What Does It Mean to Really Listen?

bigstock-Speech--Talk-Man--Woman-Say--3665441I believe that the ability to truly listen is one of the most important skills we can develop in this life—as leaders, as husbands and wives, as friends and coworkers.

Here’s a question I have asked in numerous workshops over the past few months: How many of you have had formal training in listening?

It never fails to stun me when only about 10 percent of the attendees raise their hands. Listening is such a critical skill—and yet so few have been trained in how to do it. Here is a short course.

What does it mean to really listen?

Dictionary.com defines the word listen as follows:

lis·ten [lisuhn] verb

1.  To give attention with the ear; attend closely for the purpose of hearing

2.  To pay attention; heed

Yes, it means to hear; but it also means to pay attention—with our ears, our eyes, and our hearts.

Listen to more than the words

True listeners look beyond the words themselves—they search for meaning in the speaker’s tone and body language. This is especially important when the communication has an emotional component.

A study done by Dr. Albert Mehrabian at UCLA looked at the degrees to which emotional messages are sent through words, tone, and body language. Regarding the true meaning of an emotional message, Dr. Mehrabian found:

  • 7 percent of meaning is in the words that are spoken
  • 38 percent of meaning is in the tone of voice—the way the words are said
  • 55 percent of meaning is in facial expression

If what we are hearing is different from what we are sensing from the tone or the facial expression, guess which one is correct! 

Show You Are Listening

Part of really listening is responding in a way that shows the other person we are paying attention. We can demonstrate we are truly listening in four different ways. For example, if a coworker comes to you and complains about their micromanaging boss, you could show you are listening by:

  • Reflecting back the content

Example: As you see it, your boss is micromanaging you…

  • Reflecting back the feeling

Example: So you feel frustrated because…

  • Reflecting both content and feeling

Example: You feel frustrated because your boss is micromanaging you…

  • Being silent and attentive

A helpful phrase to show you are listening might be:

So you feel ___________________ because ______________________.

Other helpful phrases might include:

  • You seem…
  • You sound…
  • What I’m hearing is…
  • As you see it…
  • Tell me more…
  • Is there anything else…

Not only is listening to others a key life skill, it can also have a tremendous impact on building trust in a relationship. When we take the time to listen, we show the other person that we care—that we are interested in understanding their perspective. That can go a long way toward building, or rebuilding, a relationship.

“The purpose of life is to listen – to yourself, to your neighbor, to your world and to God and, when the time comes, to respond in as helpful a way as you can find …  from within and without.”          ~ Fred Rogers

“A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he knows something.”               ~ Wilson Mizner

About the author

John Hester is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies who specializes in performance and self-leadership.

16 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Really Listen?

  1. Pingback: What Does It Mean to Really Listen? | kwalitisme

  2. Great post John. I had occasion today to practice listening. I was just back from my holidays when two team members accosted me. In the past I would have charged in and offered a solution to the problem they were telling me about. Instead I really tried to listed to what they were saying and even asked them what they thought the solution should be.
    Your tips will be a great help to me in trying to perfect the listening art.

  3. I think part of truly listening is the ability get the speaker to hear themselves. This sometime involves asking them to stop speaking and repeat something. I use this technique a lot in coaching. It is very powerful. We often to not really listen to ourselves, so having some create the opportunity for that is empowering.

  4. I remember learning “active listening” but I misunderstood it when I first came across it. Yes, I was fully focused on what the person was saying, but I spent all my effort trying to feed back what *I* thought the person said–not trying to determine what the person might really mean. I ended up analyzing and picking things apart rather than really listening. I think Bridget’s comment, above–about letting people hear themselves–is a good point. I don’t need to pick it apart for them. Thanks, for posting, John.

  5. Your short presentation is very true and to the point. Listening is the most positive way to win friends and
    establish good and long relationships with trust.
    Thanks and have a blessed day.

  6. A lovely meditation by Leo Buscaglia:

    When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving advice, you have not done what I asked. When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings.
    When I ask you listen to me and you feel you have to dosomething to solve my problems, you have failed me, strange as that may seem.

    Perhaps that’s why prayer works for some people. Because
    God is mute and He doesn’t offer advice or try to fix things
    He just listens and trusts you to work it out for yourself.

    So please, just listen and hear me. And if you want to talk,
    Wait a few minutes for your turn and I promise I’ll listen to you.

    Source: ‘Loving Each Other’ by Leo Buscaglia

  7. So true, it took me many years to learn such a simple truth.
    Such inspiration, keep up the good advice.
    I just love Leo Buscagla.

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  11. I’m learning how to listen and the comments in the bog that I received was a very helpful tool that i can use in my every day Life thank you very much it was put where anyone can understand it

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