Basic Listening Skills

From a very young age, we get told that we need to listen. As children, we get told to listen to our parents, our teachers, and other trusted adults who care for us. As we get older, we need to listen to bosses, spouses, other adults, and even our children.

Although the social expectation is for us to listen to others as well as be heard ourselves, very little time is devoted in schools or even at home to teach us how to do so. Beyond a basic understanding of following directions, most of us don’t get taught how to listen to someone.

Yet, even though there is little time devoted to developing active listening skills in our educational backgrounds, these are some of the most critical life skills we can acquire.

Why Do Listening Skills Matter?

In today’s world, much of the communication that passes between people is electronic via email, text, and social media channels. Yet, according to recent research from UCLA, only 7% of our understanding of a conversation comes from words. The rest of our knowledge comes through tones and facial expressions.

It seems clear, then, that face-to-face interaction is still the best and most easily understood form of communication. The importance of physical interactions with others means basic speaking and listening skills are not only important but necessary for our lives.

What is the Difference Between Hearing and Listening?

Imagine for a moment, a talking parrot. The parrot can hear your words and repeat them back, but it can’t understand what those words mean; it can only mimic the sound of those words. If all you do is hear the words someone is saying, without thinking about them, you’ll only understand about as much as the parrot.

Listening involves more than merely hearing the words someone says to you. You need to comprehend the message those words are trying to convey and reflect on that message. In other words, listening isn’t one action but an entire process.

What Are the Stages of the Listening Process?

According to an article published by Alvernia University, the listening process has five stages.

  • Receiving
  • Understanding
  • Evaluating
  • Responding
  • Remembering

Stage 1 Receiving

When you receive information, you gather the facts that the other person is sharing with you. This information helps you identify the topic of the conversation and puts the words they are saying in a context. By putting the words in context, your brain will create a frame for your thoughts to build upon.

Stage 2 Understanding

Once framed, you can begin to comprehend the message that the speaker is giving you. The individual concepts presented will start to connect and form a more detailed structure and meaning.

Stage 3 Evaluating

When you evaluate the information, you take it at more than face value. You think about it critically and decide if what the speaker is saying makes logical sense. To help you determine if it makes sense, you need to pay attention to how the speaker is supporting their ideas and if it’s valid.

Stage 4 Responding

You can respond to what a person is saying in both verbal and nonverbal ways. You can ask questions or paraphrase what you’ve heard. Short, simple verbal affirmations or even a laugh in the right context can act as a response as well. Gesturing or using facial expressions are examples of nonverbal reactions.

Stage 5 Remembering

To help you remember a conversation, you should identify what the main idea of the discussion is and a few supporting ideas. You can also relate it to past relevant discussions to help solidify it in your memory. While it’s unlikely you’ll be able to remember every detail of a conversation, careful listening should allow you to distinguish what information is the most important and which is the least important.

What Are the Causes of Poor Listening Skills?

There are a variety of causes for poor listening. Don’t feel bad if you find you struggle to listen to others. Keep in mind, a lot of people have similar difficulties. Some causes are out of your control, but others can be managed or even eliminated with just a little effort on your part.


Environmental factors such as the level of noise or the presence of visual distractions like TVs flashing in the background can be distracting to even the best listeners. Sometimes these factors can be controlled by turning off the TV screen, closing a door, or moving to a quieter area, but sometimes they are unavoidable.

If you’re at a party or in a restaurant, for example, you don’t have any control over background noise, and you can’t necessarily request a business to turn off their television screens. Instead, you have to adapt to the environment accordingly.

Emotional and Physical State

If you aren’t feeling well or are experiencing some sort of physical pain, you might have trouble ignoring your discomfort and paying attention to what someone is saying. Emotional distress or fatigue can also detract from your ability to focus on listening to others. When either you or the other person is experiencing a strong emotion, it can act as a barrier to listening to the other person.

Both positive and negative emotions can influence your ability to listen to another person and their ability to respond to you. Whether you are feeling sad and anxious or happy and excited about something, it can make it hard to focus on the task at hand.

When you are overly tired, you may also have trouble focusing on a conversation because your brain doesn’t work as efficiently if it hasn’t had time to rest and recharge. Many studies have shown that lack of sleep slows a person’s reaction time and makes it difficult for them to remember information.

Lack of Interest

Lack of interest in a subject matter is probably the most common difficulty an individual must overcome when they are trying to listen to someone else.

Although you can’t suddenly make yourself interested in a subject that you’re not, you still need to give the person your attention. Not only is it good manners, but the conversation may include important information that you need to know regardless of personal interest.

Information Overload

Sometimes when a large volume of information is presented all at once, it can feel overwhelming. Many times it’s easier to stop listening than try to absorb all that information at once.

Luckily, you don’t have to remember every detail of a conversation to understand the information given to you. Later on, we’ll discuss techniques you can use to help you effectively listen to and comprehend a conversation that includes a great deal of detail.


When you come to a conversation with preexisting beliefs and ideas, it can sometimes be challenging to put those ideas aside and have an open mind. If you think you know what a person is going to say before they say it, you may feel like you don’t need to pay attention to them and make you miss relevant information.

Besides personal bias, you should also be aware of cultural bias. When you are talking to someone who looks or speaks differently, be mindful of your thoughts and feelings. Make sure to pay attention to what the person is saying rather than how they communicate the content.

