Listening: The Do’s and Don’ts and How To Master It

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The human mouth plods along at 125 words per minute, while a neuron in the brain can fire about 200 times a second. No wonder our mind wanders when there’s so much time in between the words of a conversation. This is part of the reason we remember only 25 to 50% of what we hear.

Yet listening is an incredibly important skill for everyone—including leaders. Why? If you’re not listening at work, it’s easy to misinterpret a discussion as a decision. You may underestimate the importance of objections and ambivalence. And not listening is a quick way to dissolve trust between leaders and their teams.

From my experience, leaders could use some listening practice. Why don’t they listen? Though Richard Branson once joked that leaders love to hear their own voices, there are two main reasons. For one, in general, people are not taught how to carefully listen. And secondly, society expects leaders and entrepreneurs to have all the answers.

Truly listening to someone is more difficult than it seems and requires practice. Yet practicing takes more than just “keeping it in mind” throughout your day. Let’s look at five levels of listening, the do’s and don’ts of listening, and steps you can take to improve your listening skills.

There are several levels of listening, but here are five I find most important.

Highlight: Five Levels of Listening


  1. Ignoring is something we have all done. Someone is talking to us, but we are exploring things on the Internet, checking text messages, or thinking “what’s for dinner”. We are not actually hearing much of anything. 
  2. Pretend listening occurs when a person acts as if they are listening, but is not following the full story of what is being said. They nod and smile but do not actually take in the message. This is a skill that can be finely honed by people who do a lot of inconsequential listening, such as politicians and royalty. We all do pretend listening at times; be careful because it can damage relationships when you get caught.
  3. Selective listening involves listening for particular things and ignoring other things. We hear what we want to hear and sometimes block out details that we are not interested in, or simply don’t want to hear. We listen for what we agree with, and then only remember that. Or we listen only for ways we don’t agree (this is usually as a result of a conflict), which can be quite frustrating when trying to come to an agreement.
  4. Attentive listening is what many of us do most of the time. This is when we listen to the other person with the best intention, yet become distracted by our thoughts of how we will respond. In attentive listening, we dip inside our own heads for a short while, try to determine what the person really means, and formulate questions for the person before we start listening again. If you find that you’re doing this, ‘fess up! Let the other person know that your mind wandered and say, “Could you please repeat that?”
  5. Empathic listening happens when the listener pays very close attention to what is being said, how it is being said, the message that is being portrayed, and what is not being said. Empathic listening takes much more effort than attentive listening, as it requires close concentration. It also requires empathy and understanding. You’re listening for the emotions, watching the body language and listening for needs, goals, preferences, biases, beliefs, values and so on. In other words, you’re listening in surround sound.

How to Be a Better Listener


Listening is actually a little painful. When we talk, we get a rush of chemicals sent to our reward and pleasure centers, so it is a selfish brain activity. There is no reward like that for listening. When you listen, you are halting your natural ways of thinking; it’s like holding your breath. Yet listening is a skill that can be learned, like a fitness test of the brain.

The first step to better listening is to choose to be a better listener and decide that it’s an important skill to you. It takes effort and a strategy and much like any sport, you will want to learn the steps, and then practice, practice, practice.

A Listening Acronym to Keep In Mind

Here is an acronym to help you become a better listener: NALE it.

N         Note what is being said.

A          Ask questions to clarify the story, and refine ambiguous words.

L          Look at what the other person is doing. Are they relaxed, tense, looking away? This is all part of the communication they are sharing with you.

E          Evaluate what you think is really going on with the person. You are not a psychologist yet, with a little empathy, you might pick up on some messages that are not being said. This gives you an opportunity to ask more questions. Stay in a curious state and you will learn so much more in less time.

Listening Do’s and Don’ts


To improve your listening, DO:

  • Be 100% present. This means turning off all electronics, and keeping your eyes on the person.
  • Be content to listen and to stay in the conversation until they feel like they are fully heard.
  • Ask questions and take notes, including clarifying meanings of words. Many words in the English language have more than one meaning, or can vary drastically (such as the word “soon”).
  • Show courtesy in your posture and your tone of voice by leaning into the conversation, and keeping your voice level.
  • Allow emotions to flow freely, and acknowledge the emotions with your words.
  • Pretend that you will be tested on what you heard and understood, if you are finding it difficult to concentrate.

To improve your listening, DON’T:

  • React emotionally. Stay calm and focused on the other person.
  • Offer suggestions or advice. This is a hard one! Yet if you are truly listening, all you’re doing is pulling information out. As soon as you start suggesting solutions, you are no longer listening.
  • Talk about yourself. Even if you have had the same experience, don’t tell your story. It takes the attention off the person and back onto you. A simple “I have been there” can do the trick.
  • Look at anything but the person. Stay focused on the person’s eyes, facial expressions, and body language.

Are you good at fully listening to others? Is listening a challenge for you? I’d love to hear your ideas about why listening may be difficult for leaders. Also, if you have experience working on your listening skills, let us know what steps you have taken. Please share in the comment section below, send me an email, or find me on Twitter.

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