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Listen up!

It’s the most important communication skill you were probably never taught


When you’re talking to someone, do you ever get the feeling that they’re busier looking for an opening in the conversation than listening to what’s being said? That if you were to stop and ask, “What was I just saying?” they’d give you a deer-in-the-headlights stare, maybe repeat a few words you spoke, but definitely fail a pop quiz on the content?

Illustration credit: Miguel Porlan

Most of us have learned some basics of public speaking: enunciate, make eye contact, repeat the most important points so they stick. But "we haven't had good teachers in terms of listening skills," says Jim Bolton, president of Ridge Training, a company that specializes in teaching communication skills to business leaders and trainers. Bolton makes a distinction between hearing and listening. True listening requires your full attention. You need to make an effort.

Failure to truly listen is a missed opportunity — not just to learn, but to deepen our rapport with others. When people feel heard and can speak without being criticized or interrupted, says Bolton, "they start to feel a deeper sense of relatedness. Even in professional relationships, it's knowing that someone has enough respect for you to set their own agenda aside and learn from you."

When you are actively listening, you get more information than you would otherwise — and not only because you're paying closer attention. "When you listen well, people share more," says Bolton. "People are more open because you are more receptive."

So how can we sharpen our active listening skills?

Listen with your voice.
"Ahh." "Mmhmm." These are "following sounds" — the vocalizations of listening that express interest and encourage people to continue, Bolton explains. "A company did an A-B test," he says, "and found that interviewers who use those mmhmms and ahhs got 30 percent more information than those who didn't use them."

The price of not listening

  1. $62.4 million

    The average annual cost of misunderstood directions, policies, business processes, or job functions to a 100,000-employee company in the United States or the UK — often the result of not actively listening

  2. $26,041

    Cumulative cost per worker per year due to productivity losses resulting from communications barriers

  3. 3.47%

    Increase in total returns to shareholders over the past five years when companies are led by those who are perceived as highly effective communicators, as compared to firms with leaders who are perceived as less-effective communicators

    Source: Provoke Media

Listen with your body.
You may associate body language with talking, but leaning in or nodding agreement physically expresses that you are interested and helps you to listen better because you're investing more of yourself in the conversation.

Ask clarifying questions.
On the one hand, asking questions sends a message that you're listening. On the other hand, interrupting builds roadblocks. "Researchers have found that most of the responses people have when someone is talking end up shutting down or hijacking the conversation," Bolton says, not moving it forward. People ask questions to express interest and minimize their own discomfort, but often the questions are either off-topic or argumentative. The best questions clarify and probe at the speaker's meaning, rather than tee it up for a debate.

Clarify and repeat back.
Ashley King, a licensed counselor who specializes in couples therapy, says that many issues between partners have to do with a failure to listen actively. To listen better, she recommends periodically repeating back what was said, asking clarifying questions, and maintaining eye contact with the speaker. Say things like, "This is what I'm hearing ... am I getting it?" Also, King says, let the speaker know how something they are saying is affecting you. "If it delights you, say so."

This story originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.