How to Improve Your Listening Skills

Active listening is a crucial part of communication skills. Learning about the right types of questions in the right situation will help you improve in this area. Click here to learn more.


~~~ Why listen? ~~~

Listening well is not the same as hearing well and it’s also not being able to replicate what someone says. Good listening is sometimes like a treasure hunt. There is all this knowledge that another person has accumulated. Some of which would be valuable for you. Of course, you don’t know what it is and how you get to it. With a rough idea in mind you need to learn to dig for it.

Listening is also the biggest compliment you can make someone. We all love to talk when we have the feeling someone is truly interested. It is a great way to genuinely connect to someone.


~~~ Learn to listen ~~~

Concentrate on listening only - Don’t interrupt the speaker regardless how big the impulse is. Make a conscious decision to listen, and to listen only. We can listen to 500 words a minute. But most people speak only up to 150 words a minute, this leads to internal distraction and requires conscious effort to focus.

TIP: Mentally paraphrase what the speaker is saying.

Encourage speaking by showing you are listening: nod, say “Yes, ok, aha!” and so on.

Lead with questions - It might sound paradoxical but often it is the listener who leads the conversation, by asking questions. If you didn’t know this, closely observe some conversations. Learn to ask the right questions.


~~~ Lead the conversation with the right question~~~

Start with open questions and narrow down as required. Open questions will give the speaker a chance to lead the conversation into a direction that they want. This builds trust. If you need to direct the conversation into a different direction, narrow down the questions. However, don’t do it too soon. You might find your questions are based on wrong assumptions, which can destroy the trust you just built, or simply drag the whole conversation in the wrong direction.

A great strategy is to collect info for a while before moving the conversation to a certain direction. Most people are very willing to talk and share info. Being listened to is a great compliment!

Expand with wider questions if the speaker is getting bogged down in details.

Change direction - You can use questions to change the direction entirely. Make sure you have captured enough information about what is currently being said before doing this. Then direct attention to an area that has not been covered yet: “I understand that … can you give me more info on …” Excellent listeners know when and how to do this right.


~~~ 3 Techniques to dig deeper ~~~

If you feel someone is holding back information, you have a number of techniques that go beyond direct questions (Kerry Patterson).

1 Mirror - Mirror or openly acknowledge the other person’s emotions: “I see you are upset and I understand that…..” People will be inclined to talk when they see you are sympathising with them.

2 Paraphrase - Beyond mentally paraphrasing you can verbally paraphrase to acknowledge the situation. You can repeat what the other person said in your own words to make sure you understood and you can build safety and encourage further sharing: “Do I understand right, you …..”

3 Prime/Prompt - If you feel someone is holding back feelings and the previous techniques didn’t help, you can offer your best guess: “Do you think I have given this project to Joe because I didn’t think you can do it?” This is the most direct approach and generally it will lead to retrieving the information you are after.

Control your own feelings - Don’t make assumptions or prejudgments. This is particularly important if the speaker gets emotional. Put them back into a safe state by clarifying what you meant and what you don’t mean: “I don’t mean … I meant …”


~~~ Listen with your eyes as well ~~~

Add mimic, gesture and tone of voice to the spoken message to form a holistic picture. Closed or tight body language may sign disagreement or unwillingness to share. Make people feel safe by clarifying your intentions, then prompt. Open or relaxed body language generally means agreement and collaborativeness.


Active Listening

OLAA! summarises the most important tips

Be Open-minded and free of assumptions.

Listen, paraphrase the spoken, encourage speaking.

Asking is leading: ask the right question at the right time.

Add cues from Body language and mimic to the verbal message.

Power Listening!

Dr Tony Alessandra – Power Listening – A great source, short, succinct and fast-paced. Instantaneous benefits. Get the audiobook

Master Listening

Madelyn Burley-Allen – Listening – Take your listening skills to mastery with this thoroughly prepared book with many exercises. Click for more details (Amazon)The kindle book


Learn More About Communication Skills

Check out our other articles on communication skills (or download our free ebook that has all related articles)

Effective communication
Reading body language
Mini pic Positive Communication


By Murat Uenlue, PhD, PMP, 2013.