The Lowdown On Listening

Hearing — one of the five physical senses — involves the perception of sound, pitch and volume. The fine art of listening, however, is quite another matter. The only commonality between hearing and listening is two ears. The purpose of listening is understanding, and active listening requires thoughtful attention to the meaning being conveyed. There are different modes of listening:


functional (professional) and personal or emotional (people we love, friends). Success with either requires focus and a genuine desire to understand.

Why listening is important

When we are listened to, we come to life and feel connected. Empathy and feeling truly understood by another person engenders trust and genuine connection with others.

When we are listened to with sensitivity, we tend to take ourselves more seriously (not without a sense of humor) and to clarify and value our own thoughts and feelings. Active listening leads to authentic interaction with others, often inspiring folks to explore their own attitudes and values. The idea is to think with others instead of for or about them in judgmental or critical ways.

Why people have such a hard time really listening

The short answer is time and attention. The brain thinks about three to four times faster than a person speaks. Since the brain is not idle even when we listen, what does a listener do with the spare time between thoughts and the words that are heard?  Individuals often get distracted because considerable effort is required to stay on track, especially if a speaker or the message is boring, complex, challenging or slow. In addition, other factors such as fatigue, physical health, environment, emotional filters or cognitive bias may compete for attention. Effective listeners manage the disparity between the rate of speech and their rate of hearing by consciously focusing on the material and understanding the speaker’s meaning.

Yes, it’s true that people rehearse what they want to say instead of actually listening

Absolutely! Mind reading, judging, discounting, arguing, denying, mentally rehearsing and refuting are other common non-productive distractions. People engaged in active listening seek to understand — listen for ideas and meaning more than facts. Realize that people hear what they listen for.

That said, a speaker actually bears extra responsibility for effective communication because the only person who knows what the speaker means is the speaker. If he or she is unclear or inarticulate, the listener cannot be expected to be a mind reader. However, an engaged and curious listener can usually grasp the general meaning. If not, asking questions can clarify understanding and learning.

The results of poor listening

While you may know details and facts about someone, you will not truly know another person unless you listen to what they mean. People need people. Individuals want to belong, to be part of something that matters. We know, and know about, people by listening and learning. Giving another person your attention and respect builds trust, the foundation of good relationships.

Further, you cannot solve a problem if you do not understand what it is. Conflict and misunderstanding often occur as a result of failure to seek accurate understanding of a situation. This is true in both our personal and professional lives.

How to be an effective listener

First and foremost, give full attention with your mind and heart while focusing on the here and now. Listen to the speaker the way you want someone to listen to you, which means resisting distractions and concentrating on staying focused. True understanding requires a willing, curious and open mind as well as a willingness to withhold assumptions, judgments and arguments.

Try to understand the speaker’s meaning before you think about your own opinions and take note of non-verbal cues like body language and tone. Determine to be empathetic — experience the message from the speaker’s perspective.

Remember, the only thing listening and hearing have in common is two ears.

“Friends are those rare people who ask how we are, and then wait to hear the answer.” — Ed Cunningham