The art of effective listening

Most of us are terrible at listening. Here's how you can force yourself to concentrate.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 30 Jan 2014

Most of us are bad listeners, most of the time. We're too busy to listen properly; we think we know what the problem is and we're already preparing our answer. We want to avoid boredom.

Ignoring is when we don't hear at all, while pretend listening is when our attention is elsewhere. Checking our phone or computer while someone is trying to talk to us means we can't see the expression on the other person's face, which is full of clues on the importance of what is being said.

Recent neuropsychology also shows that effective multi-tasking is a myth, whatever our gender. Selective listening is when we're only tuning in to a few key words or phrases - 'shortfall', 'overspend', 'delay'. We risk prolonging the conversation unnecessarily, as the other person fears that we haven't taken on board what he or she is saying.

Active listening is when you listen to the detail of what's being expressed, giving occasional eye contact and noises of encouragement, without intervention. It's appropriate for many situations where the communication is of a factual, transactional nature.

But sometimes hearing the factual details is not enough. We need to really understand what's going on for our boss, our colleague, or our partner. We need to give them an opportunity to articulate their deepest feelings and for this we have to develop our empathetic listening skills.

Pay deep attention to what's being said and to tone and body language. Don't interrupt, allow silences and ask non-judgemental, open questions to elicit unexpressed feelings.

Don't try to come up with solutions, but when you believe you have understood what's going on you can offer a tentative summary which, having built up their trust, the other person will feel able to agree with or correct.

This will lead to deeper understanding and more appropriate action, if action is called for.

If you can master this core skill, one that is shared by world-class leaders, you will be on the road to success, at work and elsewhere in life.


Empathetic listening

Active listening

Selective listening

Pretend listening



- Failure to pick up on potentially dangerous issues

- Wrong assumptions based on superficial judgement

- Lack of understanding of other people's feelings

- Staff unwilling to share their concerns

- Damaged reputation - you're seen as uncaring

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If there's a leadership issue you'd like her to address, contact her at Follow her on Twitter at @mirandajkennett.

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