Listening is the ability to accurately receive and interpret messages in the communication process.
Listening is key to all effective communication. Without the ability to listen effectively, messages are easily misunderstood. As a result, communication breaks down and the sender of the message can easily become frustrated or irritated.
If there is one communication skill you should aim to master, then listening is it.
Listening is so important that many top employers provide listening skills training for their employees. This is not surprising when you consider that good listening skills can lead to better customer satisfaction, greater productivity with fewer mistakes, and increased sharing of information that in turn can lead to more creative and innovative work.
Many successful leaders and entrepreneurs credit their success to effective listening skills. Richard Branson frequently quotes listening as one of the main factors behind the success of Virgin.
Good listening skills also have benefits in our personal lives, including:
Studies have shown that, whereas speaking raises blood pressure, attentive listening can bring it down.
Listening is not the same as hearing
Hearing refers to the sounds that enter your ears. It is a physical process that, provided you do not have any hearing problems, happens automatically.
Listening, however, requires more than that: it requires focus and concentrated effort, both mental and sometimes physical as well.
Listening means paying attention not only to the story, but how it is told, the use of language and voice, and how the other person uses his or her body. In other words, it means being aware of both verbal and non-verbal messages. Your ability to listen effectively depends on the degree to which you perceive and understand these messages.
Listening is not a passive process. In fact, the listener can, and should, be at least as engaged in the process as the speaker. The phrase ‘active listening’ is used to describe this process of being fully involved.
We spend a lot of time listening
Adults spend an average of 70% of their time engaged in some sort of communication.
Of this, research shows that an average of 45% is spent listening compared to 30% speaking, 16% reading and 9% writing. (Adler, R. et al. 2001). That is, by any standards, a lot of time listening. It is worthwhile, therefore, taking a bit of extra time to ensure that you listen effectively.
The purpose of listening
There is no doubt that effective listening is an extremely important life skill. Why is listening so important?
Listening serves a number of possible purposes, and the purposeof listening will depend on the situation and the nature of the communication.
- To specifically focus on the messages being communicated, avoiding distractions and preconceptions.
- To gain a full and accurate understanding into the speakers point of view and ideas.
- To critically assess what is being said. (See our page on Critical Thinking for more).
- To observe the non-verbal signals accompanying what is being said to enhance understanding.
- To show interest, concern and concentration.
- To encourage the speaker to communicate fully, openly and honestly.
- To develop an selflessness approach, putting the speaker first.
- To arrive at a shared and agreed understanding and acceptance of both sides views.
Often our main concern while listening is to formulate ways to respond. This is not a function of listening. We should try to focus fully on what is being said and how it’s being said in order to more fully understand the speaker.
Barriers to effective listening
To improve the process of effective listening, it can be helpful to turn the problem on its head and look at barriers to effective listening, or ineffective listening.
For example, one common problem is that instead of listening closely to what someone is saying, we often get distracted after a sentence or two and instead start to think about what we are going to say in reply or think about unrelated things. This means that we do not fully listen to the rest of the
We may also get distracted by the speaker’s personal appearance or by what someone else is saying, which sounds more interesting.
These issues not only affect you, but you are likely to show your lack of attention in your body language.
Generally, we find it much harder to control our body language, and you are likely to show your distraction and/or lack of interest by lack of eye contact, or posture. The speaker will detect the problem, and probably stop talking at best. At worse, they may be very offended or upset.
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