How to improve your listening skills

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What is listening?

Listening is the process of receiving, attending to, and assigning meaning to aural and visual stimuli.
— Dr. Paine in Listen Up! by Tony Valdes


1. There is a difference between hearing and listening.

According to Dr. Paine, hearingis “a biological function, and like breathing or blinking it happens whether you are consciously telling yourself to do it or not.”  Listening, on the other hand, “a mental process…that requires thought, effort, and practice.”

2. Listening is an acquired but very important skill.

Tony Valdes points out that of the different kinds of communication, 

  • “Writing is a skill that is used about 9% of the average person’s daily communication.”
  • Reading, which takes “between six and eight years of formal instruction…accounts for 16% of our communication.”
  • Speaking “receives a paltry one year of attention, perhaps two years if we’re lucky, and it is only 30% of our communication.”
  • While listening, “often receives less than a half-year of formal training, and yet it makes up 45% of our daily communication.” 

Find out more on how listening is a high-value, life-changing skill by watching this presentation.

What is the Value of Listening Well?

1. For the Christian, Listening well honors God

We were created to be listening creatures, not merely hearing creatures.

A key trait of a true believer in Jesus Christ is one who listens to Jesus’ voice (John 10:25-27).

God puts a greater premium on listening and hearing than he does upon talking.

a.  We are admonished to hear God and his Word, because “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17).

·      Read Deuteronomy 6:3-4 

·      Proverbs 8:34 – Blessed is the man who listens to me…

·      Proverbs 15:31 – He whose ear listens to the life-giving reproof will live among the wise.

·      Luke 8:15 – And the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word                  in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance. 

b.  God wants us to listen well

·  Ecclesiastes 5:1 – Guard your steps as you go to the house of God, and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil.

·  James 1:19 – This you know, my beloved brothers. But let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.


2The character of a wise person is one who listens well and speaks little.

       Listening well:

a.     Is a quality of someone who has understanding and discernment.

b.     Is a sign of mental and emotional maturity.

c.     Is necessary for healthy social relationships.

d.     Is an aspect and demonstration of authentic love.

e.     Helps to understand the other person and what s/he is saying.

  Listening well means “hearing the person out and then responding, in a mutual dialogue.
— Dr. Daniel Goleman


3. Listening well brings value to any relationship. This is key!

a.     It shows respect and fosters a relationship for mutual respect.

b.     It is a key factor for influencing others in a positive way.

c.     It strengthens relationships by developing trust.

d.     It can aid in discovering who and what others are.

e.     It is a significant trait of those who are considered trustworthy, respectable and/or one who has a charismatic personality.

People listen, not necessarily because of the truth being communicated in the message, but because of their respect for the speaker.
— Dr. John Maxwell in Ultimate Leadership


4. Listening well is crucial for resolving interpersonal conflicts.


5. The discipline of listening well sharpens your mind.


6. It is a key ingredient to promotion or success in your work-a-day world.


7. Listening is a key ingredient for all healthy, intimate relationships.



What are the Characteristics of Well-Listeners? 

     In Listen Up, Barker and Watson point out that well-listeners  have these characteristics:                

  • Patient        Caring        Loving        Understanding        Selfless
  • Attentive     Poised        Generous    Open-minded         Thoughtful
  • Intelligent   Empathic    Involved

     Looking over these traits, which one of them do you believe to be your strong suits?  Would your       close friend, partner, or spouse agree with you?


Where Are You On the Listening Continuum?

Starting on page 192 of The Eighth Habitby Stephen R. Covey, the author brings out the lowest and highest levels of listening.  A person can exercise any one of these levels in any given circumstance.  However, as a habit, people tend toward one or two of these levels.  

1. Ignoring

This is the lowest level and is when you are physically present, but mentally absent                           or deliberately unengaged.

2. Pretend listening  

Pretending to listen is patronizing.  It is the very basic skill of supposedly listening to someone but as Tony Valdes points out, we "hear the words but are emotionally and mentally detached from the speaker."

