Listen Up! How to Improve Your Listening Skills

Are you genuinely interested in understanding what others are saying to you? Are you able to give your full attention to someone, not only hearing their words but sensing their feelings and emotions to gain an accurate understanding of what they are trying to express? 

If the answer is yes, continue reading to learn strategies that will help you positively impact others through great listening. If the answer is no, reading on will give you some insight into the potential consequences of your listening approach.

Before I go further, I will admit that, most of the time, I’m a mediocre listener.

That’s a scary thing for a leadership coach and trainer to share (more on that later). But according to research on listening, you and I are probably in the same boat. Does it matter? Why is listening important? The answer is more powerful than you might think.

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Impactful Listening

Listening is the foundation for developing lasting relationships, building trust, preventing conflict, and influencing others. When you really listen, you show the other person that you care what they think and that they are worthy of your full attention.

People want to be listened to. They want what they say to be heard. Yet, on the receiving end, we often retain between 20 and 50% of what we hear. Each time this happens, we miss an opportunity to connect and learn.

The easiest way to validate the impact of listening is to think about your own experiences; those where you had something important that you wanted to share. It could have been an idea, a feeling of excitement or sadness, or a story about a funny experience.

Can you recall a time when a friend, spouse, or colleague ignored you, blew you off, interjected their own opinion, or was thoroughly distracted? Contrast this with a time when someone actually listened to and valued what you had to say. How did these experiences feel? The impact of both types of conversations can be powerful and long lasting, with one resulting in hurt feelings and frustration and the other in a sense of connection and resonance.

No one is going to be a perfect listener 100% of the time and shedding old listening habits isn’t always easy. However, it’s entirely possible to improve your listening skills using the following approach.

Assess Your Current Level of Listening

Let’s take a few moments to assess your current listening skills. Review the levels defined here and consider which best describes your style of listening as well as how others might assess you.

Level 1 – Self-Focused

This is best described as hearing but not really listening. In other words, you hear the words the other person is saying but you put little energy into processing them. Instead, you focus on yourself by thinking about your own feelings, your judgments, and anticipating what’s next. This level is also characterized by distraction and interrupting.

Here are some simple examples of things you might say as a Level 1 listener:

  • “Oh yeah, me too, I did the same thing myself….”
  • "Sure, that sounds nice, whatever you say…”
  • “Uh huh, great, let me tell you what I’m thinking…”

If you find yourself spending all of your energy in a conversation planning what to say next and how to appear smart with your response, you’re definitely exhibiting Level 1.

In reality, we all frequently listen at Level 1. It is entirely normal for a passing hallway conversation or a friendly check-in. However, beware of settling for Level 1 when you are engaging in a conversation where there is important subject matter or emotional considerations. You risk missing out on valuable information and may even damage the relationship by losing trust or respect.   

Level 2 – Attentive Listening

This is characterized by maintaining a concerted focus on the other person with a sincere interest in wanting to understand them. At Level 2, you hone in on the individual and the content of what they are saying. You demonstrate your attention by asking clarifying questions and reflecting back what you hear.

Here are a few examples of what you might observe from a Level 2 listener:

  • “What I’m hearing is that this is new and exciting for you…”
  • “That’s an interesting choice of words you used, tell me more…”
  • “I can see this is important to you…”

The guiding principle of Level 2 is curiosity. Your goal is to be inquisitive and learn more about what the other person is saying and feeling. The more you can demonstrate Level 2 listening in your conversations, the more you will notice the positive response it will elicit from others.

Level 3 – Empathetic Listening

With empathetic listening, you are completely in tune with the other person. You can sense and feel their emotions. You notice all aspects of how they are communicating, going well beyond words to sense and feel what they are feeling. Tone, volume, body language, and energy levels are all part of the information that is exchanged.   

In a true Level 3 conversation, when you are “in the moment” with another person, it may feel like time is passing slowly. You can feel the shared energy in the conversation. There may be powerful moments of silence.

A critical aspect of exhibiting Level 3 listening is to ensure that you are fully present for the other person. Being present means being conscious, open, flexible, and engaged. It means you are devoting your full energy in the moment. Considering the constant distractions we face in life and our inclination to worry about what comes next, this can be a challenge. However, offering your full presence can, in turn, create lasting and meaningful connections with others.

Now that we’ve covered three basic levels of listening, how do you assess your listening skills? At what level do you feel that you most often listen? We can’t and won’t always be at Level 3, but even striving for Level 2 more often is an impactful goal.

Improve Your Listening, Starting Today

Whatever goal you set for yourself, here are some simple steps you can utilize to improve your listening skills right away:

Before the Conversation

  • If you have the opportunity to do so, ask yourself, “What is my goal for the conversation? Is it to learn something, show interest, or be supportive? Do I have a curious mindset?” A great time to do this is the night before as you plan your next day of meetings.
  • If you are running into the conversation, perhaps coming directly from a busy meeting or appointment, take a few moments to slow down and clear your mind.
  • Check the setting. Set your conversation up for success by looking for an environment with minimal distractions. For example, it will usually help to get away from your computer and to put down your phone.

During the Conversation

  • Make a sincere attempt to focus your attention on the other person. Watch carefully for facial expressions or other body language that either reinforces or even contradicts what they are saying.
  • Try to resist the urge to immediately respond with a comment. Instead, ask a question.
  • Summarize and share back what you are hearing.
  • At least once, share an observation about something you notice in the person’s word choice, body language, and emotion.
  • Try not to interrupt the other person. Be patient and let them finish what they are trying to say. It’s ok to pause and be quiet.
  • If you find your attention drifting, don’t be afraid to tell the other person. For example, you might say, “I’m sorry, I was distracted for a second, would you please repeat that?”

After the Conversation

  • Take a moment to reflect back on the conversation and assess what went well and what was difficult for you. This will help you better prepare for the future.
  • Consider if you noticed anything new or different in the way the other person responded to the conversation. Did they respond as usual or were they more engaged or energized? 

It is important to remember that being a great listener doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything the other person is saying. For now, the goal is simply to understand. We’ll have other posts that will expand on this and branch into related topics such as Conflict Management and Crucial Conversations.

I started this post by mentioning that I still have a long way to go with my own listening skills. It’s painful to say this but, up until a few years ago, I was a Level 1 listener about 95% of the time. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t care about what others had to say. It was more that I felt compelled to be ready to respond. I put my energy into figuring out what I would say next.

This was a poor habit I develop as I started my career in the world of consulting where I wanted to look smart by offering an immediate answer. While this was occasionally effective, it limited the connections I made with my teammates and customers.

Fortunately, I became aware of my weakness in listening when I began my formal coaching training a few years back. Since that time I have worked hard to learn how to offer my full attention to clients in a coaching setting. My new goal is to be more consistent in providing the same level of commitment to my family and friends.

Put Learning to Action

You’ve taken the time to read this post, so now take steps to put your learning into action. Pick a conversation and go into it intent on listening at least at Level 2. Follow the tips above to make it happen. See what you notice in the other person and learn from the experience. Share your thoughts and comments below and we’ll be happy to offer our support.

Finally, for a presentation explaining how these listening concepts can tie into your role as a leader, check out our recorded webinar on Using Coaching Skills to Enhance Your Leadership.