Ask and Listen for More Effective Communication – Part 2

by Joel Thigpen

Although most people have excellent hearing, few know how to listen. Our schools teach us reasonably well to read and write, and less well to speak. But, with rare exception, our schools and educational system make no attempt to teach us how to listen. Yet research and practical experience shows that an individual will listen five times as much as he/she writes; three times as much as read; and almost one and a half times as much as talk! Conclusion: it is impossible to gain any kind of understanding of others unless we listen!  And that includes knowing how to listen, what to listen for and how to hear what others feel as well as what they are saying.  Try using the following “keys” to improve your listening immeasurably.

  1. Listen for ideas!  Even though people can ramble on when they talk, they invariably repeat those things that are important. Speech has the advantage over writing because it can convey feeling much more clearly and emphatically. Listen for the ideas behind what people say and will begin to understand them.
  2. Listen for development!  Listen with the idea that you are determined to get something from what others say—something that will be of value to you. So, be selfish with your listening. Make others a source of your own growth and development.
  3. Listen for understanding!  Even when you start listening with an open-mind, some idea or word mentioned by the speaker might arouse a defensive reaction in you. You feel threatened or your need to be right might be placed in jeopardy. The key is to practice withholding judgment and avoid “selective hearing” as you listen. Though that person’s ideas may be wrong for you, you may still gain understanding after hearing an explanation of why that person’s ideas work in his or her life.
  4. Listen for remembering!  People remember primarily by repetition and association. If you listen with your ears but not your mind, you will remember little or nothing. Because our minds can grasp a concept or idea up to 10 times the rate at which we can speak, we can lose focus on what is being said, replacing the speaker’s words with our own thoughts. Try using this mind “gap” to recap the speaker’s words, using repetition as a memory aid or even try anticipating what the speaker will say next, thereby using association to reinforce your memory.
  5. Practice listening!  When faced with idle time while traveling or waiting for appointments, practice listening just to see how much information you can gather. For example, try to see how much you can tell about feelings from casual conversations.  Or, practice listening to material that is difficult to understand which takes special focus and concentration.  Your listening will improve with practice.
  6. Learn to be silent!  Give the other person time to finish before jumping in with new thoughts of your own. Your silence is an opportunity to listening for feelings as well as words and ideas. The silence encourages those who are speaking to elaborate.  Learning to be silent also applies to your body language. Try to control nonverbal behavior that could interrupt or influence the other person. Maintain comfortable eye contact and pay close attention to let others know your care about what they have to say.

An important part of effective listening is acknowledging the message. Sometimes this takes the form of praising the speaker’s ideas but more often it is the use of reflective responses to demonstrate you are listening while opening the door for more elaboration or clarification.  A reflective response either repeats key words or summarizes what you think the speaker was saying. For example, you might say: “I heard you say…is this right or, “That sounds interesting…can you elaborate a bit more?”

Getting the speaker to elaborate or clarify can be very beneficial by giving the opportunity to gain new information or to find out what the person is really thinking. Remember, people often try to tell you only what they think you want to hear. So, be careful when acknowledging the message not to be so enthusiastic or telling as to influence the message. Many times, a simple “I understand” or “that’s possible” or “um-hum” or a even a simple nod will encourage the speaker to continue.

One last thought:  If you want the attention of others, first give them yours! If you listen, people will tell you all you need to know about them.

Joel Thigpen is a Victory Lap Architect with The McGrail Group (; a leadership, productivity, membership development and performance improvement company located in Raleigh, NC, affiliated with Leadership Management International.   We inspire leaders to engage their teams and take a VICTORY LAP. 

Acknowledgement: “Effective Personal Productivity” and “Effective Personal Leadership” by Paul J. Meyer, Randy Slechta and LMI.