There are many reasons for this: lack of respect for the speaker, being distracted and not focused on the person and what is being said, or having little to no interest in the content of the talk. 

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding but only in expressing personal opinion.
— Proverbs 18:2

3. Selective listening

This kind of listening happens from our own perspective and presuppositions, which would               include our family background, culture, habits, personality, and what we choose to receive                 from the speaker.

Another tendency is to listen with the anticipation of answering or responding to the speaker. In other words, thinking more about what we are going to say than about what is being said.

4. Attentive listening


5. Empathic listening

This is the highest level of listening.  It is the kind of listening that gives the speaker your                   undivided attention. You are listening in order to understand the content and message as well as to allow the other person to “feel felt.”  For clarity on what this means, check out  6 Steps to Making Another Person Feel Felt.

When relating with another person the goal is to engage with attentive and/or empathic                      listening most of the time.


Apply Strategies to Improve Your Listening Skills


1.  Know when to be silent and when to speak.

Be quick to hear and slow to speak.
— Proverbs 15:23, 28

a.     A healthy and good conversation is a dance, meaning there is a good ebb and flow with  speaking, listening, and silence.

b.     Learn to discern when to speak and when to listen.

(1)   Every person is different when it comes to how things are said and when they are spoken.  Each develops her or his own rhythm, tone, pace, and expressions.

(2)   Identify what the purpose is for the conversation.

If you cannot figure out what the point fo the conversation is, simply ask. Here are typical reasons and characteristics for when people talk:

  • Surface talk – an introductory way to get to know the other person.
  • Casual talk – a dialog for general discussions.
  • Talk to talk – some people think out loud and seem to have a “need” to talk to someone.  For examples or what the Bible says about this, see Job 11:2; 16:3; Eccles. 5:3; 6:11; and 10:14.
  • Talk to inform – this is when the speaker is talking in order to provide you with information s/he believes is of value, whether it is or not.
  • Talk to process – this is where the person needs or wants someone to listen in order for them to process their thoughts. They are not necessarily looking for advice, answers or input because it helps them to think out loud.
  • Talk for help – this is when someone is intentionally seeking your help in                 resolving a challenge, whether it is large or small.

(3)   Use silence effectively

Here is how:

  • Pause a few seconds before responding.
  • Accept silence as a normal part of conversations.
  • To balance speaking and listening time during conversations.
  • To break eye contact momentarily to allow others to feel comfortable with silence
  • If possible, understand or interpret the silence:
  • It could mean the other person is thinking or processing what was said.
  • It could signal negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, or fear.
  • It could possibly mean it’s time for silence - a time to reflect or rest.

2.   “Put a lid on it” - keep your emotions under control. 

 Taking this material from Listen Up (pp. 109ff), here are some tips to stop emotions from taking over:

a.  Be aware in advance of the people and topics that trigger your emotions.

b.   Analyze why you emotionally react to some words and ideas. Identify what your hot                          buttons are.

 c.   Resist the temptation to be defensive.

 According to Daniel Goleman, this is responding “by denying, covering up, or passing on the blame.”     

d.  Empathize with the speaker.

e.  Remember that the speaker may have different meanings for words than you do. Clarify           when necessary.

f.   Withhold judgments until the speaker is finished.  Keep an open mind and seek to understand by withholding your own prejudices about the person or the topic of conversation.

3. If at all possible, remove distractions. 

What kinds of distractions might there be? 

          (This is from the article Listen Up! Part 2 by Tony Valdes)

a.     External noises.

b.     Psychological activity (worry, self-consciousness, or preoccupation).

c.     Physical conditions (temperature, odors, lighting, visual distractions, and more).

d.     Physiological conditions (pain, hunger, fatigue).

e.     Semantic distractions (dialects, accents, unfamiliar vocabulary).

f.      Technological distractions (the urge to check your phone, surf the net).

