Skip main navigation

7 ways to improve your listening skills

Listening skills affect every aspect of our lives. Improve your work and personal life by learning how to listen better.

Listening skills

If you can develop the art of listening well, you could stand to improve every area of your life – be that professional, academic, social or personal. In this article, we’ll cover why listening skills are so important; why they’re difficult to cultivate; how to improve them and how to listen mindfully.

Communication is important to everyone – whether it’s your friends, family, coworkers, or even the random strangers you interact with during your day. However, different people communicate in different ways, making it important to understand these differences.

In today’s high-tech culture, communication is more crucial than ever, but people are spending less and less time truly listening to one another. Genuine listening is becoming rarer, even though it is crucial for developing relationships, addressing problems, ensuring understanding, settling disagreements, and increasing accuracy. When you listen well at work, you make fewer mistakes and waste less time. Good listening promotes the growth of resourceful, self-sufficient employees who can also solve problems in their personal lives. The ability to listen enriches all aspects of one’s life.

Listening is a skill that many of us take for granted. People frequently hear what is being said, but hearing is not the same as listening. To listen, we must make a conscious effort to not just hear but also absorb, digest, and understand what others are saying.

Of course, those with hearing loss or impairment may struggle with certain aspects of communication, so when we discuss listening skills, it’s important to remember that it’s a two-way process. Good communication skills mean considering the other person’s situation and needs. 

Listening not only improves your capacity to understand and communicate but can also make other people’s experience of conversing with you more pleasurable.

Obstacles to good listening

Distractions are everywhere: television, radio, traffic noise, telephones, laptops, and more, making it difficult to listen with complete focus. Furthermore, when we do listen, we are prone to listening on autopilot, nodding and agreeing without truly understanding what is being said. While the other person is speaking, we may interrupt, dominate the conversation, or plan our next words. If someone’s viewpoint differs from ours, we can be quick to judge them.

Self-interest maintains our own demands and thoughts in the forefront of our minds, pushing the speaker to the back of our minds. Prejudice, prior experiences, personal agendas, and negative self-talk can all lead to a self-centred mindset.

Communication might also be hampered by psychological barriers – such as making inaccurate assumptions, providing unsolicited counsel or analysis, denial, and feelings of fear, apathy, jealousy, or defensiveness.

What is active listening?

Active listening does not come easily to us, so we must make a conscious effort to practise it. It takes time to master and a lot of practice to become adept. Active listening is completely focusing on what is being said and absorbing it without bias, as opposed to simply glossing over the general message.

How can you improve your active listening skills?

1. Consider eye contact

Holding someone’s gaze can feel like hitting a moving target: someone’s talking to you, but you’re looking around the room, checking your phone, or staring at your screen. In many cases, the speaker may only have a small part of your attention. You don’t want to make the speaker have to ask you to look at them, as if you were a child.

In most Western cultures, eye contact is a fundamental part of good communication – bear in mind, though, that in cultures such as Japan and Korea it can come across as forceful and rude. Similarly, some neurodiverse people may find persistent eye contact difficult. It’s important to understand your audience/speaker and their needs.

However, for many people, we communicate by looking each other in the eye. That’s not to suggest you can’t converse across a room; but if it goes on for too long, one of you will get up and move in order to hear the other properly.

Turn to face your conversation partner out of politeness. Remove all papers, books, phones, and other distracting items. Look at your partner, even if they aren’t looking at you. Shyness, uncertainty, embarrassment, guilt, or other feelings, as well as cultural taboos, can prohibit certain people from making eye contact in particular situations. You can forgive them – but for your part, stay attentive.

2. Be alert, but not intense

Now that you’ve made eye contact, relax into the conversation. You don’t have to fix your eyes on the other person; in fact, being too attentive or intense can unsettle the speaker. Although, again, some people may need this regular contact to follow the conversation. Overall, it’s useful to pay attention in a way that suits you.

You should try and consciously shut out background sounds and activities. Also, try not to focus too much on the speaker’s accent or mannerisms, as they might be distracting. Try not to allow your personal sentiments, beliefs, or biases to get in the way.

3. Pay attention to nonverbal signs, such as body language and tone

Nonverbal communication, excluding email, accounts for the majority of direct communication. We can get a lot of information about one another without needing to say anything. The sound and tone of someone’s voice, even over the phone, can convey almost as much about them as what they say.

An expression around the eyes, a twist of the mouth, or a raising of one’s shoulders can indicate enthusiasm, boredom, or disapproval when you’re face to face with someone. You can’t afford to disregard these cues. Remember that words only convey part of the message.

Again, it’s important to point out that body language can vary between cultures, and neurotypical people may find it easier to pick up on than some neurodiverse individuals. 

4. Make a mental image of what the speaker is saying

Allow your brain to create a mental image of the information you’re hearing. Your brain will do the work – whether it’s a mental picture or the organisation of ideas – if you stay focused and your senses are fully engaged. When listening for long periods of time, concentrate on and remember key words and phrases.

