Are You Really Listening? What Your Listening Skills Say About You

We‘ve all been there: nodding along as someone is speaking, while internally fretting about how to respond or mentally jumping ahead to the next point we want to make. It‘s an all too human instinct—and a telltale sign that you may not be really, truly listening.

Hearing the words someone is saying is not the same as active listening. And while it‘s easy to fall into lazy listening habits, being a good listener is an invaluable skill in both work and life. People who listen well are better able to build genuine relationships, understand others‘ perspectives, collaborate effectively, and move projects and ideas forward.

"We are losing our listening," sound expert Julian Treasure said in a popular TED Talk. Fortunately, listening is a skill that can be honed and improved. It starts with honestly assessing your current listening abilities.

Are You Actually a Good Listener? [Flowchart]

Most of us like to think we‘re good listeners. But the data tells a different story. In a survey by Accenture, 96% of respondents rated themselves as good listeners, yet only 10% actually had strong listening skills based on a subsequent assessment.

It‘s human nature to overestimate our abilities in areas that are socially desirable, like listening. But the reality is, active listening is hard work. It requires focus, patience, and presence—qualities that don‘t always come naturally in our distracted, fast-paced world.

So, how can you tell if you‘re really listening or just hearing? Start by honestly answering the questions in this flowchart:

[Flowchart: Are You Actually a Good Listener?]

1. When someone is speaking to you, are you fully present and focused on understanding them?

  • If yes, proceed to Question 2.
  • If no, you‘re hearing but not actively listening. Aim to minimize distractions, make eye contact, and give the speaker your full attention.

2. As you‘re listening, are you withholding judgment and staying open to the speaker‘s perspective?

  • If yes, move on to Question 3.
  • If no, you‘re listening with a closed mind. Challenge yourself to set aside preconceived notions and listen to understand, not to confirm your existing beliefs.

3. Do you ask follow up questions to deepen your understanding and show you‘re engaged?

  • If yes, advance to Question 4.
  • If no, you‘re listening passively. Engage with the speaker by asking clarifying questions and expressing curiosity about their viewpoint.

4. Do you wait for the speaker to finish their thoughts before jumping in with your own?

  • If yes, congratulations! You have strong active listening skills. Keep up the good work.
  • If no, you‘re an interrupting listener. Practice bite your tongue and allowing silence in the conversation for the speaker to fully express themselves.

Of course, all of us will move through this flowchart differently depending on the situation. I know I‘ve been guilty of getting distracted or half-listening during a conversation, especially if I‘m stressed or the topic isn‘t immediately relevant to me.

Case in point: Last week, I was on a Zoom call with a colleague who was recapping a client project I wasn‘t closely involved with. About 10 minutes into her summary, I caught my mind wandering to my overflowing inbox and subtly typing an unrelated Slack message.

Suddenly, she paused and asked what I thought about a key decision point. Busted! I had to sheepishly admit I‘d lost the thread and ask her to repeat the last part. Not my proudest listening moment.

As author Stephen Covey once said, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." Letting go of that urge to steer the conversation or plan what to say next is challenging but so worth it.

Here are a few powerful reminders of just how impactful listening—or not listening—can be:

  • According to research by Salesforce, 86% of employees and executives cite lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures.
  • A survey by Fierce Inc. found miscommunication costs companies with 100+ employees an average of $525,000 per year.
  • Studies show we remember only 25-50% of what we hear, according to the International Listening Association.
  • Employees who feel heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to do their best work, based on findings by Salesforce.

Becoming a Better Listener: 9 Practical Tips

Mastering the art of listening takes ongoing practice and self-awareness. These nine strategies can help you exercise your listening muscles:

  1. Set an intention to listen deeply. Make a conscious choice to be fully present and listen not just to respond, but to genuinely understand the speaker‘s perspective.

  2. Minimize distractions. Silence notifications, put away your phone or laptop, and try not to let your mind wander to your to-do list or other concerns while listening.

  3. Show you‘re tuned in. Make steady eye contact, nod, offer brief verbal affirmations, and use positive body language to demonstrate active engagement.

  4. Listen with curiosity. Approach the conversation with an open and inquisitive mindset, aiming to learn something new from the speaker.

  5. Rephrase what you‘ve heard. Paraphrasing key points in your own words confirms you‘ve understood and absorbed the material, while giving the speaker a chance to clarify if needed.

  6. Ask follow up questions. Go beyond surface-level listening by digging deeper into the speaker‘s ideas, opinions and experiences. Pose thoughtful questions to draw out more nuance and detail.

  7. Resist the temptation to interrupt. Catch yourself when you feel the urge to jump in, and instead focus on giving the speaker uninterrupted airtime. Fully hear them out before responding.

  8. Pay attention to tone and body language. Nonverbal cues like facial expressions, voice inflection, posture and gestures often communicate more than the literal words being said. Train yourself to pick up on these subtle signals.

  9. Check your emotional reactions. Notice if certain topics or statements trigger irritation, impatience, anxiety or other charged emotions in you. Breathe through those responses and focus on staying neutral and present with the speaker.

The next time you‘re in a conversation, try to catch yourself in a moment of distracted or half-hearted listening. Then consciously choose to re-engage by making eye contact, asking a follow up question, or paraphrasing what you‘ve heard.

Like building any new habit, strengthening your listening skills will feel awkward and effortful at first. But the more you practice, the more natural it will become—and the more positive impacts you‘ll see in your work and life.

As Bernard Ferrari, author of Power Listening, once said: "Good listeners get out of their own way…They focus on what they are hearing, not on what they are saying or want to say. They take in information before they judge it."

Are you up for the #ListeningChallenge? See how many deeply attentive, judgment-free conversations you can have this week. Share your experiences in the comments!

References & Resources

  • Brenner, K. "Employees Are Telling You What Motivates Them. Are You Listening?" Salesforce Blog, 2022.
  • Caprino, K. "5 Things Exceptional Listeners Do Differently." Forbes, 2021.
  • Ferrari, B. "Three Ways to Listen." Power Listening, 2014.
  • Fierce Inc. "New Fierce Survey Finds Miscommunication Affects 8 in 10 Employees." 2016.
  • International Listening Association. "Listening Facts."
  • Salesforce. "Miscommunication in the Workplace."
  • Treasure, J. "5 Ways to Listen Better." TED Talk, 2011.