Say That Again: 5 Powerful Habits of Good Listeners

Although we spend approximately 60% of our communication time listening, we only retain 35% of what we hear. Actually, two months after a conversation, we only remember around 25% of what was said. That’s no surprise considering our average eight-second attention span, which makes listening concentration so hard to achieve.

Conscious listening is key to understanding. When we are fully present in conversations, when we really listen, we have a chance to reduce redundancy and clear confusion. Simply put, we understand better. Want to improve the quality of the time you spend in meetings? Listen hard. Want your personal and professional relationships to get better? Listen well.

Read this article to learn 5 habits that will help you really listen, build on conversations, and eventually communicate effectively.

Why listening is so hard

In school, we’re not exactly taught how to listen. While acquiring reading skills is a subject in itself, listening is often neglected. The irony is that later in life we actually listen more than we read. Most often, we are under the impression that we’re listening, but we’re actually just hearing things, while our mind is elsewhere.

Before we get to the part where we can get better, let’s not blame ourselves that much and look closely at the things that keep us from listening.

Vanity

Let’s face it, sometimes we tend to get too self-involved. Although someone else does the talking, we can’t help making it all about ourselves. Our ego makes us jump in and interrupt just to give our two cents, to moralize, or to throw in a joke. We focus on promoting our self-image instead of listening and contributing to the conversation to the benefit of all participants.

Also, when we listen for too long, we worry that we’ll forget what we want to say. Hence, our attention shifts to what we have to say. We cut short our listening, we jump in with our own perspective before we lose it to the back of our mind.

This shift of focus can sometimes take extreme forms, which detour the interlocutor from the course of conversation. Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, is of the opinion that when we approach a discussion thinking only of our own agenda, “our goal is to maneuver and manipulate the conversation and to come out better than the other person.” We’re changing the conversation so that it suits our personal agenda.

Distractions

With so many things that demand our attention (phones, computers, apps etc.), it’s difficult not to get distracted. We live and work in noisy environments, full of sound channels that inherently prevent us from easily reaching a state of conscious listening.

On the other hand, sometimes we might be experiencing physical, mental or emotional distress that prevents us from paying attention. It’s not that we don’t want to listen, we simply can’t. If we’re not honest about it, our interlocutors will most likely translate our unavailability into lack of intent/interest.

We can’t go wrong if we tell them truth. A reassurance such as “I know it’s important for you to share this with me, but I can’t really focus right now and I want you to have my full attention. Can we discuss about this later?” will put them at ease.

The productivity push

Today’s fast-paced work environment constantly pushes us to be more productive. We are expected to get more work done in less time. So, either we don’t have the time to listen all the way through, or we can’t afford it.

In a TED Talk titled “How to truly listen”, deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie said that in the same way that she needs time with her instrument, she needs time with people in order to interpret them. “Not just translate them, but interpret them.

Glennie was right. We need time not only to internalize what we’re being told, but also to acknowledge and filter the things that are quiet and subtle about our interlocutors.

Our thoughts outpace our words

We think much faster than we talk. In our mind, we are always way ahead. So, as much as we might refrain ourselves from talking, hence interrupting, in our mind we often do that by allowing our personal thoughts to “depart” and build on what is being said.

The moment we start formulating a response in our mind, we stop listening. While we’re way ahead with what we want to say, we remain way behind with what we’re being told. Eventually, the interlocutor’s message passes us by.

5 Habits that will make you a better listener

Unlike in any other form of communication, concentration while listening is the hardest to achieve. However, there are habits you can create so that you can listen conscientiously and build on conversations to the benefit of all participants.

#1 Lend your ear out of curiosity, not generosity.

When you listen as a favor, you’re no really open to embrace new perspectives or to be proven wrong. So, you’re not gaining much, except for an inflated ego maybe (since you’ve been so generous).

Being curious conveys genuine interest and intent, which stimulate your interlocutor to elaborate and share more. Asking questions not only prevents you from falling into the trap of wild guesses and mind reading, but also builds a deeper feeling of engagement and cements the story in the minds of all participants.

So, you should ask open-ended questions like “How did that make you feel?”. As you’re requesting clarification, your interlocutor will be more likely to express deeper attitudes that will otherwise remain silent in the background.

Also, you should make sure you ask more questions than you give answers. This implies that you pay attention to your talk/listen ratio. This is something you might find hard to observe in the beginning, but you can start by marking down your interventions vs. those of your interlocutors on a piece of paper.

