The art of listening

This article is part of a series from Good Practice, offered to ICAS members as part of the ICAS mentoring programme.

Listening is at least half of the communication process, but sadly one that is seldom practised well. It means not just hearing what someone else says, but really listening in order to understand what they mean and feel. If you feel that you could do with improving your listening skills, read over the following tips and put them into practise at the next team meeting.

What is listening?

Listening involves:

  • decoding the language you hear, as well as the language you see, i.e. body language
  • being on the alert for any hidden messages, or a gap between what is said and what is genuinely felt by the speaker
  • asking questions to clarify points you do not understand, and checking to see that you have received the message correctly
  • following and supporting the speaker, by mirroring their body language subtly, or repeating key points in what they say to confirm that you have understood

Maintaining attention

If you find it difficult to keep your attention focused on another speaker, you can train yourself to become better:

  • Tell yourself you are going to give the speaker your full attention and concentrate on his/her needs for the duration of the meeting.
  • Be open to what is being said, even if you are not really interested. Look for the interesting points hidden within what is said.
  • Respond to the speaker's body language, observing carefully and mirroring subtly, so that you have some work to do even when only they are speaking.
  • Take notes of key points.
  • Pause to think of questions, rather then formulating them in your mind while the speaker is talking. Pauses for thought will reassure your speaking partner that you are engaged by what they have said, and this may encourage them to make their speech more lively and engaging.
  • Don't be afraid of asking questions, even if they are not dramatically insightful. Showing an interest by clarifying points and asking for further information will help you build a rapport with your speaking partner. This will ultimately make the exchange more engaging for you.

Following and supporting the speaker

  • Look at the speaker and make eye contact.
  • Adopt an open posture: lean forward, showing interest.
  • Do not lean back in your chair with your arms crossed in front of you as if to say, "Come on then, interest me".
  • Encourage openness on the part of the speaker by saying things like, "Can you tell me more?"
  • Encourage the speaker by saying "Go on...", or repeating one or two of their last words to show that you were listening.

Reflective listening

Reflective listening is a difficult skill to master, but there are a few key things that you can do to become more reflective when listening to others. Really expert reflective listeners draw things out of the speaker:

  • Ask open questions, such as: "How do you feel about work?", not: "Do you like it here?"
  • Develop empathy. Try to gain a deeper understanding of how they feel. Use phrases such as, "You felt X because Y?", or "You felt devalued because the promotion went to someone with less experience?"
  • Avoid filling any silences. Use silence to show you are listening; it will prompt more thought and comment from the other person.
  • Check for understanding by paraphrasing concisely what the speaker just said, in order to summarise the heart of the matter: "So after losing that job and not getting an interview for the next one, you felt unable to continue working in your last company?"
  • Reflect feelings back to the speaker: "So you felt excited?"
  • When asked a direct question yourself, respond to the feeling that lies behind it, not the question itself.
  • Do not say, "I know how you feel", or tell the speaker about your experiences. Despite having shared similar/the same experience, do not ever assume that another person's feelings will be the same as yours with regard to that experience. Every person's responses are unique to them.

Final advice

Whatever form of communication you use, and whether you are 'officially' the giver or the receiver of the message, you are engaged in a two-way exchange with another person. Focus your attention on that other person instead of yourself, and use that attention to get you the information that you need, and you will quickly become a much better communicator.


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