Listening Skills: Do we know how to listen?


Listening Skills: Do we know how to listen?

7 minute read | By Colin | Coaching, Interpersonal skills, Leadership, soft skills

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Listening Skills: Do we know how to listen?

A Story – The Sound of the Forest

Back in China in the third century A.D., the King Ts’ao sent his son, Prince T’ai, to the temple to study under the great master Pan Ku. Because Prince T’ai was to succeed his father as king, Pan Ku was to teach the boy the basics of being a good ruler. When the prince arrived at the temple, the master sent him alone to the nearby Forest. After one month, the prince was to return to the temple to describe the sound of the forest.

When Prince T’ai returned, Pan Ku asked the boy to describe all that he could hear. “Master,” replied the prince, “I could hear the cuckoos sing, the leaves rustle, the hummingbirds hum, the crickets chirp, the grass blow, the bees buzz, and the wind whisper and holler.” When the prince had finished, the master told him to go back to the forest to listen to what more he could hear. The prince was puzzled by the master’s request. Had he not discerned every sound already?

For days and nights on end, the young prince sat alone in the forest listening. But he heard no sounds other than those he had already heard. Then one morning, as the prince sat silently beneath the trees, he started to discern faint sounds unlike those he had ever heard before. The more acutely he listened, the clearer the sounds became. The feeling of enlightenment enveloped the boy. “These must be the sounds the master wished me to discern,” he reflected.

When Prince T’ai returned to the temple, the master asked him what more he had heard. “Master,” responded the prince reverently, “when I listened most closely, I could hear the unheard—the sound of flowers opening, the sound of the sun warming the earth, and the sound of the grass drinking the morning dew.” The master nodded approvingly. “To hear the unheard,” remarked Pan Ku, “is a necessary discipline to be a good ruler. For only when a ruler has learned to listen closely to the people’s hearts, sensing their feelings unverbalised, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of, can he hope to inspire confidence in his people, understand when something is wrong, and meet the true needs of his followers. The demise of leaders comes when they listen only to superficial words and do not penetrate deeply into the souls of the people to ’hear’ their true opinions, feelings, and desires.

Food for thought?


Being quiet while someone talks is not listening!

Research shows that listening is key to building rapport and emotionally engaging with others. Trust is built by truly listening and so leadership, management and coaching require excellent listening skills.

Being quiet while someone talks is not listening! To listen on a proper attentive basis involves 100% attention and remaining in the present moment. It requires a genuine attempt to understand the other person, appreciate what is actually being communicated (in direct and indirect terms). Unfortunately, many people engage in what I call  “pseudo-listening rather than active listening.


Examples of pseudo-listening are:

  • Feigning interest by nodding a lot or making agreeing noises  (to make it look like/sound you are listening and interested)
  • Focusing on only one or a few parts of the message and drifting off to think about those
  • Listening to interrupt or make your next comment
  • Listening to confirm or deny a previous opinion or “point-scoring” mentally as people talk
  • Half-listening while you think about another issue or try to end the conversation

If we want to avoid pseudo-listening and genuinely tune in to what other people are saying, we may want to consider overcoming a number of specific listening blocks. There are potentially many of these but let’s look at my top nine and then review some ideas for active listening:

1. Mind reading

Although it is often seen to be a natural part of human nature to guess (at least a little) about what people are going to say next, or where they may be heading in a conversation, too much effort invested in trying to do this means that a listener cannot pay full attention.

2. Rehearsing

When any individually is mentally rehearsing what to say next, there is very little capacity left to listen properly. This is simply because most of our concentrated effort is on crafting what to say next or even plan several points that you want to inject into a conversation.

3. Pre-Judging

Pre-judging is about have a firm opinion about an individual communicating with you (either from previous meetings or as you progressively listen to him or her).  These pre-judgments are typically stereotypical and general in their nature and usually allow a listener to pay less attention to what is actually being said (preferring to stay with their pre-judged view about the person and his or her opinions).

4. Daydreaming

Daydreaming involves letting a word or idea trigger a thought in your mind, allowing the listener to drift off mentally and miss whatever is said next.

5. Relating

Relating involves taking everything that another person says and relating it back to your own experience. It’s a way of identifying with the speaker in a very personal way. While this may be appropriate in some cases, this can mean that the listener’s related experience becomes more important that the speaker’s and once again he or she may not feel properly listened to.

6. Advising

Many people treat most conversations as an opportunity to offer advice, whether or not it is wanted. For the most part, when individuals communicate, what they want most is to be genuinely heard and not to get advice unless it is specifically requested.

7. Sparring

Some individuals are somewhat competitive in conversations and can engage in unnecessary sparring with a speaker. This usually involves debating some points that are made or even arguing with the speaker just for the sake of it. This occurs all the more when simple paraphrasing and summarizing does not take place and both parties start talking at cross-purposes.

8. Interrupting and Derailing

Derailing occurs when a listener interrupts a speaker or changes the topic suddenly.  This has the effect of communicating to a speaker that what they are saying is not important and that they should talk about something more interesting or relevant to the listener-never a recipe for building rapport!

9. Placating

Placating is simply overdoing the assenting comments and body language in a conversation. This includes too much head nodding, uh-huhs and “I knows” etc.  A certain amount of listening assent is useful but if it is overdone then real listening can suffer.

Every one of the above can and does block effective listening. How effective a listener are you?

We can all learn to suspend judgment and to develop an attitude of curiosity. By adopting an attitude of genuine curiosity and by suspending judgment you focus on getting to the heart of the other person’s experience and emotion. By keeping your eyes engaged with the speaker, providing minimal encourages, asking clean questions, remaining open, and paraphrasing what you hear, you overcome resistance and create the conditions for effective co-operation.

How can you heighten your awareness and attention on a speaker? How can you listen actively?



Food for thought?

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