How to Improve Listening Skills

Are you a good listener?

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #62

How to Improve Listening Skills

Every night when I was growing up our family of seven ate at the dinner table. Each night was an opportunity to share things we learned that day. My Dad always had a story for us. However, many times, he included details that just weren’t true. He wanted us to pay attention and decide if everything he was telling us made sense.

How to Improve Listening Skills

He felt strongly that listening skills needed to be taught and practiced, and this was my father’s technique for teaching us these critical skills. He would say just because you have two ears on the side of your head doesn’t mean you automatically know how to listen.

He’s right. Effective listening is something that needs to be learned. Especially, today we work and live in busy environments. We practice tuning-out, not tuning-in.

Want more information on how to improve your listening skills

Three Steps to Effective Listening Skills

Step 1: Tune in. Tuning in, of course, is the very first step to effective listening. In order to be a successful listener you must be physically and mentally prepared to tune in. For me, this means aligning my body with the other person and maintaining eye contact--giving him or her my undivided attention.

It also means turning off any mind chatter. Sometimes I’m still thinking about something else and I arrive late to the listening. Or sometimes, I start listening, but before my conversation partner finishes, I begin planning what I am going to say in response. Or worse, I pass judgment and think, “This isn’t important. This is stupid” and I stop listening. Good listeners suspend judgment and wait until the other person is finished before they create a response. If you feel like you might forget a point just take notes.

Show You are Listening

By the way, it’s also nice if you are able to show that you are listening: lean in, tilt your head, or occasionally nod at your partner. The idea is not just to listen, but also to encourage the speaker.

In this step, the key is to concentrate on the words you hear and the body language signals you see. Are they smiling? Are they talking rapidly? How’s their posture? Are the words and body language congruent?

For example, if someone is smiling and talking rapidly they’re likely to be genuinely excited and interested in the topic. If you notice slumped shoulders and a chin tilted toward the ground perhaps the person is experiencing sadness or a lack of self-esteem. The clues can be very subtle. It might be that you barely notice a slight side to side “no” headshake at the same time the person is saying, “Sure, we can do that.”

For this step, you need to tune in to what and how something is said and be alert for what is left unsaid.

Understand What You’ve Just Heard

Step 2: Decide what it means. Next, you’ll need to translate and interpret what you heard and observed. You’ve got to decide what it all means. We all create meaning based on our own experiences, so it’s important to confirm that your understanding of what was communicated is really what the speaker was trying to communicate.

Sometimes you’ll need to ask open-ended questions to confirm your understanding.

For example, even if I say something as simple as “I opened the door” what exactly are you imagining in your mind? Am I opening an office door? Am I opening a car door? Maybe it’s a door to a house?

The point is that sometimes you’ll need to ask open-ended questions to confirm your understanding. Such as, “When you said X, what did you mean?” “Why do you think X, is it because of A?” “Can you give me an example of what you meant by Y?” “Tell me more about your feelings regarding X”

Pay Attention to Non-Verbal Communication

In addition to paying attention to the meaning of the words, you’ll also need to understand the non-verbal behaviors you observed. Were the tone of voice, gestures, and words all in agreement? Did the words say yes, but the body language said no? Did your conversation partner seem excited, disappointed, angry, confused? These non-verbal gestures and actions reveal inner thoughts, attitudes, and emotions that may not have been expressed verbally.  

Avoid Miscommunication

Step 3: Paraphrase to confirm understanding. The final step to effective listening is to confirm your understanding. To do that you’ll need to paraphrase, or reword what you heard including the content and the emotion. For example, the speaker might say, “I can’t stand that I need to repeat the instructions three or four times in excruciating detail and she still doesn’t seem to understand how to complete the task.”

The listener might respond, “It sounds like you are frustrated because she’s not following instructions even after the steps of a task have been explained more than once.”

The structure of paraphrasing is:

  • lead-in

  • plus feelings summary

  • plus content summary

[[AdMiddle]So, again, another example might be, “It seems (lead in) that you are angry and perhaps resentful (feelings summary) because you’re being asked to work overtime (content summary), is that right?” Be careful to be accurate and not overstate what you heard. By repeating back the other’s person’s meaning in your own words, you are letting the other person know you understand what they are telling you. In short, it prevents miscommunication.

The Steps to Effective Listening Skills

So there you have it,  three steps to improve the intensity and accuracy of your listening skills. First you need to tune in to what someone is saying and tune out all the noise. Pay attention to everything that is said and left unsaid and pick up on non-verbal behaviors. Then you need to clarify what it all means by asking open-ended questions. Finally, you need to repeat back what you heard, in your own words, to confirm your understanding of what the other person said. Improving listening skills is not difficult. By following these three steps you’ll develop a greater insight into what people are really saying.

This is Lisa B. Marshall; passionate about communication your success is my business.

Join my networks on LinkedIn and Twitter. This week exclusive bonus material can be found on the Facebook Fan Page.

If you have a question, send email to publicspeaker@quickanddirtytips.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.

Learn more about this in Smart Talk – a comprehensive set of tools to help you build stronger relationships and overcome communication obstacles.  Free excerpt

About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.