How to Improve Your Listening Skills

Millions of dollars’ worth of mistakes happen just because people often don’t listen well. Learn time-tested techniques to practice effective listening.

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #174

How to Improve Your Listening Skills

by Lisa. B. Marshall

James Patterson, the American author of thriller novels, once said, “I never miss a good chance to shut up.”  Today, we’ll be talking about exactly that—shutting up and listening!

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I spend a lot of time talking to people, talking at people, and teaching people how to talk to others.

I have a lot to say about the gift of gab.

So today we’re going to talk about how to be great at one of the most surprising elements of exceptional speaking: The ability to listen well. Being a good listener tells others that they are valuable. It means hearing the whole person and not just the words that they say. Listening Skills are what allow us to deepen and expand our relationships. Effective listening skills are what take our relationships to the next level. 

As important as listening is, you would think we’d be really good at it! But we’re not. Millions of dollars’ worth of mistakes happen just because people often don’t know how to listen effectively.

Want more information on how to improve listening skills?

We aren't good at it because listening can be a lot of work and it’s not something that most people practice. But it’s certainly worth the effort. Here’s how to practice and improve your listening skills.

Listen Actively

I’ve written and spoken often about what it means to be an active listener. Active listening means that you aren’t just listening to words, but to the entire message that the person is communicating.

Look at the speaker directly. Watch their body language. Nodding your head and other small actions like smiling let the person know that you’re listening. And by saying things like, “What I’m hearing you say is…” and  “Is this what you mean?” you clarify and mirror back what they’re saying.

Another reminder about active listening: Don’t spend the entire time the other person is talking trying to come up with what to say yourself! Not only is this very annoying – and if you think that other people can’t tell when you’re doing it, think again – you’ll miss what is actually being said.

When you actively listen, sometimes you’ll find that what you hear and what the person is actually saying to you are quite different!

So practically, how do we learn to be active listeners?

Listen to One Person at a Time

One suggestion is to start with one person at a time. While it may be overwhelming to take on the role of World’s Greatest Listener in all situations with all people, it’s very doable if you start on a small scale. For example, listening to your entire office – smiling, nodding, clarifying, rinse and repeat – could become a full time job in itself. Instead, start with someone you spend a lot of time around (a coworker for example) who unbeknownst to them, will be your practice person for the day. Try out all of your new listening skills and focus only on them.

By focusing on just one person, you’ll be able to more efficiently direct your energy and more accurately gauge your success. You’ll also be able to discern the subtle differences between making eye contact and staring a person down, repeating back what they said without interrupting, and smiling just enough that it’s friendly and not creepy.

Put That Television to Good Use

Another easy tip on your path to listening excellence is to practice with the radio, television or recordings of favorite speakers (ahem…) by way of podcasts and videos.

Do this: Listen or watch for a while and then turn it off. Now try and recall and then re-tell what you heard. It’s harder than you think! If you miss many of the details the first time, play it again and try something different in an effort to help you retain what you heard. Try making eye contact with the person on the screen. This is particularly easy with video podcasts where the person’s face is usually shot closer up than on a television.

Practicing with digitized people is a safe way to hone your listening skills without having the person in front of you wondering, “Why in the world are you staring at me like that?”

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s….

Wait…what were we talking about? Oh, that’s right. Distraction.

Let’s face it. As distracting as a fly buzzing overhead can be, we are just as distracting to each other. The ugly sweater, the nasally voice, and the piece of spinach stuck between a person’s teeth are realistic obstacles to our ability to listen well. I would love to say that I’m above this, but I’m not. Chances are that you’re not above it either.

The reality is that we’re often talking to someone when it’s too hot, too cold, too noisy, or too…something, and almost just as often there’s nothing we can do about it. Our environment and our personal needs (ever tried listening intently when you’re hungry, tired, or anxious?), all these things can keep us from being our best. The solution:

Control what you can and learn to tune out the rest.

Don’t forget that listening is hard. Improve your active listening skills one person at a time, remember to use tools like television, radio, and the internet to practice, and train yourself to tune out that annoying fly of distraction. When you are able to really listen, your connections will deepen. 

This is Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker. Passionate about communication; your success is my business.

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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.