Effective listening skills

- why a speaker needs them & how to develop them

Developing effective listening skills is just as important as developing
your speaking skills. I know that's a very bold statement. However it's true!

Why? Because good communication is a partnership. Without great listening skills the ability to communicate meaningfully is lessened.

(Don't need the why? Skip to 10 tips for developing effective listening skills)

I'm sure you've had the experience of "being talked AT" rather than "with". You will also know the feeling of having been "heard" but not listened to. Both lead to communication breakdowns - malfunctions which lead to feelings of frustration for the speaker as well as the listener. 

Empathetic communication 

When you communicate well, whether listening or speaking, you are mindful of who you are listening or speaking to. The focus is not yourself but whoever you are interacting with. You are empathizing - in tune with the person you are communicating with. 

If you are listening you are doing so actively rather than passively. You are fully focused on the speaker and listening beyond the words.

If you are speaking, you are watching for cues to show you're being understood. You will be adapting your speech to meet the needs of your

Take your partners, please ...

Great communication is a dynamic dance: a duet between effective listening skills and effective speaking skills.

Aside from improving your speaking when you work on developing effective listening skills, you are also actively working on improving the quality of all your inter-personal relationships.

If the people you interact with feel acknowledged through your concentrated attention, they are more likely to give the same back to you.

A couple dancing energetically wearing 1950s "country and western" costumes

Ten Tips for Developing Effective Listening Skills

1. Understand the difference between "active" & "passive" listening

To listen "actively" means to be engaged, involved. You are actively using every sense you have to listen.

To listen "passively" means you hear the words with your ears. You are letting the sound of the words wash over you rather than going forward to meet and greet them. They "go in one ear and out the other".

2. Eliminate outer distractions

If you are giving someone your full attention sounds other than those you want to hear distract. Turn off what you can, (a radio, ipod ...), and consciously block out the rest.

3. Eliminate inner distractions

Quell the urge to think about anything other than what you are hearing. If you allow your mind to wander you are letting yourself lapse into 'passive' rather 'active' listening.

4. Watch

Pay close attention to the speaker's body language and in particular their face and hands. Watch for non-verbal cues giving suggestions as to how the spoken information is to be interpreted.

Click for a quick basic guide to body language. If you're unfamiliar with the notion of "reading" the way a person holds their body, this will serve as a good introduction.

Jumbled collection of shoes

Empathy ...

"Empathy is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes", or experiencing the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself, a sort of emotional resonance."

Source: Wikipedia

True empathy is a gift. As the speaker or the listener, you'll know when you've received it as you'll feel valued; respected.

5. Listen to the tone of voice

What feelings does it evoke in you? What does it let you know about the speaker's emotional state beyond the words they are using?

Listen too for changes in tone, pitch or pauses within the speech. These can signal subject shifts or transitions. They may also be letting you know what is, and what isn't, important.

Just listen image - tone of voice can matter more than words.

6. Listen to the tone of the words

What is the speaker's choice of words saying to you beyond the words themselves?

Most of us use differing vocabularies or registers of language depending on who we are speaking to and what it is we are saying.

For example there are multiple words meaning "woman".  Each one carries an additional connotation, extending beyond its primary information that the word denotes an adult female person. Here are a few.

  • slattern - a dirty, untidy woman
  • virago - a domineering, bad tempered woman
  • harridan - a strict, bossy old woman 
  • doyenne - a respected woman leader in a particular field  
  • wife - a married woman
  • chick - a slang, informal term for a young attractive woman
  • squeeze - a slang, informal term for girl friend 
  • wench - an archaic term for a young woman

These words are not interchangeable.  Using them without thought could be dangerous! For instance calling the respected female CEO of a local company either a "harridan" or a "chick" is likely to raise more than eyebrows.

7. Pay close attention to cues

These herald note-worthy information or summary statements. 


  • "There are two things I want you to remember ..."
  • "There are three important steps. The first is ..."
  • "To sum up ..."

8. Resist the urge to react

Let the words you're hearing communicate with you freely. They are not free if you are already deciding what you're going to say.  A premature outburst because you haven't listened with an open mind can cause major misunderstandings. 

9. Practice playing back what you "think" you heard

If it's appropriate check your understanding. Use your own words to paraphrase and or/summarize what was said. Ask if you heard rightly. Get confirmation or clarification from the speaker.

10. Be aware of cultural difference

Body language varies significantly across cultures as does what can, and what can't, be talked about. Before leaping to a conclusion reflecting your own interpretation or prejudice, ask.

In conclusion, effective listening skills help you and everybody else.

Take your time and be patient with yourself while you are learning them. To turn habits of a life time around is a challenge!

If you've never experienced being consciously listened to, really listening to others will feel quite strange for awhile. The reactions you used to have while "listening" without consideration will still pop up in your mind and perhaps out of your mouth. But the fact you're aware of what good listening skills are will gradually change them. You will succeed if you sincerely want to.

Extend your skills and understanding

Click this link if you'd like to find out more about developing empathy or rapport with your audience.