How to Improve Listening Skills

Grandfather listening to grandson in park

If you’ve been with me the last several weeks, you know I’m writing about the importance and power of listening. Now I want to talk about how to improve listening skills.

I use the word “skill” because listening is something we can practice and develop. But, truthfully, I’m not sure “skill” is the best word because it sounds like a mechanical process.  It’s really a set of principles or guidelines to enable you to accurately hear the message of another and to create safe and trusting conditions in which others can open up and talk about their ideas and even deeper feelings and experience.

Seven Guidelines to Improve Listening Skills

So, here are seven guidelines for becoming a better listener.

  1. Be Totally Attentive or Present

 This means that you’re not passive during listening but actively working to “tune in” to the speaker. You demonstrate this by giving your complete attention, not only in crucial and high stakes conversations but even during more informal and casual conversations. You do it by putting aside distractions, making eye contact, maintaining an open posture, leaning forward slightly, having a relaxed facial expression, and so on. And even more important than such physical attention is being mentally present in a way that lets the speaker know that you’re curious and desire to hear his or her message.

  1. Maintain an open, non-judgmental mindset

The biggest barrier to good listening is the tendency to judge or evaluate—either positively or negatively—what the speaker is saying. It is the most natural thing in the world to either agree or disagree. Someone says, “I love working here,” and your brain will automatically analyze the statement and cough up a response. “Me too.” Or, “Just wait till you’ve been here a while.” Or, “you wouldn’t say that if you did my job.” Good listening is avoiding this tendency. Judgment doesn’t allow you to fully hear or understand what is being communicated because you’re distorting the message with your own viewpoint or feelings. It also causes other people to close down rather than open up because they don’t feel safe.

  1. Use prompts

You don’t have to sit passively when someone is speaking, waiting for them to finish. It’s helpful to use facial expressions, comments or simple phrases which let the speaker know you’re engaged and which encourage them to continue. Some examples might be “uh, huh… okay… wow… hmm… that didn’t feel good… tell me more… I see…” and so on. These statements have to be subtle enough that they don’t distract or call too much attention to you as listener. They let the speaker know that you’re paying attention and want to hear what they have to say.

  1. Hear the meaning

It’s more important to grasp the main ideas or essence of a message rather than trying to get all the facts and details straight. In fact, it’s often impossible to absorb everything, so go for the essence of the message. And in face-to-face conversations, remember that only part of the message is conveyed by the words. There are often deeper needs, feelings, and unspoken meaning underneath the words and you get at these by paying attention to the non-verbal cues, sensing the feelings, and putting yourself in the speaker’s place. You’re trying to hear not only what is stated but what is not openly stated. Hearing the meaning is something that is done with your heart as well as your mind.

  1. Ask clarifying questions

These questions invite the speaker to clarify or elaborate upon his or her opinion (or inner experience) or fill in missing data. In some of the best conversations the listener is quite active, not imposing his/her own opinion, but working to understand the meaning behind the speaker’s words. Here are some examples of clarifying questions.

  • “Could you share more about you mean by that?”
  • “Can you help me understand how you arrived at that conclusion?”
  • “What interpretation did you make of that comment/situation?”
  • “How did you feel when that occurred?”
  • “What else was going on? What happened next?”

 Again, the purpose is to get more information or data about the person’s point of view. One word of caution is that you don’t want to start asking so many questions that you take over the conversation or make it sound like an inquisition or attorney’s deposition. The responsibility is on the other party to tell their story. You ask clarifying questions when something is not entirely clear or you want them to provide more information.

  1. Restate what you hear

A lot of people call this active listening. You do this by paraphrasing or mirroring back what you’re hearing. The purpose is to both convey empathy as well as check out to make sure you correctly understand.  It includes simple statements like, “Let me see if I understand…” Or, “Is this what you’re saying?” Or, “You feel…”

Know that you won’t always get it right when you restate your understanding. That’s okay. The speaker will correct you and appreciate that you’re doing your best to understand his or her message.

Let me add a word of encouragement as you use this guideline. A lot of people really struggle to paraphrase or mirror back what they’re hearing. It seems difficult at first and I’ll admit that it takes practice to do it well. So, give yourself time to practice and get better at it.  The truth is that this is not the most important guideline. People don’t care as much about your words as your intent. They want to know that you’re accessible and doing your best to be attuned to their message. The words you use are secondary.

  1. Be okay with silence

Most people are uncomfortable with silence and so jump in and start talking. By doing that you take the responsibility for steering the conversation away from the speaker and keep them from going deeper. If you can allow moments of silence, the speaker will usually pick up again and keep going, often sharing something deeper than before.

Two Questions

So, these are the seven guidelines for how to improve listening skills. Now let me share two questions I like to ask myself to hone this ability. The first is, “Is this person opening up or closing down?” If people experience you as safe, meaning they feel your respect and non-judgement, they’re more likely to speak truthfully and disclose their real feelings and point of view. If not, they close down which you can see by their body language or lack of responsiveness. Of course, you can’t force someone to open up. Sometimes they want or need to talk. At other times they do not. You can only invite and then be a safe place.

The second question I like to ask myself is, “Who’s steering the conversation?” Imagine the steering wheel of a car. When you are in a listening mode, you want the speaker to steer the direction of the car. Yet sometimes it’s easy for more dominant or verbal personalities to take over the steering wheel by asking too many questions or moving too quickly into advice-giving, lecturing, or problem-solving mode. Notice when that happens and create space for the speaker to steer the conversation in the direction they need to go.


I hope these seven guidelines and two questions help you know how to improve your listening skills. I want to say that improving your listening skills takes time and effort, especially if the conversation is about more sensitive and high-stakes issues. Make that okay because you’re having deeper and more real conversations that will build more trust and also get at the root causes of problems and concerns. You’ll be saving time in the long-term.

So, your assignment is to learn how to improve your listening skills by finding opportunities to listen. They are all around you. See if you can use them today or in the next few days. It is a fun challenge and will help you improve your personal and work relationships.



  1. Rolayne Sellers

    Great suggestions! I think these are really needed right now both personally and nationally. We would understand each other so much better if we would care to listen.

    • Roger Allen

      So true, Rolayne. Listening seems to be a lost art in our current political climate. By listening we begin to see that we do have common interests and that what unites us is greater than what unites us. I appreciate your comment.


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