Attributes of Good Listening
"listening involves hearing,
sensing, interpretation, evaluation and response"
Good listening is an essential part of being a good
leader. You cannot be a good leader unless you are a good
listener. You as a leader must be very aware of the
feedback you are receiving from the people around you. If
you are not a good listener, your future as a leader will
be short. I might add that being a good listener is a
skill important in many other settings. For example,
being a good listener will enhance your social
relationships of all types, marriage, dating, parties,
Have you ever stopped to think that we require courses
and training in our education in speaking and writing,
but not in listening? Why not? Are such skills important?
Yes! Can you or I improve our listening capacity through
purposive efforts? Again, the answer is clear: yes! Do we
know what it takes to be a good listener? Another, yes.
Why do we leave the learning of good listening skills to
hard-earned experience or chance? Probably, the only
answer is tradition. The people who established
"reading, writing and arithmetic" as the
content of American schools did not recognize the need
for other skills such as listening. And even today, how
many parents will insist that their child develop good
listening skills through training in schools or
elsewhere? All to few!
Good listening includes a package of skills, which
requires knowledge of technique and practice very similar
to good writing or good speaking. Many people believe
that good listening skills are easy to learn or
automatically part of every person's personality. Neither
is correct. The difference is that poor listening skills
are often not as obvious to other people. If we cannot
speak effectively, it is immediately obvious, but it may
take a little time for other people to become aware that
you or I are poor listeners.
Poor listening habits are very common. Indeed, poor
listening skills are more common than poor speaking
skills. I am sure that you have seen on many occasions,
two or more people talking to (by) each other at the same
time. People cannot talk and be an effective listener at
the same instance. What is not so obvious is when you and
I are only paying partial attention or don't fully
understand. I am frequently amused and bemused in my
classes, I can give a lecture on a complex topic and all
too often very few questions are asked, but bring up a
topic such as tests and hands will go up all over the
room. Why? Is it that they listened to and understood the
lecture, but not the announcement about a test?
Obviously, not. The test has immediate relevance called
grades, while the material in the lecture? Well, maybe
some time in the future. I strongly suspect that the same
conclusions can be drawn about many or most other
conversations or other listening. There are some games
that we use in the classroom and elsewhere in which we
start some information through a line of people. Each one
passes the information to the next. The end result is
usually very different than what was started. Some of the
differences are the result of poor listening skills.
There is shallow listening and deep listening. Shallow
or superficial listening is all too common in classes and
many other settings. Most of us have learned how to give
the appearance of listening to the professor while not
really listening. Even less obvious is when the message
received is different from the one sent. We did not
really understand what the message is. We listened, but
we did not get the intended message. Such failed
communications are the consequences of poor speaking,
poor listening and/or poor understanding.
Good listening skills will vary from one
communications situation to the next. For example, what
is effective feedback will vary from one person to
another. Some people to whom you are listening may need
more feedback than other people.
Listening skills can always be improved. Perfection in
listening, just as in other communications skills, does
There are several good books and many articles on good
listening. The following skills and attributes are taken
from the literature.
There are three basic listening modes: combative,
attentive and reflective. Most of us would describe our
listening as attentive, that we are interested in the
other person's point of view. I have had many students
come up to me in a combative mode when discussing grades.
They clearly did not want to hear my explanations, but
wanted to promote theirs. All to seldom do we take the
reflective mode in which we take an active roll in the
communications process. We are not just passive vessels
into which information is poured, but we think critically
about the topics, the messages we receive. This when real
The following attributes of good listening are
suggestive of the skills needed. There is some overlap
between the various attributes, but each suggests
- Concentration. Good listening is normally
hard work. At every moment we are receiving
literally millions of sensory messages. Nerve
endings on our bottom are telling us the chair is
hard, others are saying our clothes are binding,
nerve ending in our nose are picking up the
smells of cooking French fries, or whatever, our
ears are hearing the buzzing of the computer fan,
street sounds, music in the background and dozens
of other sounds, our emotions are reminding us of
that fight we had with our mate last night, and
thousands more signals are knocking at the doors
of our senses. We have to repress almost all of
these and concentrate on the verbal sounds (and
visual clues) from one source - the speaker. And
this concentration, if something that most of us
have not been thoroughly trained in how to do.
Focus your attention - on the words, ideas and
feeling related to the subject. Concentrate on
the main ideas or points. Don't let examples or
fringe comments detract you. All of this takes a
- Attention. Attention may be defined as the
visual portion of concentration on the speaker.
Through eye contact (see below) and other body
language, we communicate to the speaker that we
are paying close attention to his/her messages.
All the time we are reading the verbal and
nonverbal cues from the speaker, the speaker is
reading ours. What messages are we sending out?
