Tips for Effective Listening Skills

Listening is essential to effective communication.  In the words of author Robert Louis Stevenson,

“all speech, written or spoken, is dead language, until it finds a willing and prepared listener.”

Listening is hearing and trying to understand a message using the sounds you hear.  Listening is the communication skill that many people use the most.  Being an effective listener can help you be more productive and improve your relationships with others.  A first step toward becoming an effective listener is understanding the type of listening that is appropriate for certain situations.   Listening can be categorised at casual listening or active listening.


Casual listening

Casual listening is hearing and trying to understand what is being said with the objective of relating to others.  For example, when you chat during lunch with a colleague, you use casual listening to understand what is being said and to help you respond appropriately.  You typically do not focus on analysing what is said or trying to remember every detail of the conversation.

Active listening

Active listening is more goal-oriented than casual listening.  When listening actively, you have a definite purpose in mind.  The four types of active listening are described below:

Informative listening is used when you wish to hear, understand and remember the information being presented.  For example, when you listen to a manager or co-worker give instructions for completing a task, you are using informative listening.

Evaluating listening is used to hear, understand and judge what is being said.  You may evaluate whether the information is useful, accurate or interesting.  For example, suppose you listen to a sales person describe a product.  As you list, you will evaluate the message to decide whether you accept or reject it.

Emphatic listening is used to hear, understand and offer feedback that shows you have understood the message.  Understanding the message does not necessarily mean that you agree with the speaker.  The feedback you offer indicates only that you understand the message.  Customer service associates often use emphatic listening to let a caller know that his or her complaint is understood.

Reflective listening is used to hear, understand and offer feedback that helps the speaker think about her or his feelings or objectives.  The feedback should not be judgemental;  rather it should prompt the speaker to think or question further.  Prompts, open-ended questions and restatement of what the speaker has said are useful in giving feedback with reflective listening.  Suppose a co-worker says to you, “I am at a loss about how to tackle this project.” A response that shows reflective listening might be, “So you’re not sure where to begin.  Tell me more.  What’s your understanding of the goals of the project?”  This feedback reflects what the speaker has said and prompts the speaker to think further about the project and his or her objectives.

Listening effectively

An effective listener prepares to listen by removing internal and external communication barriers.  When someone approaches you at your desk or in a meeting, stop talking and doing tasks.  Clear your mind of distracting thoughts and give the speaker your full attention.  As the speaker begins talking, quickly determine the type of active listening that will be appropriate.  Is the speaker giving you instructions?  If so, informative listening is appropriate.  Does the speaker seem worried or upset?  Emphatic listening may help you communicate effectively in this situation.

Do not let biases or previous experiences keep you from listening with an open mind.  Perhaps you have heard a speaker present ideas at several meetings and have found none of the ideas helpful.  This meeting might be different.  Do not miss important information because you prejudge a topic or a speaker.   When receiving instructions from someone or listening to someone speak in a meeting, quickly note questions that you will ask later to help clarify points you do not understand.

When talking with someone, do not begin thinking about your response while the other person is still speaking.  Doing so might cause you to miss part of the message.  A nod or an encouraging smile can show the speaker that you are interested in his or her message.  Restating important points of the message at an appropriate time can verify that you have understood the message.

Tips for effective listening

  • Focus on the speaker and the message
  • Use the appropriate type of cause or active listening for the situation
  • Keep an open mind and do not prejudge the speaker or the message
  • Keep your emotions in check. Do not let an emotional response to a message distract you from listening
  • Wait until the speaker paused to begin framing your response
  • At an appropriate time, ask questions to clarify the message you heard
  • Offer feedback to the speaker

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