Listening Skills

See also: Top Tips for Effective Listening

Listening is the ability to accurately receive and interpret messages in the communication process.

Listening is key to all effective communication. Without the ability to listen effectively, messages are easily misunderstood. As a result, communication breaks down and the sender of the message can easily become frustrated or irritated.

If there is one communication skill you should aim to master, then listening is it.

Listening is so important that many top employers provide listening skills training for their employees. This is not surprising when you consider that good listening skills can lead to better customer satisfaction, greater productivity with fewer mistakes, and increased sharing of information that in turn can lead to more creative and innovative work.

Many successful leaders and entrepreneurs credit their success to effective listening skills. Richard Branson frequently quotes listening as one of the main factors behind the success of Virgin.

Effective listening is a skill that underpins all positive human relationships.

Spend some time thinking about and developing your listening skills – they are the building blocks of success.

See our pages: Employability Skills and Customer Service Skills for more examples of the importance of listening in the workplace.

Good listening skills also have benefits in our personal lives, including:

A greater number of friends and social networks, improved self-esteem and confidence, higher grades at school and in academic work, and even better health and general well-being.

Studies have shown that, whereas speaking raises blood pressure, attentive listening can bring it down.

Listening is Not the Same as Hearing

Hearing refers to the sounds that enter your ears. It is a physical process that, provided you do not have any hearing problems, happens automatically.

Listening, however, requires more than that: it requires focus and concentrated effort, both mental and sometimes physical as well. 

Listening means paying attention not only to the story, but how it is told, the use of language and voice, and how the other person uses his or her body. In other words, it means being aware of both verbal and non-verbal messages. Your ability to listen effectively depends on the degree to which you perceive and understand these messages.

Listening is not a passive process. In fact, the listener can, and should, be at least as engaged in the process as the speaker. The phrase ‘active listening’ is used to describe this process of being fully involved.

See our pages: Active Listening and Types of Listening for more information.

The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen

We Spend a lot of Time Listening

Adults spend an average of 70% of their time engaged in some sort of communication.

Of this, research shows that an average of 45% is spent listening compared to 30% speaking, 16% reading and 9% writing. (Adler, R. et al. 2001). That is, by any standards, a lot of time listening. It is worthwhile, therefore, taking a bit of extra time to ensure that you listen effectively.

Time Spent Communicating A 'pie in pie' chart to show the significance of listening.

Based on the research of: Adler, R., Rosenfeld, L. and Proctor, R. (2001)
Interplay: the process of interpersonal communicating (8th edn), Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt.

The Purpose of Listening

There is no doubt that effective listening is an extremely important life skill. Why is listening so important?

Listening serves a number of possible purposes, and the purpose of listening will depend on the situation and the nature of the communication.

  1. To specifically focus on the messages being communicated, avoiding distractions and preconceptions.

  2. To gain a full and accurate understanding into the speakers point of view and ideas.

  3. To critically assess what is being said. (See our page on Critical Thinking for more).

  4. To observe the non-verbal signals accompanying what is being said to enhance understanding.

  5. To show interest, concern and concentration.

  6. To encourage the speaker to communicate fully, openly and honestly.

  7. To develop an selflessness approach, putting the speaker first.

  8. To arrive at a shared and agreed understanding and acceptance of both sides views.

Often our main concern while listening is to formulate ways to respond. This is not a function of listening. We should try to focus fully on what is being said and how it's being said in order to more fully understand the speaker.

Effective listening requires concentration and the use of your other senses - not just hearing the words spoken.

Listening is not the same as hearing and in order to listen effectively you need to use more than just your ears.

See our page: The Ten Principles of Listening.

Introduction to Communication Skills - The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills

Further Reading from Skills You Need

Our Communication Skills eBooks

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.

Barriers to Effective Listening

To improve the process of effective listening, it can be helpful to turn the problem on its head and look at barriers to effective listening, or ineffective listening.

For example, one common problem is that instead of listening closely to what someone is saying, we often get distracted after a sentence or two and instead start to think about what we are going to say in reply or think about unrelated things. This means that we do not fully listen to the rest of the speaker’s message.

This problem is attributed, in part, to the difference between average speech rate and average processing rate. Average speech rates are between 125 and 175 words a minute whereas we can process on average between 400 and 800 words a minute. It is a common habit for the listener to use the spare time while listening to daydream or think about other things, rather than focusing on what the speaker is saying.

Of course the clarity of what the speaker is saying can also affect how well we listen. Generally we find it easier to focus if the speaker is fluent in their speech, has a familiar accent, and speaks at an appropriate loudness for the situation. It is more difficult, for example, to focus on somebody who is speaking very fast and very quietly, especially if they are conveying complex information.

We may also get distracted by the speaker’s personal appearance or by what someone else is saying, which sounds more interesting.

These issues not only affect you, but you are likely to show your lack of attention in your body language.

Generally, we find it much harder to control our body language, and you are likely to show your distraction and/or lack of interest by lack of eye contact, or posture. The speaker will detect the problem, and probably stop talking at best. At worse, they may be very offended or upset.

Our page on Barriers to Effective Listening explains more about common listening problems, and our page Listening Misconceptions details some of the common myths and misconceptions about listening.

Finally, it is important not to jump to conclusions about what you see and hear. You should always seek clarification to ensure that your understanding is correct.

See our pages: Clarification and Reflection for more information.