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10 Ways to Master the Art of Listening

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Everyone loves to be heard and adores a brilliant listener. Here are 10 ways to make sure you hear well and be that adored listener.

Have you experienced this? You meet someone in a social, hobby or work context, and you feel understood, really understood, for the first time. The person was so in tune with you, that it was almost as though they could read your mind.

If you have, you have met one of the world’s elite listeners. From your own experience, you will know how extremely rare such people are.

How did it feel? Great? As though you were the most important person in the world to that person? If so, you are in good company. Great listeners make almost everyone they meet feel that way. And here is the wonderful news: there is no artifice; to them, everyone they meet is the most important person in the world.

Beliefs of great listeners

Great listeners believe that when they listen to someone, they can and should give their full attention to that person. Elite listeners make the person the entire focus of their minds. They are not doing what most other people are doing, that is, thinking of what to say next – they are seeking to understand.

What to say next will be entirely drawn from what they learn from listening, after hearing and understanding. People can sense that and know when someone is listening and has fully listened. To be that great listener, empty your mind and take in everything the person says.

Passion listening

People worldwide love to talk about only a handful of topics. Themselves, their passions, fears, experiences, and life journey. Good listeners understand that and are happy to focus on the person and what interests them. Great listeners go beyond that.

Motivated listening

Great listeners believe they can learn from everyone they meet. Everyone has a different perspective on life, knowledge, experiences, passions, fears, aspirations, hopes and dreams.

The person that the great listener attends to is the world authority on multiple subjects – and always has knowledge and understanding that the great listener does not. Effective listening finds much to admire in the person speaking. Great listening is looking for the wonders in the person you are hearing.

Active listening

Most people are passive hearers compared to active listening at the elite level. Passive hearing is characterised by the words being understood. Active listeners are seeking to understand way beyond mere words. They seek to understand the meaning, the emotion, the interpretations, the attitudes, the beliefs, and what was said as much as what was not said.

Elite listeners listen with all their senses

For example, they listen with their eyes, too. They are ‘hearing’ the body language. They feel the voice and all its changes and nuances; its tone, power, speed, and pitch variation. Every element of a person’s communication sends signals, both intentional and unintentional, conscious and unconscious.

To fully understand a person, it is essential to listen to everything, every subtle little nuance, even the never-ending stream of micro-gestures. Micro-gestures include tiny, almost invisible facial, body, and voice changes.

For instance, a micro-smile, a fleeting start of a smile, which disappears almost as soon as it starts, tells the elite to listen that there is an emotion the speaker experienced but chose not to dwell on or articulate.

Passive listeners do not attend to or act on such nuance. The active listener now has a choice. To reflect on what they have observed or not.

Effective listening is reflective listening

Elite listeners always leave the speaker feeling as though they have been fully understood. One of the ways that understanding is conveyed is to reflect on what has been understood in the next communication. Here is an example.

  • Listener: ‘I noticed that you smiled briefly when you said you were to be made redundant; was it welcome news?’
  • Speaker: ‘Well, it was mixed. I had hoped to be paid to leave rather than walk away with nothing, but I now have the uncertainty at a time not of my choosing.’

People with only rudimentary listening abilities often confuse reflective listening with parroting. To illustrate.

      • Speaker: ‘I don’t like my job.’
      • Basic listener: ‘I understand that you don’t like your job.’
      • More skilled listener: ‘What it is you don’t like about it?’

Effective reflective listening uses pick-up and carry-on techniques

That is, the message conveyed (via all channels) is picked-up and acknowledged, and a question or statement follows, which invites the speaker to carry on or elaborate.

That sends multiple signals to the speaker:

      • What they have said has been heard and understood.
      • The listener is interested in exploring the topic further.
      • The listener is interested in the speaker and their life.

Questions that could only have been asked if a full understanding of what has been said demonstrates effective listing. For example, as above, ‘What is it that you don’t like about it?’ could only have been asked if the listener had been listening. Picking up and carrying on with a relevant and emotionally appropriate question demonstrates real listening.

Elite listeners send overt listening signals

They listen with their eyes as well as their ears. They look at the person in a compassionate and interesting way. Rather than staring, they gently look at the speaker’s eyes and mouth as they speak. That signals that they want to understand and are applying effort.

Top listeners also signal that they get it by summarising their understanding when it seems appropriate to do so – especially after a large amount of information has been provided or what is conveyed is complex.

      • Listener: ‘Wow! Your company head-hunted you, based on your attitude, even though you’d never done such a job, and they sent you on a four-week training course before you started. And then, within two months, they promoted you?’

Having received clear and compelling confirmation of being understood opens the door for the speaker to elaborate or move the conversation to another topic if they wish. Either way, the rapport and depth of connection have been improved.

Effective listening is authentic and balanced

Elite listeners pick up on cues and ask the speaker for their views, opinions, observations, interpretations, and analyses. That is not to say that the listener avoids self-disclosure. Far from it.

A one-sided, imbalanced ‘speaker takes all conversation’ and can leave well-adjusted speakers feeling as though they are being ego-centric, involuntarily being made the centre of attention.

Neither is listening non-judgemental, as many in the mental health community advocate. Non-judgementalism is a myth. It is not possible. Even if it were possible if a listener was to not express judgement at a point where most others would, their integrity and authenticity would be called into question, and trust would make a hasty exit from the conversation, with obvious consequences for the rapport.

Effective listening removes blockages to listening

Elite listeners avoid using any form of blocking body language, for example, folded arms or crossed legs, looking mostly in a direction other than at the speaker. They avoid shutting down language, for example: ‘That issue is now closed.’

They also avoid using non-verbal communication that clashes with the speakers. The most advanced listeners seem to unconsciously match the non-verbal communication of their speaker. They adopt similar postures, use the same speed and tone of speaking, and use similar syntax and vocabulary.

Most people do this unconsciously. For instance, when we engage with a baby, we instinctively adopt the kind of communication we know babies respond to. The most advanced listeners instinctively change their communication approach to match the person they seek to understand.

What becoming a brilliant listener can do for you?

Throughout human history, those with the most advanced communications skills fare best in society.

People who master the art of listening are welcome everywhere, make friends much more easily, and can fully understand the world. Why? Because they listen. You can make your life better and help many people you meet if you make a lifetime commitment to becoming the best listener you can.

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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