1.5 Listening Effectively

Jordan Smith; Melissa Ashman; eCampusOntario; Brian Dunphy; and Andrew Stracuzzi

Learning Objectives

target iconReframe information gained from spoken messages in ways that show accurate analysis and comprehension

If most communication these days is text-based, why is it still important to be an effective listener? Can’t we just wait till everyone who’s grown up avoiding in-person contact in favour of filtering all social interaction through their smartphones dominate the workforce so that conversation can be done away with at last?

No. Perhaps the first rule in business is to know your customer. If you don’t know what they want or need, you can’t successfully supply that demand and no one’s going to buy what you have to sell. If you don’t actively listen to what your customers or managers say they want, or fail to piece together what they don’t know they want from their description of a problem they need solved, then you may just find yourself always passed over for advancement. Business “intel” gleaned from conversation is the lifeblood of any business, as is the daily functioning of anyone working within one.

A receiver’s responsibilities in the communication process will be to use their senses of hearing, vision, and even touch, taste, and smell to understand messages in whatever channels target those senses. In the case of routine in-person communication, active listening and reading nonverbal social cues are vitally important to understanding messages, including subtext—that is, significant messages that are not explicitly stated but must be inferred from context and nonverbals. In the above case of the manager saying she’s hungry, for instance, she did not say “Join me for lunch so I can base my decision about whether to promote you on your social graces, emotional intelligence, and conversational ability.” Rather, plenty of reading between the lines was required of the receiver to figure out that:

  1. This is an invitation to lunch that ought to accepted
  2. Given the context, the invitation suggests that the manager is considering the receiver for the promotion (otherwise she would avoid the receiver altogether)
  3. This opportunity should be treated like an informal job interview

With so much of the communication process’s success riding on the responsibility of the receiver to understand both explicit and implicit messages, effective, active listening skills are keys to success in any business.

Receiver Errors

Unfortunately, plenty can go wrong on the receiver’s end in listening effectively and making the right inferences. We’ve already looked at the possibility that they may just lack knowledge about both the job and the broader context to understand fully the content of workplace messages and their underlying meanings. They may be:

  • A poor reader of nonverbal social cues due to a lack of experience in developing conversational skills
  • Distracted by what’s on their devices
  • Experiencing too much internal “semantic noise” interference from their minds wandering off topic with distracting thoughts about non-work-related things even during work communication
  • Too preoccupied rehearsing what they’re going to say on a topic because they would rather speak than listen, or they listen only to reply rather than to understand
  • Trying to multitask by reading or browsing while listening, but doing neither very effectively (Sanbonmatsu et al., 2013)

Many students struggle with this. Some have difficulty being patient enough to listen and would rather speak, otherwise known as grandstanding. In all such cases, the problem is passive listening—when you merely hear noises and barely register the meaning of the message because you have preoccupying internal agenda that is more compelling. Once again, however, communication requires that you do your fair share to ensure that the sender’s meaning is understood.

Be an Active Listener

Fortunately, everyone can practice being a more effective listener by making themselves aware of their own listening habits and actively seeking to improve them. Doing so certainly takes work, especially if your listening habits have been largely passive for most of your life and your attention span is short from a steady diet of small units of media content such as memes. If your problem is that your mind wanders, you must train yourself to focus on the message at hand rather than consume other media in a failed effort to multitask or get distracted by the internal monologue that tries to whisk you away from the present. Work on just being present. Take the earbuds out and keep your cellphone in your pocket when someone is talking, including your college instructors. (When your instructors see you staring intently in the direction of your crotch under your desk and your hands are twitching a little down there, they’re not stupid; they know you’re fiddling with your phone.) Would you tolerate someone blatantly ignoring you to focus on their phone if you were speaking right in front of them? It’s just plain rude and doing this yourself could, in professional situations, get you blacklisted by managers, coworkers, and customers, resulting in missed opportunities.

