Everything You Need to Know to be a Great Listener

“Do you talk to each other?” a marriage counselor asked a couple who came for help with their relationship. “Oh, yes, we talk to each other all the time,” the wife replied. “The problem is listening to each other.”


Communication literally means to share, unite, have a common experience. It is the bridge that connects people and listening is one of the building blocks.

Hearing is not the same as listening. Hearing is the ability to absorb sound. Listening is the ability to interpret meaning. Correctly. Three older gentlemen were sitting the park. “It’s windy,” said the first. “No,” replied the second, “it’s Thursday.” “Me too,” said the third, “let’s get a drink.”

Not everything we hear requires in-depth listening, but if the goal is to learn, understand or connect, listening is essential.

The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand & be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them. Ralph Nichols


Recognizes and validates the speaker.
Enlightens and educates.
Diminishes conflict and hostility.
Builds and strengthens relationships.


COMMITMENT — Listening requires total involvement.

SELFLESSNESS — A clear mind. Personal needs are put aside.

CONCENTRATION — Focus on the person and present moment.

INTEREST — Sincere desire to understand. Eye contact, nodding and leaning forward show interest.

OPEN-MINDED — Non-judgmental, objective. Seeks to understand not necessarily agree.

The mindset of a good listener enables the speaker to feel safe, be completely open and honest.

Since words account for only 7% of communication a good listener also needs to…


Words can be misleading but body language, facial expression, tone of voice, and the vibes we unconsciously project are not. To really know a person, we must tune into the whole presence. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said…

What you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say.

DISCERN — emotions behind the words. Be sensitive to changes in expression, voice tone.

BE PATIENT — Don’t assume, jump to conclusions.

We are capable of listening at about four times the rate at which people talk. It’s tempting to jump to conclusions, cut in and finish a sentence, or get impatient and say, “you already told me that.” The speaker will repeat main issues or things he most wants you to understand.

PAY ATTENTION — We’re easily distracted and if we’re not careful, attention will wander. But if you take the attitude of a detective, you will be able to stay focused. Look for hidden clues in the position of the body, changing facial expressions or tone of voice. Business guru Peter Drucker said…

The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.


Paying attention doesn’t guarantee we won’t misinterpret. If we fail to understand what was actually said, communication can get way off track. Sixth grade students who had not heard correctly wrote these answers to exam questions…

Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.

Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.

That’s why we need to clarify what we hear! The basic clarification tools are repetition & questions. They keep speaker and listener on the same page. Use them to make sure you interpreted correctly or to clear up confusion.

REPETITION — restates, paraphrases, summarizes what listener heard. It allows speaker to correct if necessary or explain in greater detail.

QUESTIONS — are used to evoke more information, avoid confusion and better understand what was said.

SPEAKER: I’m really out of it today.

LISTENER: You’re feeling out of it. Are you tired? Maybe you’re coming down with something.

SPEAKER: No, that’s not it. I just keep making mistakes. My head is someplace else.

LISTENER: Oh, you’re feeling out of it mentally. Are you worried about something?

SPEAKER: No. I’m just not paying attention to what I’m doing. Maybe I’m bored. Yeah, that’s the problem. But I can’t quit this job. What am I going to do?

There are several places in this conversation where speaker and listener could have parted ways. Repetition and questions helped both listener and speaker discern the underlying problem.

If, at some point, the speaker feels stuck, doesn’t know how to proceed, it is appropriate to offer…

SUGGESTIONS — pose questions or present alternatives meant to help the speaker discern what s/he wants to do. Be careful not to voice suggestions as orders or directions or shoulds.

The goal of a good listener is to help people express their thoughts and emotions so they can better understand themselves and their problems, make their own decisions and resolve their difficulties. That is how people build confidence and self-esteem. If you solve other people’s problems, you run the risk of:

1. BEING WRONG — They can blame and resent you because you told them what to do and it didn’t work.

2. BEING RIGHT — They will repeatedly rely on you to tell them what to do.

These are skills to be used in serious conversations. In a simple exchange: “What time do you want to have dinner?” you don’t have to stop what you’re doing and give the speaker your undivided attention. During water cooler banter or a comment about the weather, it would be inappropriate if not utterly foolish to use these skills.

Listening is a gift we can offer one another. Really listen to people and they open up like a flower, reveal themselves to you, virtually come alive before your eyes. We receive the gift of communion — common union.

NEXT WEEK: Want to be a Great Listener? Don’t Do This!

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Originally published at www.gerioneill.com on February 17, 2016.