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Listening Skills: Three to Limit & Three to Double Down On

Communication is a deceptively simple part of our lives, and our jobs. After all, we’re just humans, speaking and listening to other humans, right? Wrong.

listening skills

The challenge with communication is often that we think that it's actually happened, when it hasn’t. We assume that something has been understood just because the words have come out of our mouths when this is not so. The true essence of communication begins not with speaking, but with listening - not only to the words being said but for both verbal and nonverbal signals.

The way in which we listen sends clear signals to our conversation partner. It lets them know whether we care: whether we’re interested and genuine or just looking to tick a box. It can be a challenge, as experts in our fields, to separate ourselves from the information we’re keen to impart. To free your mind and be present in the moment when you have so much expertise and knowledge that you need to deliver is difficult.

It requires taking a step back to think about what you can truly deliver which will create that impact you desire. It requires recognising and avoiding perfectly normal listening ways or modes that we use in everyday social or work environments. It relies on us catching the listening modes which are unproductive or unhelpful as we employ them, and then looking for an alternative way to move through them, and back to helpful and engaging modes of listening.

Here are three elements of listening to limit, and three to develop (or double down on!) to improve your communication & stakeholder engagement.


Solution Listening. This means listening out only for the presentation of a problem which you can immediately jump on and resolve. It demonstrates shallow listening, and is also known as ‘the Advice Monster,’ a mode of listening often employed by parents. It can be annoying and rarely results in a conversation with any depth or insight.

listening skills
Listening skills apply to online conversations, too.

Inquisitive Listening. Inquisitive listening often pops up after training or coaching sessions, when people come away with great enthusiasm and a new way of operating. Subsequent meetings can lose a sense of balance and start sounding and feeling like an interview to the other party . It may seem as though you’re prying for information unrelated to the theme of the conversation. Using this listening mode, we tend to assume, generalise, and miss key information. We may distort information based on our own perception, and often lose focus on what's important.

Autobiographical Listening. Ironically, autobiographical listening is the essence of a great social discussion. This is the “Oh me too!, let me tell you all about it” mode. We do this all the time when we're in social settings and it works well there, because we have a lot more time. However, when we're speaking with stakeholders who are often time poor, autobiographical listening is not your friend. It can completely derail your conversation unless you’re able to catch yourself in the moment and redirect the conversation back to the primary reason that you’re there. It can seem self-centred, and unprofessional, which is the opposite effect you’re aiming for.


In the same way that there are listening modes to avoid, there are several aspects to skilful listening which can enhance your conversations and enable you to build trust and gain insights.

Paraphrasing. Paraphrasing – repeating back to the person what they’ve said, in different words – can be very useful. It provides an opportunity to clarify your assumptions and sends a clear signal to your conversation partner that you’re listening and interested. It gets you back on topic as to what is the primary item of importance for the meeting and allows you to avoid judgement. You can demonstrate empathy through doing this as well, which can be particularly important when the person has a different point of view to your own.

Body Language. This is a personal concept, with varied cultural implications, so it’s difficult to ‘coach’ or prescribe. The main thing to note is that to use and decipher body language purposefully takes focus and energy, as well as discipline. It requires that we look for cues, sense them, but then also act on them. It may surprise you to learn the 7-38-55 rule with regards to communication – i.e. that…

· Only 7% of our communication is verbal.

· 38% is tone of voice.

· A massive 55% is body language.

Tone of Voice.

As per the above rule, tone of voice is crucial to real understanding through communication. A perfect example is the simple phrase ‘I’m fine’, which can be said to mean everything from ‘there’s nothing wrong with me’ to ‘I’m furious with you right now!’ Awareness and sensitivity to the tone of voice you’re listening to can reveal much more than words alone.

Improving your listening skills and being conscious of helpful and unhelpful types of listening is the key to unlocking great conversations which lead to real insights. Far from being manipulative or unnatural, listening with intent and purpose demonstrates respect for the other person’s time. It helps to determine and achieve goals for each conversation you have and ensures you don’t veer off track or give the wrong impression. And, as with many interpersonal skills, the first step is awareness.

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