How to become a good listener at work

6 minute read | Dr Maggi Evans | Article | | General

Woman seated at workstation looking up and smiling at another woman

Are you a bad listener? By recognising that, you can learn the qualities of a good listener, and get more out of your home and work life. Learn how.

We all know the importance of listening well in both our professional and our home lives. In fact, the importance of this skill is likely to increase. According to a recent McKinsey study, as the world of work shifts to automation, continuous learning and team-based working, a higher focus will be placed on the need for strong social and emotional skills. The ability to listen well is at the core of this. 

Similarly, Mercer’s Global Talent Trends describes the importance of human skills in the future workplace. These skills aren’t easy to automate – and yes, they include proper listening. However, listening remains an elusive skill – one that most people need to work hard to improve.

So, what is good listening, and how do you become a good listener? According to the International Listening Association, listening is the ‘process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages’. It is complex and easy to get wrong.


Bad listeners at a glance

As early as 1948, researchers identified the characteristics of poor listening, including: 

One difficulty is that our br

  • Pretending to pay attention
  • Preparing an answer before hearing the whole message
  • Showing bias 

One difficulty is that our brains are trying to do so many different things. We’re picking up physical sounds plus visual cues, decoding them into language, assigning meaning, relating what we’ve heard to what we already know and then evaluating what we think about it all. 

On top of that, we’re formulating our response, listening out for when we can have our turn to take the floor and share our thoughts.


Are you guilty of ‘fake’ listening?

The internet is full of articles and ‘top tips’ to help improve your listening. Many training courses also include sessions on ‘active listening’. But there’s a problem with many of these articles and approaches – they focus on the ‘micro-behaviours’ of listening, like: 

  • The importance of eye contact
  • The role of verbal encouragement to help the person to keep talking
  • The tactic of repeating back and paraphrasing what you’ve heard
  • Mirroring body language to show rapport
  • Avoiding interrupting the speaker
  • Paying attention to body language 

As people start practising these skills, they end up being so aware of themselves that they lose the ability to think about the speaker and their message. Understanding these behaviours can also lead to people becoming excellent ‘fakers’ – showing all the signs that they’re listening, but without really being present. Learning these behaviours has may help you. But for me, it misses the point.


You need to want to listen

Great listening doesn’t happen as a result of these micro-behaviours. The key to great listening is that you need to feel motivated to do it – you need to want to listen. 

Consider this – a friend is in trouble, they need a listening ear, someone to understand what they’re going through. You meet up with them and you listen. You probably don’t think about your eye contact, paraphrasing and all of the other micro-behaviours, but you probably do listen – because that’s your aim, your purpose and your motivation. You are, to paraphrase Stephen Covey, listening with the intent to understand, rather than the intent to reply.

So, what’s the secret to great listening? Wanting to do it. It’s as simple (and as difficult) as that. So, before going into a meeting or speaking with someone, take some time to think through:

  • What is my goal in this meeting?
  • How can listening help me to achieve the goal?
  • How can I help myself to listen in this way?
  • What might stop me from listening and how can I overcome it?


What to remember about being a good listener

These questions will help you to be more aware of listening and how it can help you. It will also prime your brain, getting you ready to listen because you want to, to listen with the intent to understand.  With a focus on our motivation, we can all improve our listening.

Have a go and see what a difference it can make.

The 7th Annual International Day of Listening was held on September 15, 2022. Get ready to join in the 8th in 2023. #internationaldayoflistening

Head to our website for more skills development ideas. You can also find your nearest office to discuss your next career move.


About this author

Maggi is an experienced consultant and coach with international experience across a wide range of sectors including professional services, financial services, retail and FMCG.  She is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and combines research and practice to develop practical solutions to drive business improvement.

Maggi has been a consultant for over 20 years, specialising in talent strategy and talent development.  She has a reputation as an insightful consultant, helping clients to reduce the ‘noise’ around an issue so they can focus and act on key issues which will make a difference.  Maggi is on a mission to help organisations, leaders and individuals to liberate talent.  Her first book ‘From Talent Management to Talent Liberation’ has recently been published.

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