4. Show interest in the other person and what is being said.

To read what the Bible says about this, check out Proverbs 18:2, 13, 15; Philippians 3:15,16;   and James1:19).

a.    Listen across time (remember what they have said in previous conversations).

b.    Note, that if the other person(s) believes you are not interested in them then they will               rarely remember anything you have said to them.  Showing interest develops respect, trust         and a potential for a deeper relationship.

c.    Show interest by remembering people’s names. Here’s how:

(1)  Repeat the name immediately after you hear it.

(2)   Use the name within thirty seconds after you hear it.

(3)   Associate the name with something or someone familiar.

(4)   Collect business cards (virtual or real) of the people you meet and review them later.

(5)   Write names down as soon as possible after hearing them.

d.      Use eye contact effectively.

e.       Make it easy for others to talk.

 Make good use of tracking.  This is behaviors that help others keep on track (nodding head, keeping good eye contact, don’t interrupt, leaning forward, using prompting phrases such as “go ahead” or “and then”, etc.)

5. Use paraphrasing or reflecting skills

a. This means you repeat back by rewording what you hear them say, which is often                      helpful.  Saying something like, “Let me see if I understand what you said. I heard you              say…”  can be helpful.

b. Sometimes, repeating verbatim what was said and then putting it into the form of a                  question can be effective.

6.   Make good use of questions

a. Keep in mind that the person who is asking the question(s) is the person who controls              the conversation.

b. Questions help to draw from the other person her or his information, needs, story, and             the like.  A good mnemonic for getting to know someone better is the acronym,                        FRIEND

F – family (What was your family like growing up? Tell me about your family.)

R – recreation (Do you enjoy sports? what fun activities do you like?)

I – interests (hobbies, activities, books, or movies).

E – education (“Where did you go to school?” “Are you in school now?”)

N – needs  (is there anything you need or anything we can help you with?)

 D – dessert or dinner (would you like to come over or get together for dinner, dessert, or coffee?)

c.   Using tactful, engaging questions can be an effective means for getting shy or introverted people to dialog with you.

d.   Good questions help you focus upon the discussion and remain engaged.

e.   Good questions often help clarify the matter or topic of discussion.


7.   Do not interrupt the speaker unless it is necessary

a.  Do not give an answer until the other person has finished talking. (Proverbs 18:13)

b.  “Interruptions devalue the speaker and her or his message. It is often rude and offensive.”  (Tony Valdes)

c.   It is necessary to interrupt if the person is hijacking or dominating the conversation, such as in a meeting or social gathering.

d.   It is necessary when it is time to leave.

               (1) Set your boundaries and do not let the other person control your time.

               (2) Set your boundaries in meetings by a prearranged agreement for a time to start and


e.   It is necessary when you have other obligations.

f.   It is necessary when there is an urgent need or emergency.

8.  Listen with your whole body

a.   Positive engagement includes such things as:

(1)   Good eye contact

(2)   Verbal affirmations

(3)   Nodding your head or mirroring the speaker’s body language

(4)   Leaning into the discussion or toward the speaker

(5)   Taking notes

(6)   Asking questions

b.    Negative engagement includes:

(1)   Little to no eye-contact.

(2)   Closing off your own body language (crossed arms, legs, leaning away, or using gestures that are culturally offensive).

(3)   Trying to “multitask.”  Research shows that less than 10% of people can truly multitask.

(4)   Not speaking with the other person or responding to her or him appropriately.

9. Listen in a way that will allow you to give an appropriate response. 

 Seek to understand, think before you speak, and then respond.

10. If you are having a hard time listening, then excuse yourself.

a.  Be truthful, but diplomatic why you need to leave the discussion (having a hard time concentrating, too tired, have other things to attend to, etc.)

b.   If the conversation is important enough then make a commitment to follow up at a better time.

Are you a well-listener? 

How do you know?  Would others agree with you?

How well do you listen to your spouse? To your child?

Was any of this helpful?  Let me know what you think or if you have need of help in this area of your life.  

Before you leave, take a look at these books mentioned in the article, which are available on Amazon:

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