Improved Communication through Better Listening

Improved Communication through Better Listening

Revised 1 April 2020

Poor listening:

I will be the first to admit that I have some bad communication habits and need to improve my listening skills.  I have been trying to work on this.  A first step for me is to be acutely conscious of the difference between hearing and listening.  Hearing is passive, while listening is an active, engaged process.

There are a number of aspects of poor listening.  A common one is to be focused on what you are going to say next rather than really listening to the other person. Another is to listen with preconceived notions and assumptions and so misinterpret what is said.  A third is to allow what you hear to go in one ear and out the other without any retention.  A particularly egregious aspect is interrupting:  Typically a poor listener has either already jumped to conclusions about what you are saying, or it is not of interest to him or her.

Poor listeners tend to be unable to separate their own needs and interests from those of others.  Everything they hear is influenced by an internal filter: How does this affect me? What can I say next to get things my way?   They typically speak in one of two modes. Either they are “downloading”—regurgitating information they have received and pre-formed opinions—or they are in debate mode, waiting for the first indication that you think differently from them so they can set you straight.

Listening to bridge social differences:

We are living in an era of ever-increasing societal polarization and groups are talking past each other.  A large portion of the population feels that they are not being heard, understood, and respected.  In particular, people with less social capital (education, social position, economic status, etc.) feel they are being condescended to by liberal elites, and they are extremely angry about it.  Under these conditions, there is a great need for listening empathetically and respectfully across diversity and social differences.

Listening to persuasion:

One important aspect of improving our listening skills is to become more discriminating when we are presented with speech intended to persuade us—political spin, propaganda, marketing pitches, public relations messages, etc.  Unfortunately, persuasive speech can be very skillful.    Extensive study has been conducted about how to bypass listeners’ filters and exploit their cognitive biases.  We need to be able to separate hearing from accepting and internalizing.  You don’t have to believe what you are being told if you can’t validate it from independent high-quality evidence.  It is very important to listen for what is not said.  That is usually the most interesting and indicative part.  Look hard for the logical gaps in the argument.

Moving to mutual inquiry:

Ideally, a conversation is one where all parties are endeavoring to learn and enlarge their understanding through listening to each other.  You want to examine and correct your own thinking as a result of the discussion.  An important part of this is to surface mental models, both the other person’s and your own.

Some pitfalls to be aware of:

Our interpretations and conclusions in a discussion typically feed back to reinforce the assumptions, values, and beliefs we have applied in our thinking.  We respond on the basis of our interpretations, and our responses influence what information is available to us from the other people in the conversation. As a result, our ways of understanding and acting create a self-reinforcing system.

The conclusions we draw typically seem obviously correct to us.  As a result, we don’t see why we need to say how we reached them.  And we see the conclusions of others that differ from our own as obviously wrong.  We will create reasons to explain why others have come to clearly wrong conclusions.

When people disagree, they generally do not examine how they have processed information to reach their conclusions.  As a result it is hard to resolve the differences and learn new insight from each other.

Guidelines for better interactions:

Regard your conclusions as being based on a process of inference, not as self-evident facts.  Be careful not to jump to conclusions.  Consider that your reasoning process might have flaws you didn’t notice the first time through.

Explain the steps in your thinking to get to your conclusions.  Ask the others if they interpret the available data differently or if they perceive gaps in your reasoning.  Ask the others to explain the steps in their thinking.  Endeavor to validate assumptions, axioms, beliefs, etc. you have used in the reasoning.


Demonstrate in your responses that you really heard the other person. Explicitly check if you correctly understand the full meaning and implications in what they have said by expressing your paraphrase to them, using language on the order of “I understood you to say, …”.

 Characteristics of good listening:

Good listening means giving open-minded, genuinely interested attention to others, allowing the time and space to fully absorb what they say.  It seeks not just the surface meaning but where the speaker is “coming from”—what purpose, interest, or need is motivating their speech.

 Deep listening:

Deep listening is a special approach to listen to another person as consciously as one is able.  It involves listening to deeper and often subtler levels of meaning and intention in the other person. It is listening that is generous, empathic, supportive, accurate, and trusting. Trust here does not imply agreement, but the trust that whatever others say, regardless of how well or poorly it is said, comes from something true in their experience.

Deep Listening is a practice of suspending self-oriented, reactive thinking and opening one’s awareness to the unknown and unexpected.  It is based on non-reactive noticing and is the place to come from for responding.  It is based on holding a receptive empathetic space for the other person to communicate into.

Deep listening practices include the following:

  • Pause whatever else you are doing and thinking, to be able to give undivided total attention to listening to the other person.
  • Have your eyes and ears wide open and focused and your intuition turned up high.
  • Pay attention to all aspects in addition to the words while listening—the other person’s body language, movement, gestures, facial microexpressions, pupil size, breathing patterns, voice tone, etc.
  • Mirror the other person’s posture, body language, and gestures. Maintain good eye contact, without being aggressive.
  • Listen for what is between the lines, not just the surface of the words
  • Provide multiple forms of positive feedback that will draw the other person out.
  • Avoid anything verbal or nonverbal that indicates disagreement or judgment.
  • Don’t interrupt! Don’t complete the other person’s sentence.  Be sure the other person has truly finished what they are trying to say—even if they pause.
  • Don’t answer rhetorical questions.
  • Don’t change the subject.
  • Take enough time before responding, so that what you say is well and fully considered.
  • Only provide advice when it is explicitly asked for
  • Allow the other person to vent as necessary and support them in getting their emotions expressed.

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