Are You an Effective Listener? (Really?)

Are you listening?We’ve all done it. You’re standing talking with a coworker, and she asks a question. Suddenly, you realize your mind had wandered as she continued to talk. The little voice in your head said it was time for lunch…reminded you to follow up with a client…or maybe you were distracted by a colleague walking by. You weren’t paying attention. You weren’t listening.

Most people think they know how to listen, but although you hear the words, you may not fully understand the meaning behind them. Listening actively takes concentration and practice. It’s important in all interpersonal relationships—in the workplace and in our personal lives.

If you want to improve communication between you and your colleagues or clients, become more efficient in your work, or create more rewarding personal relationships, then listening effectively is critical. The good news is that these skills can be learned just as effective public speaking skills are learned. And here’s how.

Ssshhh. Stop talking and just listen. Many business cultures reward speaking—no matter what. But when we are talking—even inside our heads—we can’t hear and process what is being said to us. Even if it means there is a silence after the speaker finishes—while you prepare your response—let it be.

Body language. According to Forbes, making and keeping eye contact is essential in Western cultures, where good eye contact equals paying attention. Face the speaker and fight the urge to check your cell phone or computer.

Practice. Listen to challenging material that requires concentration, such as a lecture or a sermon. Use these to sharpen and improve your vocabulary and your understanding of nonverbal cues—those you give as well as those you observe. Lean toward the speaker, nod, and give smiles and verbal cues (uh-huh, hmm, yes) of encouragement.

Study up. Read about the topic of a presentation or an important meeting ahead of time. Leave any preconceived perceptions of a speaker, colleague, or topic at the door.

Be attentive. Don’t interrupt or jump to conclusions. And don’t sketch out your response while he is still talking, or think about what you want to say next. You run the risk of giving a reply that will be off the mark, and then your disinterest will be obvious.

Focus. Focus on the big picture as well as on the small details, watching for ways you can personally relate. Also, listen intentionally, consciously steering your mind back to the speaker when it wanders (because it always wants to stray).

Do unto others. According to Dr. John A. Kline, who has written extensively on leadership and communication, using a form of the Golden Rule is effective. Ask yourself, “How would I want someone to listen to me?” And then listen as if you were going to have to repeat the conversation in an hour— this time, as the speaker.

Ask questions. Everyone listens through their past experiences, and reacts accordingly. Take responsibility for understanding what’s been said. If you don’t, always ask, don’t assume. And, according to Sklatch, open-ended questions are the best way to gain clarity, such as, “Can you give me some examples of that?”

We all want to be heard and understood, and taking the steps to ensure we are doing the same for others is the best way to achieve this.


To be an effective manager—or coworker—listening is a key skill. Merit Career Development offers leadership and communication courses that can help you hone your skills. For more information, please contact Jim Wynne at jwynne@meritcd.com

© 2015 Merit Career Development. All rights reserved.

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