Effective Listening

Industry Matters Newsletter

Many people who wish to be effective communicators agonize over their public speaking or writing skills. According to Indiana University professors Tatiana Kolovou and Brenda Bailey-Hughes, truly gifted communicators excel at listening. However, relatively few working professionals have had formal training in effective listening. In this course, Kolovou and Bailey-Hughes help you uncover what keeps you from listening effectively and develop behaviors to combat those obstacles.

Effective listening is made up of five skill sets—recalling details, understanding the big picture, evaluating content, being attuned to subtle cues, and empathizing with the speaker. Each of these skill sets applies to specific listening situations. Improving each area will help to prioritize the best listening skill for the situations you are in.

Kolovou and Bailey-Hughes explain the things that prevent us from effective listening because understanding and acknowledging those obstacles is the key to overcoming them. These obstacles include mental filters—typically biases we’ve developed over time. Delivery of information is an obstacle to effective listening, such as a fidgety speaker or one with something in their teeth. You can easily overwhelm yourself with information by trying to hang on to and write a speaker’s every word and falling behind to the point where you miss information, which hinders your ability to listen effectively.

You can’t listen effectively if you’re speaking, either—especially if it’s an inappropriate response like making the conversation about yourself, criticizing the speaker or their content, providing unsolicited advice, or focusing on the facts solely rather than the emotions behind them. The greatest hindrance to effective listening could arguably be multitasking—because you’re not fully dedicating your attention to the speaker or your other task. 

After identifying your most common obstacles, you can decide which effective listening behaviors to adopt in their place. You can clarify your role as a listener by asking if you should put yourself in the other person’s shoes, if they’d like you to give advice, or if you should take notes.  Sometimes you just need to acknowledge the other person’s need to vent and understand that a response is not required.   If you know that you value logic or information more when you process information, you can be aware of how you typically react to things and acknowledge if that is the appropriate action for a particular scenario. You can paraphrase what was said to make sure you understood what the other person said, or you can match the other person’s emotions and their posture.

Becoming an effective listener starts with self-awareness. When you know which listening skills you lack and what prevents you from listening effectively, you can adopt effective listening behaviors in their place. As an effective listener, your colleagues will appreciate you and respect you as a person and potentially as a leader in future roles.