The Art of Listening

The Art of Listening

  • By Mary Gillespie
  • September 19, 2019

The Art of Listening

Listening. We all do it … Or do we? Everyday we have conversations with friends, family, co-workers and others. But, in those conversations, how well do we listen? And does the effectiveness of our listening matter?

Likely you’re aware that the quality of our listening influences our capacity to understand another person’s perspective and experience. But what impact does the effectiveness of our listening have on the person who is speaking?

Let’s explore that: Recall a time when you felt someone has really listened to you. How did you feel? Likely there was a sense of being ‘seen’, being valued and respected. And with that, perhaps your spine got a little taller and your confidence grew. Now consider your response when someone has not listened to what you are saying. Maybe you feel as if your thoughts (and you) don’t count? Perhaps you experience a slump in your sense of self-worth? You may feel less inclined to share your thoughts or perhaps you ‘push back’ to ‘make’ the other person listen and notice you? Clearly, listening is a powerful process. The feeling of being listened to can be profound in its impact, in short – when we feel listened to, we expand and grow. When we feel ‘not heard’, we feel diminished. Listening is a critical part of human connection.

What derails effective listening?

Effective listening can be challenging; however, it can also be learned. Becoming a skilled listener requires commitment, intention and practice. It also requires self-awareness so that we can catch ourselves when we are not listening well. So, what might derail effective listening?

Listening or waiting to speak

Imagine you are in a conversation with me: you want to explain to me why good listening is important. Initially I listen carefully to what you are saying but, after you have made a couple of key points, I am pretty sure I know what you are going to say next. Now my mind switches gears and I begin to construct my response to your first thoughts. As soon as this switch occurs I am no longer listening: Instead, I am now waiting to speak. Anything you say from this point onward will be lost to me. In short, I have listened to reply, rather than listening to understand.

Listening to and listening for

Let’s go back to our example. You indicate you want to share some thoughts about the importance of good listening. I agree to listen but, before you speak, I’m already sure that I know what you are likely to say (preconceptions). Or perhaps I listen to the first sentence or two, think I ‘get the theme’ of what you are saying (assumptions and early conclusions) – and then I begin to listen for evidence of my conclusions. Rather than listening to what you are actually saying, I filter what I hear – listening for what I anticipate you will say. Preconceptions, assumptions and listening for what I anticipate will be said, mean I miss much of what you have to say. How can I possibly understand your perspective when I don’t hear all of your message?

What’s said and what is not said

Sometimes the most important part of a conversation lies in what is not said (rather than what is said). When we listen carefully, we’re more likely to notice if certain aspects of a topics are not addressed, and we can inquire into those areas. If, on the other hand, we’re preoccupied with ‘waiting to speak’, or listening for what we’re sure is coming, we are less likely to notice the gaps in the expressed ideas. This means important parts of a conversation will not happen: I will not fully understand your perspective.

Being there or somewhere else

Effective listening requires we are present – that we are fully focused on the speaker and on what is being said. This m

What supports
effective listening?eans we are not thinking about something that happened prior to the conversation, or planning something that will occur later, or letting our attention wander to something else that is occurring concurrently. When my focus is somewhere else, I cannot understand your perspective.

The good news is that effective listening can be built. It does, however, require commitment and practice. Here are a few strategies that can help.

1. Know ourselves

Understanding our current listening patterns is an important first step in increasing our effectiveness as listeners. We can gather insight into ourselves as listeners by reflecting back on previous conversations, as well as observing ourselves in future conversations – and noticing any tendencies we have to fall into any of the ‘derailing patterns’ mentioned above. The later activity will guide you in this process. 

2. Intend to listen and be fully present

Effective listening begins with setting an intention to listen in order to understand. This requires we have our full attention focused on the speaker – we begin with an intention to be fully present. Being present supports several aspects of effective listening: It helps us ‘really hear’ what is said, and to receive nonverbal messages (a significant part of communication). In addition, choosing to be fully present with someone conveys they (and their message) are respected and valued.

3. Be curious

When we listen with curiosity, it helps minimize the tendency to make assumptions or form conclusions before the speaker has completed what they are saying. Instead we can remain in a state of inquiry as we listen to understand – and seek clarification as needed.

4. Stay tuned

As a listener, we need to not only be present and attend to speaker’s message, but we also need to remain aware of what we are ‘up to’ as they are speaking. Being aware of our typical listening patterns and pitfalls helps here. This self-knowledge makes it easier for us to catch ourselves in a pattern that might derail good listening (e.g. being distracted, making assumptions, waiting to speak, etc). If that occurs, we can bring ourselves gently back to our intention of ‘listening fully’. This process requires that we stay present with the speaker, but simultaneously ‘check-in’ with ourselves to see how our listening is going. This might sound tricky to do – but with practice, you’ll find you can tune into yourself in a very fluid way that allows you to remain connected with the speaker.

Activity: Building effective listening

Strengthening your capacity as a listener begins with getting a clear sense of where you ‘are at’ presently. The following activities will help you do this:

1. Looking back: Choose 2 or 3 conversations you have had recently (ideally with different people and in different contexts). Review them and look for your patterns of listening. For example, did you get distracted? Were you able to remain present throughout the conversation? Did you listen to the end of the speaker’s message or did you jump to conclusions? Note these patterns down so that you can return to them.

2. Watch yourself ‘in action’: This activity works well if you are in a group of people, but you can also do it in a one-on-one conversation. As the conversation or discussion unfolds, observe your listening patterns. Here’s some questions to guide you:

  • What is your purpose or intention for listening? Are you really wanting to understand the speaker’s message or is something else at play?
  • How much of the time are you listening to what is being said – versus waiting to speak?
  • What evidence of preconceptions, assumptions or early conclusions can you see? What prompts you to engage in that behavior?
  • How present are you with the speaker? What supports or hinders you in being fully present?
  • Note down your observations so you can return to them. Do this exercise on several occasions to build a broad-based understanding

3. Next steps: Consider what you have learned about yourself as a listener from these activities. How will you take what you have learned into your everyday living and listening? Set an intention and make a plan that will allow you to implement these new ways of listening.

By the way – September 19, 2019 is International Listening Day.
Why not implement a plan to strengthen your listening on that day?

Aroha nui,

About Mary Gillespie

Mary Gillespie is an Integral (Life) Coach and Nursing Education Consultant living in New Zealand. She is deeply committed to helping people build self-awareness, discover their true potential, and expand into new possibilities for living. She is constantly building her ability to be a compassionate and patient listener.

Find Mary at:

For personal communication or for more information about coaching possibilities, message her via MG Coaching and Consulting facebook page.

If you enjoyed this article, read more from Mary: Self-Care: A Foundation for Everything