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Listening Skills - There are those who listen and there are those who wait to talk

Updated on November 26, 2015


Even though listening skills can be learned, not everyone can improve their listening skills by learning them. People learn best and most easily when the skills they are learning are consistent with their beliefs, values and motives. You can’t be a good listener if you’re not interested in what someone is saying. You will develop your skills much faster by learning how to become deeply interested in another person. For those of you who are interested in other people and want to improve your ability to listen, then read on.

Dr Steven Covey (‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’), describes five levels of listening:

Level 1. Not Listening

This level doesn't need any explaining.

Level 2. Pretending to Listen

How many times have you been guilty of pretending to listen? At some level we all sense if someone is not really engaged with what we are saying no matter how much nodding of the head or affirmative sounds they are making.

Level 3. Selective Listening

Paul Simon wrote the famous song, ‘The Boxer’ in 1968 and in it expresses this level of listening very clearly, “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”.

Level 4. Attentive Listening

Attentive listening has been described as paying attention and focusing energy on the words that are being said. Most people have attended some kind of business training where the following list of techniques have been taught to improve listening skills:

  • Eye-contact.
  • Facing the person.
  • Leaning slightly forward.
  • Open body-language, no folded arms.
  • Open palm gestures.
  • Appropriate facial gestures.
  • Making acknowledging noises such as ‘yes’, ‘I see’, ‘okay’, ‘uh-huh’, ‘right’, etc.
  • Good posture.
  • Nodding the head.
  • Etc.

This might surprise you but this is often the cause of bad listening skills. The list is usually derived from observing good listeners who most certainly display these behaviours. The problem is that whilst you are focusing on what your hands are doing or remembering to nod and make appropriate noises when you are speaking, your attention is on yourself, not on what the other person is saying.

It’s really all about the INTENTION, the mental process that drives those good listeners to behave the way they do. And that takes us to the most effective level of listening, level five, where your intention is to try to understand what the other person is saying.


Most people listen from their own perspective, in other words, ‘How does this affect me?’. Steven Covey is one of the modern advocates who urge us to strive deeply to understand the other person's point of view, to listen from their perspective, not ours. How is what they are saying affecting them? How are they feeling about what they are saying?

If your intention is focused on their perspective and you are trying to understand what they are saying, you will really be listening. If you are listening to understand, your body language will be naturally appropriate. In other words, you will be facing the person, maintaining eye-contact, making appropriate noises, and all of this will be perceived as genuine by the talker - because it is.

Reflecting Back

Another benefit of Listening to Understand is that it gives you the substance to feedback on what you sense and observe, such as their feelings, emotions, energy levels, etc. “I noticed that you seemed a bit despondent when you spoke about that customer”. This creates much more engagement and rapport and shows the person that you are truly listening to them.


Our minds are continually active and to focus attention solely on what someone else is saying is not always that easy. It takes a deliberate mental decision. Nigel Risner, in his book, ‘The Impact Code’, says, “If you’re in the room, be in the room”. He doesn’t mean physically, he means mentally in the room focusing on that moment to make it count and blocking out everything else. There are many things that make listening in today’s fast, active life-style a challenging task.

What makes it difficult for you to listen?

Be honest with yourself, ask yourself what makes it difficult for you to listen and you’ll probably come up with the following reasons and many more:

  • A lack of interest in the message.
  • A negative reaction to the speaker.
  • Being preoccupied with other matters.
  • Mentally judging or arguing with points made by the speaker before he or she has finished talking.
  • Becoming bored with listening and preferring active involvement by talking.
  • The delivery of the message - the tone, passion, articulation, enthusiasm, eye-contact, etc.

What could you do that would make it easier for you to listen?

Compare the way you listen to the suggestions in the following list:

  • Face the person who is talking.
  • Maintain eye-contact.
  • Maintain a comfortable distance that is appropriate for both of you (unless of course it is a video or telephone conversation).
  • Give your undivided attention and refrain from doing anything else at that time. “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” M. Scott Peck
  • Get rid of any possible interruptions.
  • Concentrate on what they are saying. See it from their point of view and try to understand what they are saying. Suspend your judgement and try to grasp the meaning of what they are saying.
  • Stop any mental rehearsing you might be doing. Don’t think of your next question or how you might reply. Try to understand what is being said at that moment.
  • Wait three seconds after the person has finished talking before you say anything.


Learning is not complete without application, without putting into practice what you have learned.

Set yourself a goal to listen to understand and rate yourself out of ten after each conversation. Just the act of trying to understand will improve your listening skills and therefore have a significant impact on the quality of all your relationships.


“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” Ralph Nichols

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Winston Churchill


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    • Russ Baleson profile image

      Russ Baleson 5 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

      Hi Vicki, thank you for your comments. I agree, listening is at times much more important than talking. Regards, Russ

    • profile image

      Vickiw 5 years ago

      This Hub was of interest for me, as I facilitate a support group each week, and in a situation where diverse people meet, listening skills become very important. People do learn though, and I am always fascinated to see how all members have rapt listening ability, and respect for each other. Listening is perhaps more important than talking.

    • Russ Baleson profile image

      Russ Baleson 5 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

      Thank you Will. I guess when we are ready for something, it appears. Glad the timing was right. Russ

    • profile image

      iseekme 5 years ago

      Thank You Russ for the most amazing insight. Timing is everything, Yours was perfect(or should that be bless Google?) Your insight goes beyond business. It encapsulates objectivity. Thanks again.Will.

    • Russ Baleson profile image

      Russ Baleson 6 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

      Thanks Satviki and Ornov. Really appreciate you taking the time to read and leave comments. Russ

    • satviki profile image

      satviki 6 years ago from India

      Thanks for providing information on a subject which is dealt with highest priority in all industries these days.keep it up.

    • Russ Baleson profile image

      Russ Baleson 6 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

      Hi one2get2no, thanks for your comments. It is important and even more important to listen from their point of view rather than your own. Something I strive towards. Russ

    • one2get2no profile image

      Philip Cooper 6 years ago from Olney

      Very interesting hub. Thanks for the insights. Listening is such an important part of communication.

    • Russ Baleson profile image

      Russ Baleson 6 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

      Hi Michael, most people aren't even aware that they are 'wandering off'. Being aware and wanting to be fully engaged is most of the work done already. Thanks for your comments. Russ

    • charmike4 profile image

      Michael Kromwyk 6 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

      Active listening is so important, whether this is in a sales presentation or if you are manager you need to listen effectively.

      I find that at times I wander off when chatting to people, so to ensure that I actively listen I take notes as well as repeating back what I heard to show that I am listening.

      This is such an important topic for effective leaders and sales people and I thank you for publishing it Russ. Cheers Michael