Don’t Just Hear - Listen!

How do you rate as a listener? Do you, for example, “tune out” because you find the speaker long winded? Or unwittingly, perhaps, display signs of impatience or irritation? Or maybe you turn a deaf ear to certain topics or subjects? If you do these (and more) regularly, you are losing vital cues to help you understand another’s behaviours and real meanings. Instead, you are simply picking up sound waves.

Here are the top 10 tips to help you listen actively:

  1. Stop talking and allow time for listening. We have two eyes and one mouth, but unfortunately, we frequently use them in inverse proportions. You cannot listen well if you are talking, interrupting or hijacking someone’s speech.
  2. Resist the temptation to sneak a peek at your emails, papers on your desk or even your watch while someone is talking. Even worse, avoid carrying on a silent conversation with someone behind the speaker, even if it is only to nod or signal agreement to something.
  3. Maintain eye contact consistently and in a way that doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable or look as though you’re staring at the speaker. Smiling and other appropriate facial expressions during the conversation will help you listen, as you will need to match these to the points being made. It will also encourage your speaker to continue and so build the relationship between you.
  4. Use your whole body to listen! All these will send “I’m listening” signals: If you are standing, avoid crossing your arms or stuffing your hands in your pockets; if sitting, do this in a relaxed and open way; lean towards them slightly; tilt your head to one side; nod your head appropriately; and use listening noises like “uh huh”, “mmm hmm” and “I see” to encourage your speaker.
  5. Listen with an open mind, parking prejudgments or bias and instead acknowledging to yourself the positive content and intent of the conversation. Even if the speaker is boring you to death or talking about something totally irrelevant, or you feel you just don’t have the time to listen, you have to weigh this up against alienating the speaker. How important is the relationship? What image are you nurturing? How are you going to maintain that image?
  6. Try to put yourself in the speaker’s position so you can empathise and make nonjudgmental remarks (e.g. “What happened next?” or “How did you feel about that?”). Ask yourself how you would feel or what you would do if in that situation. This will keep you focused on what they are saying and send a positive impression of yourself.
  7. Ask questions to clarify what the speaker has said. This encourages them and shows you are listening. Be careful your questions don’t change the subject or pull the conversation off track.
  8. If you feel the conversation has wandered, use reflective statements to pull it back. For example, “You were saying that … ” or “Tell me more about … 
  9. Paraphrase the information to check that you have understood the speaker correctly.Then summarise (briefly) the key points, outcomes and any necessary actions, if appropriate.

The more you put in, the more you get out. Listening may be a difficult skill to master, so remember the old nursery rhyme:

“A wise old owl sat in an oak.
The more he heard, the less he spoke.
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Why aren’t we all like that wise old bird?”

Des Whitehorn is the Training Principal of Zee Associates ( She can be contacted on 01825 733621 or