#2 Repeat back, it’s called active listening.

In spite of their aim to bring clarity, conversations sometimes lead to misunderstandings. That’s because people’s ability to understand accurately what someone is saying is frequently hindered by interruptions, distractions preconceived ideas, egos and so on.

To put it simply, your power of understanding starts with your ability to listen. It builds on curiosity, patience, and empathy – skills which you cannot develop overnight; they take time time and determination. However, you can start with a simple exercise called active listening. It’s pretty basic: repeat back to the person talking what you heard. It helps you ensure that you really heard what they intended. At the same time, it shows you’re interested in what is being said.

With a simple question like “If I understood correctly, you said that…, didn’t you?” or small request “Could you repeat that, please?”, the person talking has a chance to revisit their story, reword statements, and clear confusion, while you remember better.

Active listening creates an opportunity for mutual understanding. Because you’re no longer working with assumptions, you’re dealing with certainties. Imagine how effective meetings would be, if team members resorted more often to active listening.

#3 Show non-verbal encouragement.

You need to show your interlocutor that you’re listening.

Sometimes, asking too many questions will break the conversation, in spite of proving you’re genuinely interested in what is being said. However, you can still indicate that you’re paying attention through less intrusive gestures. It can be anything from maintaining eye contact to a reassuring head nod or a friendly “mmmm” or “uh-huh” utterance.

#4 First listen through, then think of your response.

As hard as it you may find it, you need to let the other person finish their message before you respond. When you’re already thinking of an answer while your interlocutor is still speaking, you actually stop listening and miss out on the complete information that is being delivered.

Other than that, if you’re already assuming what the other person is thinking, you’re actually inclined to accept only information that confirms your preconceived opinions. It’s hard not to make assumptions, but it’s better to check them out loud when your interlocutor is done talking.

#5 Refrain from moralizing or passing judgments.

It’s not easy to let the other person talk all the way through, especially when opinions and beliefs clash. But the thing is, when you interrupt someone to label or to argue against what they’re saying, you’re shutting yourself down. When you’re too attached to your knowledge and experience, you’re missing important messages that might reveal a different perspective and teach you new things.

You should also consider that some truths are hard to tell; they require effort and courage. As you cut off your interlocutor to openly express your surprise, shock or fear, you’re inadvertently altering their message. Because your poignant reactions will most likely prompt them to adjust the heart of the matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s just to avoid conflict or distress, or simply to keep themselves in the comfort zone. They are likely to get emotional, to the detriment of the conversation and their own state of mind.

The outcome: they might keep essential/enlightening information from you, they might avoid talking openly to you in the future, they might resent you, whereas you will miss a chance to learn something new.

As hard as you might find it to let the other person talk, show some empathy. Even if you disagree, suspend your judgment until they’ve walked you through their experience. Put yourself in their shoes, see things from their perspective first and then share yours. You will be surprised at the things you might learn.

A short note for the impatient

Every time you hear yourself more often than the others, you’re not exactly making conversation. You’re doing personal broadcasting. While your audience might learn something from your monologue, you will hardly gain anything from them. Because they won’t have a chance to speak up, and information-wise you’re not really accumulating much.

The imbalanced talk:listen ratio makes the exchange of experience and knowledge unfair. An ideal ratio is 2:1. That’s what you should aim for.

On the other hand, becoming a better listener takes practice and patience. And, if patience is not exactly your strongest point, you can try a quick formula coined by Julian Treasure, sound consultant and author of “Sound Business.” In one of his TED Talks on sound, Treasure recommends a simple technique that you can easily try in both your personal and work conversations. It’s called RASA.

The acronym, which in Sanskrit is a word in itself and means “essence”, is the abbreviation of the following recommendations:

  • “RECEIVE” – pay attention to the person talking;
  • “APPRECIATE” – make little noises like “hmmm’, “oh”, “OK”;
  • “SUMMARIZE” – use “So” to conclude and signal that you’re listening conscientiously;
  • “ASK” – ask questions afterwards.

Listening is not inaction

We may hear well, but we don’t always use our ears for conscientious listening. And communication, whether in business or personal relationships, depends more on the spoken word than it does on the written word.

The effectiveness of our communication is dependent not only on how we talk, but also on how we listen. To be good listeners, we must resort to skills that we can acquire either through experience or training.

