31 Jul 2023

How to be a good listener

In a world where much of our communication is mediated through electronic devices and we are constantly distracted by multiple calls on our attention, it seems that the art of good listening may be in jeopardy. Yet listening carefully is the cornerstone of all our social interactions, the place where good manners begin. Understanding the various ways in which we can really listen is a useful starting point.

Focused Listening

Good listeners focus entirely on what they are hearing. That means eliminating all distractions, for example shutting your laptop, putting your phone away, and turning your face and your attention towards the other person. It’s very easy to detect when someone isn’t focusing on what you’re saying – the distant look in their eyes, the tendency to look over your shoulder at something or somebody that interests them more, the longing glances at their phone or wristwatch. You must accept that it’s no good being a half-hearted listener; you need to focus and give your undivided attention. If you fail to do this, you will inevitably miss out on the nuances of conversation, the passing facial expressions, the pauses, the hesitations, the body language – all of which speak volumes to somebody who is both observant and self-aware.

Agenda-free Listening

Good listening is about putting your own preoccupations to one side. If you interrupt or jump into the conversation saying something like “I know just what you’re talking about – I did that journey myself ten years ago” you are switching the focus of the conversation back on yourself. If you want to understand and react appropriately to what somebody is telling you, you will not do so by being impatient, dismissive or judgmental, or by setting out your own opinions or standpoint before they have a chance to articulate what they are feeling. Bad listeners inevitably manage to swing the conversation around to their own agenda – usually themselves – finding opportunities to interject and overwhelm the person who is talking. You will be a much better listener if you welcome all conversations as a chance to learn something new or gain a fascinating insight. Curiosity, if it is not over-intrusive, is a good listener’s best attribute.

Demonstrative Listening

Body language is an excellent way of demonstrating that you are concentrating on the conversation in hand. That means engaging in eye contact, leaning forward, nodding encouragingly, or using appropriate facial expressions (a grimace, a raised eyebrow, a quizzical look) from time to time to indicate that you are interested and engaged.  From time to time, you might murmur encouragement, or use phrases like “oh really?”, “that’s extraordinary” or “I agree”, depending on the context. This may seem obvious but doing the opposite – lounging back in your chair with your arms folded, staring fixedly at the other person, or looking around the room – will be instantly off-putting and discouraging.

Responsive Listening

Being a receptive listener is about knowing when, and how, to respond. There will be occasions when a response is uncalled-for, when all a person wants to do is vent or confide, and just projecting interest and sympathy is all that is needed. But conversation is usually a two-way street, and responses are called for, especially in a social context when you may need to prolong the interchange. It is never a good idea to use the time when you should be listening carefully to what is being said planning your response or pondering what you’re going to say next. You will miss out on salient points, and your response won’t effectively align with what has been said, making the conversation feel jerky and out of step. Instead, fall back on the power of spontaneity and improvisation. Use your listening skills and intelligence to frame a focused response to whatever conversational curveball is thrown at you.

Empathetic Listening

There will be times when friends or colleagues confide in you because they are feeling down or they are encountering problems or difficulties, and you will need to fully engage with them and do your best to understand how they are feeling. You may well decide that this is your chance to offer advice or point out obvious solutions, but this might not be what is called for. Unless they specifically ask for your input, they may well just need a sympathetic ear, someone who appears to be focused on them and understands what they’re going through. On these occasions, saying “I know exactly how you’re feeling, because the same thing happened to me”, which you may think is a suitably empathetic response, might not be helpful because you’re talking about your own experiences, when they really need to focus the conversation on themselves. Handing out advice (no matter how sensible it may be) or trying to cheer people up is about your agenda, not other people’s. Sometimes the best listeners are silent, signalling their understanding through facial expressions and body language.

Now is the time to brush up your listening skills:


• Remove all distractions (phones, laptops, chores, other people, children, pets)

• Clear your mind and tune in

• Use positive body language and facial expressions to show you’re engaged

• Be curious, receptive and open-minded


• Allow your focus to slip and think about other things

• Plan ahead and formulate your response

• Bring your own agendas to the conversation

• Make the conversation all about you


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