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Want a leg up in your career? Master these 11 key listening skills

October 4, 2022 - 13 min read


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Signs you’re a bad listener

Develop your active listening skills

How to improve listening skills

Reading between the lines

In 2013, a professor from Minnesota conducted an experiment, asking local school teachers to stop midclass and ask students about the lesson, to test whether they were listening.

The results might surprise you:

  • 90% of first- and second-graders gave the right answer
  • 44% of middle schoolers answered correctly
  • 25% of high schoolers could give a correct response

Assuming you’re an adult reading this, the pattern is clear: your listening skills probably aren’t as good as you think. Statistically speaking, they’re probably worse than a 6-year-old child’s. 

And that’s a problem. In the workplace, poor listening leads to misunderstandings between colleagues, missed deadlines, and unclear expectations between managers and employees. And these kinds of miscommunications can cost your company up to $6,000 per employee

Whether you’re a team leader or an employee, listening is a fundamental soft skill for the workplace, but it’s one of the hardest to master. It requires patience, concentration, and emotional intelligence — things difficult to maintain when stressed out and on a deadline. 

Thankfully, the more you work on this communication skill, the easier it will become. Here’s our guide on how to become a better listener.


Signs you’re a bad listener

The first step toward effective communication and great listening is admitting you need improvement. You don’t need to feel guilty about it — most adults struggle to recall a presentation they heard mere moments earlier. But if you practice humility and show a desire to improve, you’ll be miles ahead of other people.

Here’s what bad listening looks like:

  • You’re distracted. If you’re looking at your phone while someone is speaking, you’ll miss important points of what they’re saying. And even while looking at them, your mind can easily wander. You need to focus on their words rather than the list of chores waiting for you at home.
  • You talk too much. Has the person you’re talking to said anything in the past five minutes? No, they’re not a quiet person — you’re dominating the conversation. You should check in with them frequently. They might be waiting to put a word in.
  • You often interrupt people. You might think you already understand what they want, but you won’t know for sure unless you let them finish. Interrupting people while they speak is rude and can lead to you missing important information.

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Develop your active listening skills

The opposite of poor listening is active listening. Active listening techniques involve paying close attention to someone’s words and productively engaging with them.

We can break down active listening into two components:

  • Attention involves holding eye contact, mirroring the speaker’s body language, nodding, and showing an interest in what they’re saying.
  • Reflection is about internalizing then repeating what the speaker said to show you truly understand what they’re telling you.

Active listeners also show their curiosity by asking questions and giving the speaker plenty of time to respond. The goal is to gather information so you can help them in the best way possible.

How to improve listening skills

Becoming a good listener is difficult. But with mindfulness and tact, you can learn to properly engage in what others are saying. 


Here are some listening skills examples you can work on.

1. Face the speaker and maintain eye contact

Eye contact is an essential listening skill in communication because it indicates where your attention is focused. If you’re looking away from the speaker, you’re signaling that you don’t care about their words — even if you’re still listening intently with your ears. Maintaining eye contact lets them know you’re an attentive listener who is open to what they have to say.

2. Keep an open mind

Avoid mentally criticizing the other person or assuming you know what they mean. You don’t know what they’ll say next, and those additional few words could completely change your understanding of the issue or topic. Let them finish speaking before jumping to conclusions.

3. Visualize what the speaker is saying

About 65% of people are visual learners. If you’re one of them, visualizing the speaker's words help you focus. If a client is requesting a change to the product design, imagining the improvement can help you track what they’re trying to convey.

4. Don’t pre-emptively impose solutions

If you're pressed for time and a colleague needs help, it's tempting to pitch solutions before hearing the scope of their issue. In your head, a quick response will help you move on to your other important tasks. 

But this puts you at risk of making mistakes. You’ll suggest an action plan based on incomplete information, leading to bigger problems down the road. It’s more productive to either take the time to listen or suggest scheduling a longer meeting, so you can give this issue the attention it deserves.


5. Wait for a pause before asking questions

Asking questions is a clear sign of engagement. It shows you’re listening closely and engaging with their ideas. But if you need clarification on something, wait for a break in their flow of words. Otherwise, you risk being rude and interrupting their train of thought.

6. Ask open-ended questions

Use your critical thinking skills to ask smart, open-ended questions. After they finish a thought, circle back to something they said earlier. Then you can use open-ended questions to help them expand on their own thoughts, clarifying their intended meaning. 

It’s also important to only ask relevant questions. If your colleague Jill is updating you on a meeting she had with David — a friend and former colleague of yours — you might be curious about what David has been up to lately.

You might learn about David’s partner, two kids, and that he’s moving upstate soon. But by the end of your meeting, you’ll know nothing about what Jill actually wanted to tell you.

7. Practice empathy

Try to feel what the speaker’s feeling and respond according. If they’re happy, feel free to smile along with them. If they seem concerned, a jovial attitude is less appropriate. 


Your other nonverbal cues, like your tone of voice and body language, should also respond to the speaker's energy. A calm tone of voice can soothe someone who is visibly distressed, as long as you don't appear condescending or nonchalant. But that same calmness can deflate someone happy because you don't appear to share their excitement.

Empathizing with and matching a person’s emotions shows you’re picking up what they’re sending — the mark of a good listener.

8. Give them feedback

Verbal feedback also shows that you’re paying attention. Make simple comments using your empathy to help the speaker feel heard on an emotional level. 

Try saying “That sounds amazing!” when they’re sharing good news or “That must be difficult” if they’re describing a bad experience. These simple additions demonstrate that you care about and understand their feelings as much as what they’re saying.

9. Pay attention to non-verbal messages

So much of communication lies in what isn’t said. A good listener can pick up on a person’s tone of voice, body language, and facial expression to derive additional meaning from their words. When someone says, “I’m doing fine,” it’s hard to believe it if their arms are crossed, they’re frowning, and their tone of voice sounds sarcastic.

10. Summarize and paraphrase

At the end of a discussion, try summarizing their key points out loud. This is a great way to show that you care not to miss important details and understand their point of view in professional contexts. Also, if you repeat something incorrectly, it gives the original speaker a chance to correct you before you run off having completely misunderstood.

11. Avoid judging

You should make a conscious effort to create a safe space for your listener. Validating their feelings, providing good feedback, and engaging with their ideas will help them feel comfortable speaking to you. This builds trust, which is essential in a healthy work environment.


Reading between the lines

The importance of listening skills in the workplace cannot be understated. It’s not only vital to productivity and avoiding mistakes, but it’s a key tenet of good leadership.

Proper communication is rarely just about words. If your subordinate approaches you to request a meeting, their tone of voice and facial expression will tell you whether you’re entering a difficult conversation.

A nervous look could mean they’re confessing to a mistake, whereas a casual attitude suggests a more routine update. Effective listening skills are about giving your full attention to both verbal and nonverbal communication signals.

And, as emotional creatures, people have feelings and emotions that deserve equal attention. Using interpersonal skills like empathy and critical listening can help a person feel validated and heard in the workplace, leading to more authentic connections at work. This kind of office culture will help build relationships and boost employee satisfaction and retention.

Developing good listening skills isn’t impossible — and it’s probably something you’ve done before. With a bit of time and patience, you’ll be back to the attentiveness of your first-grade self.

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Published October 4, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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