaker and want him or her to get to the point.
We fail to wait long enough to find out if a subject has any benefit for us. We conclude too early that it doesn’t – and we stop paying attention.
We are tired and can’t put forth the energy to listen attentively.

How to Listen Better

Studies conducted at the former Sperry Corporation uncovered these keys to good listening:
Listen for ideas, not just for facts. When you listen only for facts, you may not grasp the ideas or themes of the speaker. Here are some questions you might ask yourself when listening:

  • Why am I being told this information?
  • What does it lead to?
  • If that’s true, what does it prove?

Judge what the speaker says, not how it is said. Don’t let the speaker’s delivery get in the way of your understanding the message. Ignore any peculiar mannerisms or speaking problems the speaker may exhibit.
Be optimistic when you listen. Try to find something of interest in the subject no matter how dry it may seem at first. Open your mind and try to find out what attracted the speaker to the subject.
Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t listen to the beginning of a sentence and try to fill in the rest. Wait and keep listening. Clear your head of your own ideas and listen to those of the speaker.
Be a flexible listener when you’re taking notes. Determine as soon as possible how the speaker puts forth his or her ideas, and gear your note-taking style to the speaker’s style. Example: Ask yourself, “Is the speaker concise or does he or she take a while to make a point?”
Concentrate. Remain relaxed but attentive. But don’t become tense, or you’ll make any distractions more pronounced. Your best bet: Try to remove as many distractions as possible. One way: When going to a meeting, get there early and sit up front where there will be fewer distractions.
Remember that you can think at least four times as fast as someone can talk. This means that your thoughts will race ahead of the speaker’s words – and you can become so detached that you’ll have a hard time catching up with what was said. To stay on track, try to summarize what was said, or interpret the speaker’s ideas, or evaluate the speaker’s logic. You’ll have time to do these things because your thoughts move so swiftly.
Work at listening. try to listen alertly and enthusiastically. Strive to “be alive.” How: Respond to the speaker by giving feedback. examples: Come up with an appropriate comment, smile if appropriate, summarize what the speaker has just said.
Keep your mind open – and restrain your emotions. Don’t be distracted by strong words that offend you. Train yourself to note the presence of emotional words – but to let them pass without an emotional reaction on your part. Work on interpreting and evaluating what the speaker is saying.
Practice mental exercises. Use every opportunity to sharpen your listening skills. Work on your attitude. And practice, practice, practice.

A Few More Tips
  • Try these two valuable tips, which will help you develop rapport with the speaker. They were suggested by Joseph De Veto in The Interpersonal Communication Book (Harper & Row).
  • Accept the speaker’s feelings. Show that you have empathy for the person and his or her problems. For example, you might offer a comment, such as “You must have felt terrible when he corrected you in front of others.” This will help you become a partner in the communication transaction.
  • Ask questions to let the speaker know you are paying attention to him or her. People realize you’re listening to them when you ask a question, wait for an answer, and follow up with a related question.

AIM to Listen
Try this simple formula, from The Secretary magazine, that will help you remember three vital listening concepts. It’s called AIM.
  1. A – Attention. Don’t fake paying attention. If the person is important enough to listen to, then try to resist distractions.
  2. I – Interest. Try to maintain interest even if you don’t think the topic or person is interesting. Tell yourself that the content might prove useful to you someday.
  3. M – Motivation. Try to motivate yourself by going over all the reasons you should pay attention. Be sure to list motives that offer you the greatest benefits.

Reprinted with permission from Communication Briefings (