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Listening to communicate

Listening is a core communication skill. In this article, Adjunct Prof Marcus O'Donnell discusses listening as part of an adaptable, resilient mind.
White teenager girl talking with disabled wheel-chaired African American man and woman when they walking on the street in Bronx, New York, together
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Good communication is interactive, and listening is a key part of this exchange.

Along with problem-solving skills, which we’ve just looked at, communication skills also rank highly on the list of skills sought by employers.

This is no surprise, because problem solving and communication work hand-in-hand. For example, as we saw in the previous two steps, problem solving involves talking with others and gathering different points of view.

What does good listening involve?

Many people assume that good communication is primarily about being a confident, articulate speaker: that is, communication is about getting your ideas across. However, this is only part of the equation. Listening is the other critical factor in effective communication.

In other words, we need to listen before we speak, because usually our ideas are born in dialogue with others. We also need to listen after we speak to hear how others respond.

Good communicators even listen while they’re speaking. This includes paying attention to their audience’s non-verbal signals – such as body language – to better understand how their ideas are being received.

What happens when we listen?

Listening is a complex activity, and researchers such as Gearhart and Bodie (2011) suggest that it involves three interrelated processes. For example, when we listen:

  • we engage our thinking processes to understand and interpret what we’re hearing
  • we engage affective or emotional processes that generate sensory feedback such as excitement, which, in turn, motivates us to listen more closely
  • we engage in certain behaviours that indicate we’re responding to a speaker through activities like note taking and by giving both verbal and non-verbal feedback.

How can we become better listeners?

Being a really good listener isn’t easy.

As Sarah Green Carmichael reminds us, one of the main reasons for this is that we talk a lot slower than we think.

So, while we’re listening to someone talking at about 120 words a minute, our busy brain is charging ahead, getting distracted by something in the distance like what you want to say next or suddenly remembering something from last night or something that happened the last time you met the person you are speaking with.

Just being aware of this process and consciously training yourself to come back to listening whenever you realise your mind has wandered is a good start on the road to better listening. It’s also a mindfulness practice, which we’ll explore more in the next step.

You might also spend a day trying to be really conscious of how easily your mind is distracted when listening to others and see what you learn from this exercise. As you do this, keep in mind that becoming distracted from what someone is saying is a very natural process and don’t give yourself a hard time about it.

For more ideas about how to develop your listening skills, explore the listening tips in the article links listed at the end of this step.

Listening in a pandemic

Being able to listen to one another during the current COVID-19 crisis is particularly important. It can also be more difficult as we do not have a lot of the normal social interactions we have with friends and colleagues. But it might also bring an added focus.

If you are working remotely because of COVID-19 restrictions finding new ways of listening and communicating with colleagues is critical to helping each other feel supported as well as continuing to get work done. Michael Adorno argues that working remotely made him a better listener and a better communicator because he had to find new ways of being very explicit and he made an extra effort to seek colleagues out.

What has listening got to do with resilience?

In the first week of this course we talked about how resilience is a social process and how we become more resilient by connecting with others and feeling their support in times of stress and personal growth.

In the last few steps we also talked about prototyping conversations and gathering different perspectives to help us better understand and reframe problems so we can ‘build our way forward’.

Finally, listening is not a passive skill; it’s part of the way we actively create our world and learn to practise openness to all the challenges it presents us. This is a key part of developing an adaptable, resilient mindset.

Your task

Good listening is often described as ‘active’ listening.

Use your search engine to find some articles about active listening or follow the links listed under ‘see also’ and, in the comments, share what you discovered about how to become a better listener.

© Deakin University
This article is from the free online

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