Rather, maintain strong eye contact with the speaker to show active interest. Resist the social anxiety-driven urge to avert your eyes as soon as pupil-to-pupil contact lasting more than a second or two makes the human connection too real for comfort. Challenge that. Eye contact builds trust, so don’t signal to the speaker that you have something to hide (such as a lack of confidence in yourself) by darting your eyes away. But don’t fake attention either by maintaining eye contact while your mind is a million miles away; good communicators can tell from your nonverbals (like nodding in agreement at the wrong things) when the lights are on but no one’s home.

Perhaps the best strategy for active listening is to devote your brain’s full processing power to the message at hand. One way you can do this is to paraphrase the message (i.e., re-state it in your own words) then ask the speaker if you understood it correctly. Translating the message into words that resonate more with you than what the speaker used helps you remember it because you’ve personally invested yourself in it. You can find a way to make it your own without necessarily agreeing with it (but that helps, too). By doing this, you signal to the speaker that you’ve completed the whole goal of communication: to understand the sender’s meaning as they intended it.

Another processing strategy is to think of questions you can ask for clarification. No matter how thorough a speaker covers a topic, you can probably find gaps to ask about for clarification. “I understand that you’re saying A, B, and C, but what happens to those in situations X, Y, and Z?” Identifying gaps requires keen interest and strong processing power of your brain. But it’s the kind of processing that sends the auxiliary message that you are interested in what the speaker says, which may lead to a deeper conversation and connection—the holy grail of networking.

Figuring out when to talk and when to listen also requires social skills. If you like to grandstand and you get impatient when someone else is talking, you must practice exercising some impulse control. Take turns! By hearing them out and reserving judgment, you can really learn something. If you’re dealing with someone like that—one who monologues and doesn’t know when to pass the ball—you must be a good reader of nonverbal cues to capitalize on the right moment to jump in with the right thing to say. On the other end of the spectrum, it takes skill to know how to draw people who communicate mostly in silence out of their shell if it means that you will mutually benefit from it on a business or personal level.

If you spent too much of your youth lost in screen time rather than interacting in person with friends, however, there’s no time like now and the rest of your life to begin favouring human contact over technology. Of course, the technology will always be there and you’ll be great at using it when the situation calls for it. But your professional and personal well-being depends on knowing how and when to do without it and to get back to what really matters: being human. From there, professional success follows from keeping the communication channels open to solve problems collaboratively one conversation at a time.

Key Takeaway

key iconThe receiver of a message plays a significant role in ensuring that the goal of understanding is achieved, which means active listening in the case of spoken messages.


pen and paper icon1. Pair up with a classmate and do a role-play exercise where one of you tries to explain how to do something while the other multitasks and interrupts. Quiz the multitasker to see if they remember specific steps in the procedure described. Then try it again while the listener practices active listening. How do the two communication experiences compare? Discuss your findings.
2. In a half-hour period of conversation with friends, see if you can count how many times you are interrupted, but don’t tell them ahead of time that you’re counting for this. Share and compare with your classmates.
3. Take Psychology Today’s 33-question (15 min.) Listening Skills Test. Grab a screenshot of your results and, below it and the heading “Barriers to Effective Listening,” write five barriers that particularly annoy you or prevent you from being an active listener—both that you notice in other people and in yourself. Below that and the heading “Effective Listening Strategies,” list five strategies, one for each of the barriers listed above, each identifying a strategy for overcoming the barrier.


Hall, A. (2012, July 14). To succeed as an entrepreneur, know your customer. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/alanhall/2012/06/14/to-succeed-as-an-entrepreneur-know-your-customer/

Listening Skills Test. (n.d.). Psychology Today. Retrieved on December 17, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/tests/relationships/listening-skills-test

Sanbonmatsu, D. M., Strayer, D.L., Medeiros-Ward, N., Watson, J.M. (2013). Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54402. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0054402




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1.5 Listening Effectively by Jordan Smith; Melissa Ashman; eCampusOntario; Brian Dunphy; and Andrew Stracuzzi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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