Listening, the Under-Appreciated Skill

By Lauren Schieffer, CSP
Have you ever been talking with someone who was not present in the conversation? Oh, they may have been making eye contact and nodding, but you could just tell that their mind was somewhere else. This happened to me this past week. I felt like I could have slipped a Steve Martin routine (“May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?”) into my sentence and she would not have noticed. If you are at all like me, you feel just a little (if not a lot) disrespected in that situation.


Just about everyone believes that he or she listens effectively.  Consequently, very few people think they need to develop their listening skills.  A study of over 8,000 people employed in businesses, hospitals, universities, the military and government agencies found that virtually all of the study respondents believed that they listen as well, or better than their co-workers. In reality, listening effectively is something very few of us do as well as we should.  Research shows that the average person listens at only about 25% efficiency.  It's not because listening is so difficult.  It’s that most of us have never developed the habits that would make us effective listeners.

To be effective communicators, our objective must always be to allow all people to feel comfortable and respected in our presence, while we stand our own ground and we get our message across. Therefore, to be effective communicators, it is our responsibility to be good listeners.

According to Dr. Malcolm Webber in his periodical The Leadership Letter there are three base levels of listening:

Level 3 listening is Non-Listening.  This is the proverbial “in one ear and out the other.” This is background or white noise.  An example of non-listening might be if you have your iPod or Spotify going to keep you company as you work.  You hear it – but you’re not really listening to it.  Unfortunately, anyone who has kids understands non-listening every now and then. (Heck, anyone who’s been married for any length of time understands non-listening every now and then…)

Level 2 listening is Passive Listening.  With passive listening you hear the words. You often miss the message.  There is no attempt to dig any deeper into them than a surface level.  Most people dwell in passive listening roughly 70% of the time.  This is what happens when listening passively: During any conversation it is normal human nature to split our attention. While the other person is speaking, in the back of our minds we are formulating our next contribution to the conversation – our “yes and” or “yes but.”  Think about this for a moment. If you watch your local newscast on any given evening, you will observe the newscaster, the talking head, in the center part of the screen. They are imparting the latest news to us. Simultaneously, down below at the bottom of the screen, you have a ticker tape rolling by with a completely different news story.  If you concentrate on the newscaster, you can’t read the rolling words – and if you start reading the ticker tape you completely lose what the reporters are telling you.  You physically can’t concentrate on two things simultaneously.  That is what is happening during passive listening – that split attention. You are equally, if not more focused on scripting your next contribution to the conversation, than you are in what the other person is trying to communicate to you.  It is listening with the intent to respond. When you’re caught up with thinking about what you’re going to say next, you aren’t really listening.

Level 1 listening is Active Listening.  Active listening involves turning off the ticker tape in the back of your brain and focusing entirely on what the other person is trying to communicate to you.  This more often allows you to hear the message behind the words.  At this level, the focus is on placing yourself in the other’s position, attempting to see things from their point of view.  The active listener knows that specific words mean different things to different people and they do their best to understand the intended meaning of the speaker.  This is listening with the intent to listen and understand – rather than listening with the intent to respond.  When you really focus on the other person, you activate neurons in your brain and your body starts to sync with the other person, which makes communicating with them easier.

While it’s not realistic to expect to be in level-one active listening all the time, effective communicators endeavor to build their level-one active listening skills and balance the time they spend in level-two passive listening.

In my experience, there are a few characteristics that all good listeners have in common.

Limit Distractions

In today’s information-overloaded age, as we work to get more and more done in less time, we are multi-tasking all the time. We are working, web-browsing, checking and responding to emails, talking on the phone, etc. It is normal and natural when people approach us to talk that we simply add them to the list of things we are doing at the moment – as compared to giving them our full attention.  While this might be acceptable for quick chats, ideally it is preferable to stop what you’re doing to give the person your full attention. That might mean stashing that phone, closing the laptop or turning away from your monitor, and ridding yourself of other distractions. Put everything down and focus on the person in front of you. This communicates to them that you have an interest in, and are focused on what they have to say.

Furthermore, when you’re fully focused and aware in the moment, you’re more likely to retain what you’re hearing and respond with more authenticity.

Don’t Interrupt

Unless the building’s on fire, let the other person finish what they want to say before you slice in with your comments. We often get impatient, and believe we “get” what the other person is trying to say, so we interrupt to move forward. Good listeners discipline themselves to allow the other person to finish – not only their sentence but also their full thought.  Many people will shut down when they’ve been interrupted. They may have other things to share but can’t or won’t because they’ve been cut off.

Keep an Open Mind

Great listeners know that every conversation they have isn’t going to resolve a larger issue — but are open to allowing it to put them one step closer to understanding the people they communicate with on a daily basis. Listening isn’t a magic fix for challenges or conflicts, but it puts you in a much better position to begin problem solving. It allows you to understand where the other person is coming from.

Don’t Assume/h2>

An important part of effective listening is letting go of pre-conceptions and assumptions. When you make assumptions, you automatically layer over what the person says with your presumptions, which changes the message based upon your own filters.

Ask Relevant Questions

Part of effective listening is the ability to ask appropriate follow-up questions to draw out more information. There may be things the other person doesn’t share (either because they think you already know them, or because they think they are irrelevant) that can only be uncovered by asking questions. This allows you to get more information about specific areas of which you are unclear, and thus get a better picture of what they are trying to communicate. The ability to provide thought-provoking feedback through relevant questions is one of the best ways to show you’re engaged in what the other person has to say. By listening effectively, you will get more information from the people you manage, work for, or work with. You’ll increase others' trust in you, reduce conflict, better understand how to motivate others, and inspire a higher level of commitment in the people on your team.

If we want to build meaningful, respectful connections with each other, we have to know how to truly listen to each other. Listening is the most under-utilized, under-appreciated, under-practiced communication skill.  This is a shame because, in business as in life, we automatically feel a bias toward those whom we believe are listening to us and a prejudice against those whom we believe are not listening to us.  Being a good listener takes more than just hearing what the other person has to say – it requires conscious desire, discipline and practice.

About the Author

As the daughter of a career Air Force officer, The Colonel’s Daughter, Lauren Schieffer, CSP gained a profound independence and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The lessons she learned from “The Colonel” have helped her make smart decisions and overcome adversity with humility and a sense of humor.  Lauren helps global audiences communicate respectfully and avoid unnecessary conflict. She has spoken in seven countries to associations, organizations, federal, state and local governments, and Fortune 500 companies.

References (2)
Doctoral dissertation, The George Washington University: Leading by Listening: Robert Kramer: 1997
The Leadership Letters: Dr. Malcom Webber: 2013