People - Top Tips - Listening



This document is designed as a quick reference guide to listening skills

This will enable you to gain knowledge of a particular skill, task or process in the workplace. This means you can quickly find the key information that you need and refer to it on an ongoing basis whenever you need to refresh your knowledge.



Listening is by far the most important of all the communication skills. Effective listening is a key component of building trust. It does not come naturally to most people, so we have to work hard to stop ourselves ’jumping in’ and giving our opinions. Most people don’t listen-they just take turns to speak! We often have a tendency to be more interested in offering our own views than really listening to understand others. This is ironic as we all like to be listened to and understood. Remember the famous expression from Dr Stephen

Covey ‘seek first to understand, and then to be understood.’

People - Top Tips - Listening

What you need to know

Active listening

As already stated most people are poor listeners. It has been estimated that we only retain as little as 20% of what we hear, even a short while afterwards, and this drops to 10% or less after a longer period. If you are coaching or counselling someone, it is even more important to listen, and to a greater extent than you would in a normal conversation. Having spent time preparing and asking good questions, you must be able to absorb and retain the answers to your questions, and the implications of these. This whole process is called ‘active listening’. Good listening is an essential part of being a good friend, colleague or leader. You cannot be a good unless you listen effectively.

People speak at 100 to 175 words per minute but can listen intelligently at

600 to 800 words per minute. Since only part of our mind is paying attention, it is easy to drift into ‘what will they say next’, what is for lunch etc. To help with this ensure you have a ‘purpose’ for listening e.g. to understand, to gather facts, to problem solve, to learn.

If you are finding it particularly difficult to concentrate on what someone is saying, try repeating their words mentally as they say it- this will reinforce their message and help you control mind drift.

It is also vital to remember that what someone says and what we hear can be amazingly different. Our personal filters, assumptions, judgements and beliefs can distort what we hear. To help you can repeat back or summarize what you think you heard to ensure clarity. This can be very useful in interview situations, disciplinary hearings and 121 conversations/reviews.





It has been suggested that when we listen, the meaning is affected:


     7% by the words

     38% by the tone of voice

     55% by the body language



This makes it vitally important to listen carefully to the:


     Words the speaker chooses and uses – do any of these sound out of keeping with the rest of the conversation?

     Tone - when someone is anxious the throat muscles tighten and the voice pitch rises.

     Volume - an increase in volume usually means an increase in emotion; a fall in volume may indicate that they are nervous or reluctant to speak.

     Speed – people tend to speak more quickly when they are angry or excited, and more slowly when they are reluctant to discuss a topic or are thinking.

     Emphasis put on certain words - how does that affects their meaning; for example is the speaker being sarcastic about a topic?


You will also find it helpful to interpret the body language and other clues in the way the words are delivered. Practise by watching television soaps with the sound off!


     Do they appear relaxed and confident at one point, then tense up when a certain word is used, or a certain topic is mentioned?

     Do they use open gestures for the majority of your discussion, then fold their arms or cross their legs as though rejecting a certain thought or suggestion?

     Watch for eye movements; many people will look upwards and to one side when thinking, but downwards if they would rather avoid the question.

     Do they take time to answer, such as taking a sip of water to play for time rather than giving an immediate answer?

People - Top Tips - Listening

Step by Step

When having a group discussion or one to one conversation, taking the following steps will help you absorb the information you need:


Keep an open mind:

     Don’t pre-judge or switch off just because you don’t like the sound of the first few words you hear.

     If what you are hearing sounds critical you may focus on how you can defend yourself rather than what is being said.

     If you do not like the speaker, their manner, appearance, accent etc., you may dismiss what they are saying as worthless.

     If the views expressed are different from your own you may not hear what is said, as you stop listening whilst you plan your response.

     If you rapidly classify a topic or a speaker as right or wrong, good or bad, it prevents you from hearing all the facts, or you may accept everything they say without question.

     Don’t be put off by their dress or appearance, mannerisms, use of language, accent or sound of their voice, or a speech impediment.




Consider the environment - Choose somewhere quiet with comfortable temperature and lighting where you can sit in reasonable comfort.


Ignore distractions - Concentrate on what the speaker is saying, not on what’s going on outside. Don't keep reading your notes or looking at your watch. Divert the phone, and put up a ‘do not disturb’ notice. Avoid fidgeting, doodling, paper shuffling and pen clicking, as this can be distracting for the speaker.


Take notes - Not full text; these are notes to remind you later of what you've heard. We speak four times quicker than we write, so you won’t be able to get it all down.


Reflect - Repeat back what you hear - use phrases like ‘So you feel that...’ to make sure you understand what the speaker feels about what he or she is telling you.


Summarise - Have periodic reviews of what you’ve just heard; ‘So where we’ve got to is...’ This will help you establish the facts of the subjects in a logical sequence.


Establishing rapport

A large part of active listening is to make the other person feel that you are taking in what they say, and want them to carry on talking. This is essential in a counselling or coaching discussion. As well as reflecting and summarising, you can achieve this by:


Good posture

     Leaning forward slightly and nodding now and then shows interest.

     Keep an open posture to encourage the speaker.


Eye contact - Keep your eyes on them - not staring them straight in the eye all the time, but also on their hands when they gesture, or on any papers or other items they may show you.


Responding - Not interrupting, but putting in ‘verbal punctuation’ such as grunts, ‘right’, ‘OK’, ‘mmm’s, and ‘uh-huh’s shows attention. Fortunately this comes naturally to most people, but don't allow this to be taken as agreeing with something when you only intended to respond.


Allow silence

     You don’t have to fill it with more questions, and the other person needs time to think about their response.

     Remember, silence is golden – we are given two ears and one mouth, so use them in that proportion.