4 Ways to Improve Your Listening Skills

September 22, 2021

Woman on sofa listening

"Leaders who do not listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing significant to say." — Andy Stanley, pastor and leadership expert

Communication is essential to team performance. Research led by Sandy Pentland shows that teams where people talk to each other frequently during the day, and also talk to others outside the team, are likely to perform significantly better.

It's not just what we say to one another, but how we listen and respond that's important.

If people feel they are listened to, they are more likely to make suggestions, express doubts or speak up when they don't think an idea will work. Amy Edmondson and others identify this as a state of psychological safety, a belief that the team is a safe place for risk taking.

"Building trust, having good one-on-one conversations, listening, showing empathy, showing that you care. So this apparently soft factor of psychological safety plays a big role in delivering results. I like to say that the soft stuff is the hard stuff." — Mario Moussa, speaking about his book 'Committed Teams'

But effective listening is a skill that requires work. Research shows we take in between 25 and 50% of what we hear, but with care this can be improved.

How to improve your listening skills

1. Reflect on your listening abilities

Pick a few specific conversations over the past few weeks and reflect on how you listened. Here are some great questions to prompt that reflection.

  • Were you interrupted or distracted by anything? If so, what?
  • Were you multi-tasking?
  • Were you actively engaging in the conversation?
  • Were you interrupting, or tempted to interrupt, the other person?
  • Was it taxing to pay your full attention? If so, why?

Alternatively, try this quick 14-question listening assessment.

2. Signal that you are listening

It goes without saying that you need to signal to the other person that you are giving them your attention.

We listen with our eyes as well as our ears. In fact, around 80% of what we communicate comes from non-verbal cues (facial expressions, body language, etc.). So make eye contact, put your mobile away, and don’t let yourself get distracted.

3. Embrace pauses

If the other person is taking a little while to articulate their thoughts, give them time. Don’t feel you need to jump and fill the gap.

4. Be a trampoline, not a sponge

Listening actively is not the same as listening without speaking. Asking questions shows that you are paying attention, and can help the other person consider all the options.

Making constructive suggestions is also fine, as long as you have taken the time to hear the other person out first.

"While many of us have thought of being a good listener, as like being a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off, and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energise, and clarify your thinking." — Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, in What Great Listeners Actually Do

5. Find bridging points

Look for points of similarity or connection, such as a shared goals or common interests, especially if the person or people you're conversing with are superficially quite different. This is a great way to create psychological safety and build a personal bond.

Finding common ground also helps the other person feel supported and can convey confidence in them, which is a key quality of good listening, research shows.

6. Hold better one-to-ones

Meeting face-to-face may not always be possible, but your one-to-ones with colleagues are a crucial time to put your new active listening skills to work!

  • Schedule regular one-to-ones with your direct reports and allow enough time.
  • Ban mobile devices so you can focus on the other person and really hear what they are saying.
  • Consider, what would be the valuable use of this meeting time? It's tempting to stick to a routine agenda, like discussing status updates, but that's not always the best use of this precious time.

"We now know that 35% of the variation in a team's performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members." — Sandy Pentland, in The New Science of Building Great Teams

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