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The importance of listening

Why is active listening such an important skill? Read up on some key research and the problems associated with other listening types.
A grid of four boxes with images representing the four listening types: passive, competitive, selective and active.

Let’s zoom out and consider why listening is such an important skill in the first place.

Image with varying sized circles and the text: We spend significantly more time listening (45%) than we do talking (30%), reading (16%), or writing (9%). Source

“Nonverbal communication allows us to contextualize the meaning of verbally expressed words, as well as any hidden meanings they might have (Ishikawa et al. 2006). A study conducted by Sloane et. al. (2004) identified that the most effective nonverbal behaviors use facial expressions and hand gestures.”
Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R., Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels, (1967)

What influences our listening abilities?

Intelligence is only part of our ability to listen well. Research shows that, in order to become good listeners, we need specific skills that can be acquired through training and practice.
“A university of Minnesota study showed that students undertaking specific listening training improved their ability to understand the spoken word by 25%, and in some cases by up to 40%.”
Harvard Business Review
According to that study, when a group of professional adults undertook the same training, they made some of the highest gains in listening ability of any group — with many nearly doubling their listening test scores after working together on this skill one night a week for 17 weeks.
“After listening to a 10-minute oral presentation, the average listener has heard, understood, and retained 50% of what was said. Within 48 hours, that drops off another 50% to a final level of 25% overall retention.”
Listening Statistics: 23 Facts You Need to Hear
Listening is our ability to understand and respond to the wishes, feelings, and concerns of others, even if they are not clearly expressed. Listening implies a sensitivity in our attitude towards others and makes it possible to understand their mindset, interests, needs, and point of view.
Listening is a central part of communication and plays a vital role in understanding and connecting with people. Listening is a fundamental competency when it comes to relating to others.
“Within the category of ‘oral and interpersonal skills’, effective listening is the most important skill that an accountant should possess.”
An Analysis of the Business Communication Skills Needed By Entry-Level Accountants

The four basic types of listening


A graphic of the passive listening spiral, which goes from lips, through "message" to "output", then to an ear in a cage, a stylized eye with the word "Passive", then "Input/Encoding broken", a person sitting in a chair looking away, and finally a head with a tangle of arrows obscuring the face.

A passive listener listens to the speaker like a wall supports a plant.


The competitive thinking process: lips to message to output, followed by a humanized ear that looks angry, then four angry red people with the word "competitive", followed by "input/decode is ego driven", several hands pointing to the word "no", "feedback is inappropriate", two red hands blocking a face, and finally an open mouth.

Communicating with a competitive listener is like realizing you’re in a boxing match when you were expecting an informal tennis match.


The selective listening process: lips to message to output, followed by an ear sliced into several pieces, a silhouette of a head with the word "selective" over it, a person cut in pieces, the text "encoding is fragmented", a closed mouth, an eye looking away and finally an ear with several dotted lines emerging from it.

Talking to a selective listener is like playing chess with only half the pieces.


The active listening process: lips to message to output, then two hands connected by a colorful line, a circle of squiggly lines, a smiling mouth, a person with a blue hand holding their ear, and finally two open heads that are connected by a string.

Talking with an active listener resembles wholeness. Simply put, it is a pleasure to experience. Nobody’s time is wasted, and there is no competition. It is also efficient, effective, and impactful for everyone involved.

Active listening means listening to what we are being told with an intentional effort to understand the point of view of others, their motivations, thoughts and expectations while suspending any judgment.

Good active listening skills

Harvard business review names the following skills as key to good active listening.

  1. Think ahead: Active listeners think about what conclusions could be drawn and what intent the speaker has. They ask questions designed to deepen their insight into the content of the message.
  2. Look at the evidence: Good listeners evaluate and ask questions about what the other person is saying.
  3. Review and mentally summarize the points of the talk.
  4. Pay attention to nonverbal communication like facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures.
  5. Give physical acknowledgement during a conversation: Nodding, eye contact, and positive body language help facilitate open and honest interactions.

Before we delve further into active listening, let’s explore other listening types and see how these behaviors can be modified to support active listening instead.

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Active Listening: How to Be an Effective Communicator

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