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The art of listening

Listening is arguably our most powerful tool of communication. Studies show that we spend roughly 60% of our communication time listening.

Listening is a skill critical to almost every aspect of our lives. We listen to situate ourselves in a busy room, to avoid danger when crossing the street, to maintain relationships with loved ones, and to obtain critical information at lectures and in the office.

And yet, despite all the time we spend with our ears perked, research shows that we retain only about 20% of the information we hear.

Improving our ability to fully understand what we hear on a day-to-day basis is vital to strengthening relationships, forming new relationships, improving academic performance, and meeting goals at work.

So how do we go about doing it?

Enter: Active Listening

Active listening is a particular communication technique whereby the listener makes a conscious effort to hear and understand the complete message the speaker is attempting to convey. Active listening requires the listener not only to pay attention, but to feed back the information they hear to the speaker to reinforce understanding and facilitate the quality message delivery on the part of the speaker.


Step 1: Prepare

Before entering a situation with a speaker, mentally prepare yourself to listen. To do so:

  1. Clear your mind. Clear your mind and be wary of potential visual and auditory distractions (i.e. phone ringtones and people walking by).

  2. Finish what you're doing. If you are currently doing something that might distract you from listening, complete that task first or put it to the side.

  3. Finish your conversations. End all mobile communications for the period of the conversation to allow you to fully engage with the speaker.

  4. Eliminate preconceptions. Remove any preconceived ideas or emotions regarding the nature of the speaker or the content of their speech, they will cloud your mind and limit your ability to hear beyond what you expect to hear.

  5. Tell yourself consciously that you are going to pay attention and actively block out any distractions.

Step 2: Pay Attention

Give the speaker your undivided attention. Be aware that, in a conversational setting, your non-verbal communication is one of the strongest facilitators of quality communication from the speaker. In other words, if you look like you’re listening; the speaker will put more effort in communicating their message in a complete and understandable manner.

Here are some tips on non-verbal communication you can use to improve the quality of your conversation:

  1. Maintain eye contact. This tells the speaker that you are the focus of their attention and provides them with information regarding your comprehension of the message and your emotional response to the subject matter. Eye contact is a huge topic. For more information on quality eye contact I strongly suggest you do some further reading.

  2. Open your posture. Maintaining an open posture (i.e. facing your speaker and opening your arms rather than turning away and crossing your arms) indicates receptiveness and comfort, both great facilitators of quality communication. To ensure the highest quality of communication from the speaker, make sure that your ‘open’ posture is neutral (neither submissive nor dominant). Engaging in the power-play most people unconsciously do in conversation can be detrimental to the delivery and reception of the message being conveyed.

  3. Avoid formulating a response. Try to avoid forming a response in your head while listening to the message. This tends to pull your attention into your head and away from the speaker. Brief silence after the speaker has stopped speaking is actually an integral to quality conversation. It fosters a more comfortable conversational environment and tells your speaker that you have listened carefully to the message and that you are now carefully considering its contents.

  4. Do not interrupt. Allow your speaker to complete their line of conversation before responding. You will not receive the full message if you interject. Don’t assume that you know where the line of conversation is going either. There’s a tendency for us to retract our attention from the conversation if we sense that we know where it’s going. Most of the time we’re wrong. Even if we guessed the general direction of the conversation correctly, there are vital verbal tidbits and emotional cues we missed. Plus, it’s kinda rude to interrupt y’know?

Step 3: Provide Feedback

Feedback is an amazing conversational mechanism that prompts speakers to convey their message in the most understandable way.

  1. Smile and nod. This conveys both your positive emotional engagement in the conversation and affirms your understanding of the message (to the speaker at least).

  2. Utilize small verbal comments. Encourage the speaker to continue delivering the message with small verbal comments such as: “oh!,” “yes,” “right,” and “OK.”

  3. Reflect obviously. When the speaker has concluded their message, make a subtle, yet obvious, show of seriously considering the message they just conveyed. This gives the speaker the satisfaction of having delivered a thought-provoking message and, perhaps most importantly, primes them to respond to your need for clarification.

  4. Ask questions. At this point your speaker is ready for questions. Be direct in your questions. Responding with “that’s an interesting point…” or “that reminds me of a time…” de-primes your speaker, who is waiting for a question. Instead go right into, “so what you mean to say”, or “let me get this clear”, or “just to clarify”.

  5. Respond Appropriately. Your response to the speaker after having fully understood he message is crucial to the delivery of subsequent quality messages from the speaker. Be candid and open in your response, assert your opinions respectfully, and speak in a manner in which you, yourself, would appreciate being spoken in.

For those of you who made it to the end of this post, congratulations! You now have some of the tools required to become an active listener! By way of reward, I bequeath to you this surprisingly appropriate quote:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” --Stephen R. Covey

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