If we lean forward a little and focus our eyes on
the person, the message is we are paying close
- Eye contact. Good eye contact is essential
for several reasons: First, by maintaining eye
contact, some of the competing visual imputs are
eliminated. You are not as likely to be
distracted from the person talking to you.
Second, most of us have learned to read lips,
often unconsciously, and the lip reading helps us
to understand verbal messages. Third, much of
many messages are in non-verbal form and by
watching the eyes and face of a person we pick up
clues as to the content. A squinting of the eyes
may indicate close attention. A slight nod
indicates understanding or agreement. Most
English language messages can have several
meanings depending upon voice inflection, voice
modulation, facial expression, etc. Finally, our
eye contact with the speaker is feedback
concerning the message: Yes, I am listening, I am
paying attention. I hear you.
Remember: a person's face, mouth, eyes, hands and
body all help to communicate to you. No other
part of the body is as expressive as the head.
- Receptive Body Language. Certain body
postures and movements are culturally interpreted
with specific meanings. The crossing of arms and
legs is perceived to mean a closing of the mind
and attention. The nodding of the head vertically
is interpreted as agreement or assent. (It is
worth noting that nonverbal clues such as these
vary from culture to culture just as the spoken
language does.) If seated, the leaning forward
with the upper body communicates attention.
Standing or seated, the maintenance of an
appropriate distance is important. Too close and
we appear to be pushy or aggressive and too far
and we are seen as cold.
- Understanding of Communication Symbols. A
good command of the spoken language is essential
in good listening. Meaning must be imputed to the
words. For all common words in the English
language there are numerous meanings. The
three-letter word, "run" has more than
one hundred different uses. You as the listener
must concentrate on the context of the usage in
order to correctly understand the message. The
spoken portion of the language is only a fraction
of the message. Voice inflection, body language
and other symbols send messages also. Thus, a
considerable knowledge of nonverbal language is
important in good listening.
- Objective We should be open to the message
the other person is sending. It is very difficult
to be completely open because each of us is
strongly biased by the weight of our past
experiences. We give meaning to the messages
based upon what we have been taught the words and
symbols mean by our parents, our peers and our
teachers. Talk to some one from a different
culture and watch how they give meaning to words.
Or another listening challenge is to listen open
and objectively to a person with very different
political or religious beliefs. Can you do that?
Really? It is wonderful if you can, but
relatively few people can listen, understand and
appreciate such messages which are very different
from their own. If you cannot, it is time to
start because as a leader you will need to
understand a wide range of opinions on
- Restating the message. Your restating the
message as part of the feedback can enhance the
effectiveness of good communications. A comment
such as: "I want to make sure that I have
fully understood your message...." and then
paraphrase in your own words the message. If the
communication is not clear, such a feedback will
allow for immediate clarification. It is
important that you state the message as clearly
and objectively as possible.
- Questioning/Clarifying. Questions can
serve the same purpose as restating the message.
If you are unclear about the intent of the
message, ask for more information after allowing
sufficient time for explanations. Don't ask
questions that will hurt, embarrass or show up
the other person.
Only part of the responsibility is with the
speaker. You have an important and active role to
play also. If the message does not get through,
two people have failed the speaker and you as an
- Empathy - not sympathy. Empathy is the
"the action of understanding, being aware
of, being sensitive to, and vicariously
experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and
experience of another...." Sympathy is
"having common feelings..." (Merrian
Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition) In
other words as a good listener you need to be
able to understand the other person, you do not
have to become like them.
Try to put yourself in the speaker's position so
that you can see what he/she is trying to get at.
- Strategic Pauses. Pauses can be used very
effectively in listening. For example, a pause at
some points in the feedback can be used to signal
that you are carefully considering the message,
that you are "thinking" about what was
- Don't Interject. There is a great
temptation at many times for the listener to jump
in and say in essence: "isn't this really
what you meant to say." This carries the
message: "I can say it better than you
can," which stifles any further messages
from the speaker. Often, this process may
degenerate into a game of one-upmanship in which
each person tries to out do the other and very
little communication occurs.
- Leave the Channel Open. A good listener
always leaves open the possibility of additional
messages. A brief question or a nod will often
encourage additional communications
- You can not listen while you are talking.
This is very obvious, but very frequently
overlooked or ignored. An important question is
why are you talking: to gain attention to
yourself? or to communicate a message?
Remember, we hear only what we want to hear and
remember only part of what we heard. Good listening can
improve both the content and quality of what we hear and
A good leader is good listener. A good listener may be
or may not be a leader. But a good listener is usually
popular which is an important step in becoming a leader.
People like to be around someone who listens well. You
and I can improve our listening habits. It will take
concentration and hard work. Our listening habits are the
results of years of often-unconscious behavior. Do we
maintain eye contact? Do we really work at listening?
Today is the day to start developing
those good listening habits!
"We are given two ears, but
only one mouth.|
This is because God knew that
listening was twice as hard as talking."
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