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Effective Listening Skills


Give one student in the pair a unique picture with a lot of simple shapes drawn on it and another student a blank paper. The challenge is for the first student to describe the picture, while the second student tries to draw it. The pair with the most similar drawings to their photograph wins.

©[Drobot Dean]/Adobe Stock

What is Listening Skills?

The above activity is a simple yet effective demonstration of listening skills. The second student has to listen effectively to reproduce the photo or shape correctly. So, what are listening skills?

Listening is one of the four pillars of communication along with Speaking, Reading and Writing. Listening is the first step towards understanding and communicating. It is the ability to receive, process and interpret and respond to messages in the oral form. Listening is important in communication as not listening can lead to misinformation, misunderstanding and loss of communication.

Listening is different from hearing; it involves concentration and involvement in what is being said. It involves focusing on not just what is being said, but how the speaker conveys the information – catching the verbal and non-verbal cues. Good or effective listeners are valued in all walks of life – as empathetic friends, engaged workers, with social skills, confidence and self-esteem.

Self-Assessment: How good a listener are you?

Check it yourself by answering the following questionnaire truthfully.

S. No.SituationAlwaysOftenSometimesRarelyNever
1.I am bored by long conversations.
2.I fold my arms when I listen.
3.I make eye contact with the speaker.
4.I lean forward when I listen.
5.I nod when I listen.
6.I listen when the speaker is good-looking.
7.I think of witty responses to offer when I am listening.
8.I interrupt the speaker when I disagree with them.
9.I finish people’s sentences for them.
10.I offer verbal signs of encouragement like “Yes,” “Go on” etc.

If you have marked “Often” or ‘Always” for more than 6 situations you need to work on improving your listening skills. You are more focused on your responses than listening to what the speaker has to say.

Four Kinds of Listening:

1. Informational Listening

The most common form of listening, it involves listening to gather facts or new information. Routine activities such as listening to the news, classroom lectures, board meetings, etc involve Informational listening. They require concentration and attention.

2. Critical Listening

This is the active aspect of listening, aimed to analyse and evaluate what is being said. The process of critical listening leads to problem-solving or decision-making. Therefore, it involves following “the main argument of the speech.”

3. Empathetic Listening

This is the most challenging form of listening. It involves listening to understand the feelings and emotions of the speaker. Counselling and therapy sessions involve empathetic listening. The listener does not respond, instead, they encourage the speaker to share their emotions. The challenge comes in being non-judgemental. Sharing similar saturation’s or experiences makes it more empathetic.

4. Defensive Listening

This is the opposite of Empathetic listening. It involves listening and interpreting the speaker’s words as criticism. The listener feels defensive due to their sense of guilt, jealousy or insecurity. They respond in anger and any conversation descends into shouting as the listener misinterprets the speaker’s intent. The challenge is in being non-defensive and listening to the words only within the present context. The speaker could also be sympathetic to the listener’s emotions.

How to Listen Effectively?

There is a popular belief that when someone is speaking, we are more often fashioning our responses rather than listening. Listening involves focusing completely on what is being said and how it is being said to understand the speaker. Listening effectively ensures that we understand the message and respond accordingly. This calls for developing Active Listening. Active listening is “listening” actively, concentrating on what is being said and not just passively “hearing” what is being said. Active listening involves giving your complete attention to the speaker. It also involves conveying an interest in what the speaker is saying using both verbal and non-verbal cues such as maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, agreeing by saying “Yes” or “Mmm”. These encourage the speaker to continue.

Positive reinforcements for speakers are also in the form of note-taking, summarising, seeking clarifications and questions. However, active listening is also giving the speaker time to finish their argument or thought and avoiding interruption. Offer your opinions and comments and questions at the end of the speech, not while they are speaking.

Developing active and empathetic listening also helps build and maintain healthy personal relationships. On the other hand, defensive listening can lead to toxic behaviour that ultimately destroys the relationship.

For instance, a partner can misinterpret an innocent remark such as “Not using a passcode for messages in a mobile phone is a sign of trust” as intending a criticism of their behaviour and can retaliate with anger and hurtful words. An escalation of defensive behaviour could result in a divorce. An analysis of the situation reveals the reason for this behaviour as self-defence, born of their guilt. Couples who practice deep, non-defensive listening tend to focus on the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of their partner. They also tend to provide a non-critical and safe environment for their spouses. Listening demonstrates that they care and respect the other. In the above example, the partner could defuse the situation by stating that the remark was meant as a general observation and not the reflection of any particular person’s behaviour.

Five Tips to Improve Listening Skills

1. Don’t talk, listen

Allow the speaker to give their points. Do not interrupt or work on your responses until they finish speaking. Talking along with the speaker or with others in the group communicates our lack of interest in what is being said.

2. Put the speaker first

Prepare yourself to listen. Relax and give the speaker your undivided attention. Maintain eye contact, nod and encourage them. Active listening involves listening to the emotions of the speaker too.

3. Focus, Empathise

Give your complete attention to the speaker. Do not doodle, text, look out of the window, or otherwise distract yourself from what is being said. Put yourself in the speaker’s place; they may be overcome by nervousness or be ill-prepared. Our lack of attention may further distract them.

4. Listen to Body Language Cues

Pay attention to the non-verbal cues given by the speaker that convey more than words. The speaker may convey their confidence, or lack thereof through non-linguistic clues such as gestures, facial expression and movements. Focus on these to redirect your attention towards them and actively listen.

5. Avoid Prejudice

A non-judgemental, open-minded listener tends to attract more interaction with people. Develop a non-critical attitude to the speaker’s words, focusing on what is being said and not who speaks. Remember that communication is based on the present context and never past experiences or remembered criticism, forgotten slurs, etc.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Rachel January 23, 2022, 6:11 am

    This is one the most complete resources I have come across on Communication Theory. Outstanding work and so useful for someone at the start of their studies in a social science – a brief summary of each theory followed by a practical example.

  • joyce wilson November 12, 2022, 9:04 pm

    i found this very useful and will use this for developing my listening skills.

  • Sabrina Quairoli February 2, 2023, 10:49 pm

    I have worked with several small business owners over my career and found that being present in conversations has been the only way to get things done in a timely manner. I love that you mentioned staying focused and avoiding prejudice. We all come from different backgrounds, so keeping an open mind toward the other person will improve communication and help foster solutions.

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