Aside from a series of habits that you can easily create hopefully with a little support from this article, it’s important to see listening not as inaction. Because keeping silent doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not doing anything. It means you’re paying attention, or at least it should.

In fact, listening allows us to do plenty: we show empathy, we allow the conversation to progress, we encourage our interlocutors to share more, we strengthen relationships, we take a big step towards understanding. And the level of mutual understanding is an indicator for the effectiveness of the communication process, which in the end is something we all strive for, whether at work or in our personal lives.

18 Comments


  • What a wonderful article, I think it was written about me because I am so opinionated I usually interrupt and talk too much, I am trying to correct this cause its great to hear what the other person is actually saying and give them a chance before I put my two sense in Thanks so much for the article

    Reply 2 years ago Dodi McCollem


    • Thank you, Dodi. It’s good to hear you find it helpful. I myself am trying to listen better 🙂 I guess we never stop learning.

      Reply 2 years ago Emilia Bratu


  • Spot on! As a parent, I am often amazed how we try to teach this to our kids, but often fail to grasp the concept ourselves!

    Reply 2 years ago Tony Oliver


    • Thank you, Tony. Breaking patterns is not easy, but it is possible with a strong dose of patience and determination.

      Reply 2 years ago Emilia Bratu


  • Love the article. I am so guilty of all the the examples for not listening attentively. Habits are hard to break. I am going to actively take one step at a time, and hopefully improve my listening skills. Thank you for the great advice!

    Reply 2 years ago Heather Merwitz


    • Thank you, Heather. It makes me really happy to hear it helps. But don’t be so hard on yourself. You said it better – one step at the time 🙂

      Reply 2 years ago Emilia Bratu


  • Great article. I have yet to meet anyone who claims they are better at listening than talking but the irony is that one clearly depends on the other. We can all get better at this and it can really make you stand out if you can master it as it is such a rarity.

    Reply 2 years ago James McBrien


    • Thanks, James. Personally, I’ve noticed two things in good listeners. One is they never brag about being good at this. The other thing is most of them are introverts, which could mean they would rather listen than take the front scene. They talk less and listen more.

      Reply 2 years ago Emilia Bratu


  • Incredibly helpful article in so many ways. Particularly people for those who call up and are so intent on their message that they rattle off their patter before you’ve got an answer to who is calling and what firm do they represent? Fast talkers think they are communicating. Hah!
    Slow down, wait for an answer. Then you can be sure of being heard. And understood.

    Reply 2 years ago Helen Vanderberg


    • Thank you, Helen. I appreciate it. They probably talk so fast because they don’t want you to hang up on them as soon as you hear what company they represent/the real reason they’re calling you. It’s a tactic, they get your attention by surprise (the time you stay in the call is a metric for the agent’s performance). However, your being in a state of surprise/bewilderment doesn’t guarantee that you will listen, let alone agree to their message/intent.

      Reply 2 years ago Emilia Bratu


  • I totally agree that when we formulate our responses we stop listening and sometime lose the entire or complete message from the speaker- since our thoughts are so fast paced – we all need to keep this habit under check and practice RASA frequently.

    Reply 2 years ago Rehana Husain


    • Thanks, Rehana.

      Reply 2 years ago Emilia Bratu


  • Excellent points and a good reminder. I confess that patience is not my strong point – I’m a fan of the Ziggy cartoon, where he kneels in prayer and says “Lord, give me patience – and I want it right now!” Fortunately, I also have a curious nature, and there’s something interesting in everyone’s story if you just give them a chance to tell it. So I agree that “active listening” is the key. Thanks for the timeless guidance!

    Reply 1 year ago Don Pinkleton


    • Thank you, Don. I’m glad my article resonates with you.

      Reply 1 year ago Emilia Bratu


      • wonderful article ……

        Reply 1 year ago banine mohamed


        • Thank you, Banine. I appreciate it.

          Reply 12 months ago Emilia Bratu


  • Loved this article! I am so guilty of finishing other’s sentences! So I am making a conscious effort to do as you listed – R-A-S-A. And When I do respond, I try to leave the word ‘I’ out of it!!

    Reply 1 year ago Diane Lewey


    • Thank you, Diane. I’m pretty positive it’s just a matter of practice.

      Reply 12 months ago Emilia Bratu


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