How to Become a Good Listener  – and Why You Should

American businesses lose millions of dollars every year because “people don’t listen,” directions are not fol- lowed, or critical details aren’t properly  communi- cated. While effective listening is an important  element of most organization cultures, it isn’t usually given a great deal of attention – until there’s a problem.

Effective listening benefits us personally and profes- sionally by increasing productivity,  enhancing self-confi- dence, and reducing the number of misunderstandings in our lives. It’s also good for our health; heart rates and oxy- gen consumption are reduced when we attentively listen.

Listening is one of the communications skills we use the most, but also is one in which we have the least amount of formal education.

So what keeps people from being good listeners?

Part of  the  problem  is that  “people  take listening for granted,” explains Alan R. Ehrlich,  president of the International Listening  Association. Most of our listen- ing  occurs in  a limited context,  communicating with the same people about the same topics, with which we are familiar.  This comfort  zone simplifies  life  and we are not frequently  intellectually challenged. It becomes easy to gloss over what is being said.

“Everybody has the capability to be an excellent lis- tener,” claims Ehrlich. A lack of commitment to the pro- cess is a primary barrier.

Good listening  requires commitment and energy. Tired  listeners who have no dedication  to the topic or the speaker will not get the message.

Emotionally   charged  words or  symbols can divert our attention  from the message being sent to us. These triggers send our minds off to think  about our favorite sports team, celebrity or situation.

Technology   delivers  more  information  than  our minds can process, so many folks believe it’s better to only digest the elements that they’re interested in.

We change, misinterpret or misunder- stand over 70 percent  of what we hear, according to consultant Valarie A. Washington. She also suggests that 60 percent of all manage- ment problems are related to listening.

What is listening?

It’s  the process of receiving,  constructing  meaning from and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal mes- sages, as defined by the International Listening Associa- tion.  We experience it hundreds  of times a day and it takes only a fraction  of a second.

Amazingly, we use less than half of our brain capacity when listening. Researchers believe that we can process up to 500 words per minute. The unused brain capacity could be used to make us better listeners.

How do we become better listeners in conversations and meetings?

You can do several things to give yourself a signifi- cant advantage as a communicator.

Make a conscious commitment to be an effective lis- tener. If you cannot make that commitment, schedule the conversation for a more convenient time, when you can concentrate.  A two-person  conversation  requires two commitments.

Concentrate on what is being said and maintain  eye contact. Block out both external distractions (phones, electronic  media, other people talking) and internal distractions (other thoughts, anticipated responses).

Invest the energy to listen with an open mind, so you can get the most out  of what is said. It actually takes more energy to listen than it does to speak.

Let the speaker express their  complete  thought  be- fore you respond. Listen to the whole message before coming to a conclusion and offering  feedback.

Focus on the content  of the message being sent to you. Deal with the facts and the central ideas being ex- pressed. Do not be distracted by the speaker’s delivery and mannerisms.

Be aware that  your  brain  filters everything,  using your life experiences, personal opinions,  and biases to determine our response. A calm look at the whole mes- sage, without  strong  emotional reaction,  should  be a priority.

Ask questions to clarify  information, confirm accu- racy, and obtain supplemental  data. Concise, direct queries can help you get the complete picture.

Take notes or record  conversations as an aid in un- derstanding  and  retaining the  message. While  some people see this as old fashioned,  it’s a reliable  way to ensure accuracy. New tools, like voice recognition soft- ware, can make this process easy.

Exercise your  brain.  Use more  of  its vast capacity to focus on the central  ideas being articulated  by the speaker. The brain muscle can be strengthened  by ex- ercising it.

“It’s important to show that we are listening through our body language,” claims Dr. Laura A. Janusik, a re- searcher and professor at Rockhurst University.

The best way to facilitate  a positive change in your listening  skills is to  pick  one technique  and apply it over a 21-day period.  This helps make it a part of your communications toolkit and ingrains the habit so it be- comes part of your daily routine.

You can be a better listener. You just need to invest some energy in the process.



Greg Enos is a certified listening  professional who has served on the executive board of the International Listening Association (, and promotes listening  ( as a critical core skill  in all of his work.