Listening well is much more difficult than it appears. We are processing the information that we see, hear and sense, so it is very easy to become distracted. According to research we drop out of a conversation every 12 to 18 seconds to process what people are saying and we remember what we think about what is said rather that what is actually said. It becomes all too easy to start thinking about what has been said. We then end up with two conversations; the one with the other person and the one going on in our head. Thinking is a big distraction to good listening and includes;

  • Wanting to make a response. We are so used to conversations being a back and forth process that we naturally start thinking to work out what we are going to say in response.
  • Making judgements about what has been said. Judgements are dangerous to a difficult conversation as they are triggered by agreement or disagreement with how we see the situation. And if we disagree, an emotional reaction may not be far away.

Other research shows that we only hear 25 to 50 percent of what is said. So in any conversation, at best, we only get half of what is said. We also need to take account that we do not hear what is being said because we filter it.

What is said is not the whole picture

It is easy to think that it's what we say that is important in a conversation; the words we use. But research shows that the words we use, the tone of our voice and our non-verbal behaviours (body language and expressions), all contribute when we communicate. When these elements do not match, we are less likely to trust what is being said and the person we are listening to.

Research by Albert Mehrabian is often misquoted and misinterpreted. His “7%-38%-55% Rule”, which states that communication is 7% words, 38% tone and 55% body language, is misquoted as applying to all communication. However, his rules were derived from experiments dealing the communication of feelings and attitudes and do not apply in other situations.

We are very good at quickly picking up nonverbal clues and judging a situation. It is part of how we survive and happens at an unconscious level; we don't have to think about these nonverbal messages, we sense the situation.

The purposes of listening

Good listening can be broken into three main activities; showing that we are interested and value what is being said, clarifying our understanding, and helping the speaker.

Showing interest

The best way to show an interest is to have the intention to fully understand the speaker's point of view, without judgement. Good practices include;

Not interrupting - often the speaker needs to tell their story. By offering that space to be heard without interruption of any sort, we give the speaker the opportunity to hear their own words. We constantly make sense of things by telling our story to ourselves. This is an opportunity to tell it to another person. Not interrupting in general is good practice. If an extended period of only listening is offered it is best to agree this, as it could be interpreted as a lack of interest.

Reflecting is replaying what the speaker has said. Reflecting is usually done using the same words used by the speaker and is a shorter version, often the last few words or phrase. Reflecting shows that you have heard what the speaker has said and can be used as a prompt for the speaker to say more.

Paraphrasing what the speaker has said. Paraphrasing uses different words to those used by the speaker. It lets the speaker know that you have heard what was said and that you are trying to understand. Some advocate starting paraphrasing from the listener's perspective. For example, “I hear that you are saying…”. Others believe that this is unnecessary and sounds false and would phrase it as, “You are saying…”. It all depends on what works for you and what you feel is most authentic.

Summarising what the speaker has said in your words to make sure that you have understood what they have said. Summarising usually involves condensing what the speaker has said and is often used near the end of a conversation to pull together what has been said in a succinct way.

Seeking clarification

Clarifying is used by the listener to make sure that what has been said by the speaker has been fully understood. Clarifying reinforces that the speaker is interested in what the speaker has to say and can include reflecting and paraphrasing. It will often include asking questions of the speaker.

Helping the speaker

This is based on the idea of the listener acting as editor helping the speaker refine and clarify their views and thinking, and expanding their awareness of a situation to fill in any gaps.

When we act as the listener we are aware that there are gaps in what we know of the speaker's views and perspective. What we can fail to appreciate are the gaps in those views and perspectives. The speaker does not necessarily have the full picture. The listener can help the speaker to clarify what they do, and do not, know about a situation.

Gaps in information are a useful place to start. The speaker may not have all the facts about what has happened and has formed views from what is known. Bear in mind that new facts are unlikely to change perspectives.

The speaker is likely to have gaps in what they know of the views and perspectives of others. Listening for unhelpful thinking by the speaker, such as, assuming, mind reading and generalising, can help spot gaps in what the speaker actually knows, rather than what they think they know.

There are also likely to be areas where the speaker is not consciously aware of how they are about a situation, but the listener is well placed to pick up these through the tone of voice and non verbal communication. This can help explore unrecognised feelings, emotions and their links to related needs and values.

Finally, and possibly the most important point is to be authentic. You need to be genuinely interested in what the person has to say. And if you are not, then no matter what techniques you use, it will show.

Introduction | Listening | Asking Questions | Observing | Awareness | Using helpful language | Reflection

Improve this page by emailing (don't forget to tell us the name of the page)