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Power of Listening

“We have two ears and one mouth for a reason—so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

There’s no doubt that listening is a critical skill in today’s noisy world. We are the most busy and distracted society in history; the average person’s attention span is a mere eight seconds. Because of our pace, technology, and self-focus, listening is a challenge.  Most of us know how to listen—we just aren’t intentional about practicing good listening on a regular basis.

Listening is more than hearing. The difference is that hearing is a physical ability while listening is a skill that can be developed. Listening is the ability to accurately perceive a message conveyed by another person. When we listen well, we build trust and rapport with others because people feel heard, cared for, and respected. We know that good listening leads to improved understanding and better outcomes. According to leadership guru Travis Bradberry, listening impacts up to 40% of an employee’s performance. In short, good listening brings us together.

So, how do we improve our listening skills? To be a better listener, you should:

  • Be attentive. Focus on the person and be present with him or her. Often, we’re focused on what we’re going to say next or how what the person says will affect us. Do your best to hear what the person is saying before rushing to judgment.
  • Provide eye contact. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who didn’t look you in the eyes when he or she was talking? It feels awkward and irritating. According to Michigan State University, in western culture, increased eye contact is associated with trust and credibility; those who deliver an appropriate amount of eye contact are perceived as more honest, confident, and empathetic. The key word with eye contact is appropriate—avoid staring at the other person. Instead of staring, think about maintaining eye contact about two-thirds of the time. Allow your sight to move away occasionally.
  • Remove distractions. Here’s what we know about distraction—it’s disrespectful. Have you ever been in a meeting when your colleague at the table is responding to a message on her phone? Or have you ever been talking with your friend when you receive a notification on your smart watch? Even if you don’t look at the notification, you think, “Mmmmmm…I wonder who it is?” To be effective listeners, we must disconnect from our devices. This may mean silencing notifications, turning off email, or putting our phones away. When we need to have important conversations, we should think about where the conversation should take place—we should choose a location with few distractions.
  • Show positive body language. Think about nodding along as the person is talking to show that you’re paying attention. Be aware of your facial expressions, too. It’s easy to zone out as a listener—watch out for giving a black, expressionless face. Work on demonstrating warmth and empathy on your face by paying attention to the other person’s facial expressions and matching those expressions. If the other person is unhappy, frown and lower your eyes. According to communication expert Patti Wood, matching facial expressions creates a shift in our brains and helps us feel what the other person is feeling and in turn, understand that person more effectively.
  • Avoid interrupting. When we interrupt, the other person is likely to become frustrated and shut down. Often, we interrupt and don’t even know we’re doing it! One practical strategy to improve your listening is to listen through to the end of other people’s sentences. Let the other person finish his or her thought before adding your two cents.
  • Ask questions. Most of us have been conditioned to think that we should be like sponges when we listen—that listening is about being quiet and simply absorbing what the other person is saying. However, good listeners ask questions related to what the other person is talking about. We know someone is listening when they ask a relevant question! This quote from Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkmann sums this up well: “Good listeners are like trampolines. They are people you can bounce ideas off—and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.”

Listening is a skill that greatly impacts our work and home lives and is especially crucial during difficult conversations. The good news is that we can improve—it just takes practice!

Libby Ehrig is a Facilitator for ATW Training Solutions.  You can contatct Libby at Visit ATW at

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