Don’t think about what you’re going to say when it’s your turn to listen; it’s too difficult to mentally rehearse while listening. Pay complete attention to what the other person is saying. Finally, remember what is being said, even if it seems dull or unimportant. Make a conscious effort to refocus your thoughts when they begin to wander.

5. Empathise with the speaker

Effective listening is based on empathy and emotional intelligence. You’re a good listener if you’re sad when the person you’re talking to displays sadness, glad when they express happiness, and fearful when they express their concerns. You can show this through your facial expressions and words.

To have empathy, you must put yourself in the other person’s shoes and allow yourself to feel what it’s like to be them at that moment. This is difficult to achieve and requires a great deal of effort and concentration. Regardless, it will enhance the quality of your interactions to no end.

6. Provide feedback

Reflect the speaker’s emotions to demonstrate that you understand their point of view. If the speaker’s emotions are masked or unclear, it’s occasionally important to repeat their message to ensure you’ve understood. Simply nod and demonstrate your understanding with appropriate facial gestures and well-timed noises of assent.

You need to show the speaker that you are following their train of thought rather than daydreaming while they are speaking to you. Always double-check your understanding of instructions in task situations, whether at work or at home.

7. Keep an open mind

Listen without casting judgement or mentally evaluating what the other person is saying. Feel free to be uncomfortable if what they say makes you uncomfortable, but don’t engage in internal discourse, such as formulating a riposte or comparing the speaker to others. As soon as you indulge in judgemental thinking, you’ve diminished your value as a listener.

Listen without jumping to conclusions. Keep in mind that the speaker is expressing their inner thoughts and feelings through words. You have no idea what those feelings and ideas are; the only way to learn is to listen.

Using mindfulness to improve listening skills

We can be more aware of obstacles to good listening while remaining open to the speaker’s thoughts and messages if we listen mindfully. Mindfulness can help you to enhance your listening abilities.

What is mindful listening?

Mindfulness is the act of paying attention in a specific way – purposefully, in the present moment, and without judgement. It is a particularly useful skill for improving romantic relationships, where we are more likely to react reflexively and emotionally.

Mindfulness teaches you to be present in the moment and to let go of distractions as well as monitor your physical and emotional responses to what others say to you. A lack of mindfulness will leave you vulnerable to your own prejudices and can distract you from truly hearing what other people are doing and saying.

Just a few minutes after a lecture, the average person can recall only 25 per cent of what was said. The purpose of mindful listening is to drown out your own internal chatter so that you can truly understand what the other is saying.

How to listen mindfully

The following tips will help you to bring mindfulness to your own daily interactions and so improve your relationships with others.

Listen with intent

We frequently engage in activities and interact with others without giving it much thought. Mindful listening is a process of “waking up” from that state of unconsciousness.

Mindfulness requires you to be “in the moment”, meaning you should completely focus on the person you’re listening to. There are several ways to go about this:

  • Allow yourself time. Before meeting with someone, take a minute or two to clear your head. Before the conversation, practise a technique such as scanning down through your body and releasing tension.
  • Meditate. Meditation is a mindfulness technique that can assist you in learning to focus on the present moment. When you clear your mind of mental clutter, you can make room for other people’s perspectives. Meditation is similar to many other exercises in that the more you do it, the easier it gets. Meditation may be difficult to incorporate into a busy schedule, but even five or ten minutes each day can help.
  • Simplify your surroundings. Phones, computers, printers, and other technological devices are common workplace distractions. Keep your workspace neat and your devices turned off.

Pay attention to your own “cues”

When we’re worried or irritated, our cues are the emotional and physical reactions we have that might shut out ideas and viewpoints that we don’t like. Mindful listening can help us maintain awareness of our cues and choose not to let them prevent us from communicating.

For example, if the other person says something you don’t like, you may notice your chest getting tight. In the absence of mindfulness, you may react to this unpleasant physical sensation by saying something you later regret. But when you practice mindfulness, you can observe the sensation impassively, without reacting.

Pay close attention to what other people are saying. Don’t let other thoughts, such as what you’re going to say next, distract you from paying full attention to the other person.

Listen empathetically

We frequently view the world through the prism of previous experiences and prejudices. When you’re empathic, you may see things from another person’s perspective. You can, for example, legitimise the other person’s viewpoint by acknowledging their point of view. You don’t need to agree with them; it simply means you recognise that they have a different viewpoint to you.

Final thoughts

All of the techniques outlined above can be applied to both personal and professional situations.  Some may be more relevant at certain times, but if you put them into practice, you will find that you are more attentive and that people find you easier to talk to.

That being said, it’s important to keep an open mind about communication styles and how different people approach them. In your work and personal life, you’re likely to encounter people with a broad range of experiences and backgrounds, so it’s worth considering these when communicating with others. 

Soft skills such as empathy, listening and the ability to work in a team are just as important as the hard skills accrued through work experience and academic learning. Check out FutureLearn’s range of courses to cultivate your soft skills and get ahead in work and in life.

FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education

Related stories on FutureLearn