If you don’t understand a cultural reference, make an effort to ask for more information rather than merely dismissing it or trying to form your own interpretations. Bias can cause you to jump to conclusions before you hear the speaker out and prevent you from fully understanding the message they are trying to communicate to you.

Miscommunication can damage personal relationships and negatively impact your academic or business performance. Yet, a lot of miscommunication can be corrected before it occurs simply by taking the time to listen and make sure you clearly understand what the other person is saying without prejudice.

What Listening Skills Should I Practice?

There are specific listening skills you need to possess if you want to proceed through the five stages of listening successfully. These skills will help you stay focused on the conversation, pick up on specific social cues, keep the conversation flowing, and increase your ability to understand and retain information.

Appropriate Body Language

One of the most basic listening skills you should practice is body language. Whenever you are having a conversation with someone, you need to face them. You also need to maintain eye contact. If you are scanning the room or looking away from the speaker, you give the impression you’re not listening to them or are not interested in what they are saying.

In most western cultures making eye contact with the person who is speaking is considered a sign of respect and good manners. Making eye contact serves other purposes as well. When you are looking at someone directly, your brain automatically will begin to focus on that person and what they are saying.

Maintaining eye contact also assures that you pick up on nonverbal cues such as facial expressions that help you gauge the speaker’s emotions and respond appropriately to them. Eye contact can also help prompt you when the speaker is getting ready to stop talking and looking for a response from you.

Staring at a person is not the same as making proper eye contact. Meeting their eyes for a few seconds at regular intervals assists in creating and maintaining a connection between you and the other person.

In addition to eye contact and facing the person, you should also practice keeping your body relaxed and open. Some examples of open body language are not crossing your arms over your chest, keeping your hands open rather than balled up into fists, and having your feet pointed towards rather than away from another person. Open body language helps put people at ease when they talk to you.

Listening for keywords and ideas

When you listen for keywords and ideas, your brain can form an outline of the conversation. The framework helps you quickly follow what is said. It works similarly to how you might take notes in a class or meeting. If it helps, you can visualize an actual chart or outline in your head to help you keep track of the vital information that is shared.

To help you distinguish between keywords and ideas and less important details, try to pay attention to words and concepts that the speaker repeats during the conversation. If the conversation continually circles back to a particular theme, chances are you should pay attention as that is likely the point the speaker is trying to convey.

Listening to tone, volume, and rate of speech

It’s a good idea to consider the person’s tone as well. They might vary their tone when they speak about certain things. The tone, the person uses when they say something is often associated with some sort of emotion. Understanding the emotion behind what a person is saying can help you empathize with the speaker and make the interaction more meaningful.

When someone begins to speak louder, it could be a way of expressing they feel strongly about something. It can also be a way of signifying something they have to say is important. If they lower their volume, it could mean they want you to listen carefully to something they’re saying, or it could be a way of establishing intimacy and confidence.

If someone slows down their rate of speech, it can be a sign they are trying to stress a certain point and can help cue you in that critical information is to follow. If the rate of speech speeds up, it could indicate excitement about something the person is saying, which can also serve as a way of prompting you to pay special attention to what they are saying at that moment of the conversation.

While you shouldn’t entirely rely on vocal cues to gauge the importance of something told to you, it can be a handy tool to assist you in the comprehension and retention of the information you receive.

Waiting for your turn to speak

As a child, you were probably told not to interrupt when someone else is speaking. While this may seem like basic good manners, it’s also an essential part of being able to listen effectively. If you cut someone off before they can fully and clearly communicate their ideas, you can miss their meaning.

Interruptions also disrupt the flow of a conversation. It disrupts a person’s train of thought and can cause communication to break down. The speaker may get confused and forget the point they were trying to make. They may lose their place and leave out valuable information that can lead you to misinterpret what they are saying.

Interruptions also can negatively impact the way you receive the information shared with you. If you are too focused on forming your response to something the other person is saying, you may not catch the full message. You can’t give someone else’s words careful consideration if you are too busy considering your own words.

There may also be a negative emotional impact on the other person when you interrupt them. They may feel as if you don’t care about what they are saying. The other person might also feel like you’re arrogant and are acting like you are better than them. Negative feelings can cause a disconnect between you and the other person making it difficult to have meaningful positive interactions with the other person in the future. 

Asking Questions

When you are listening to someone, and you don’t fully understand what they are saying, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask questions to help clarify. Although you don’t want to interrupt while the person is speaking, once they finish their thought, it’s perfectly fine to ask follow-up questions.

You may ask them to repeat something you didn’t quite catch or ask probing questions that encourage them to give you more information that will help assist your understanding.

The critical thing to remember is not to be embarrassed.Most people will appreciate your honesty and will be happy that you are interested enough in what they are saying to want to know more.

One thing you should never do is pretend you understand something if you don’t. If someone thinks you’ve clearly understood the message and you haven’t, it can cost a lot of time, and in business settings, a lot of money later on to correct the misunderstanding.

You should also be careful not to make any sort of assumptions about something someone is saying. Whenever you feel that something isn’t obvious, ask for more information until it does become clear. By doing this, you will allow yourself to come to accurate and unbiased conclusions.

Another way of saying this is, don’t try to fill in the blanks on your own. Unless you can read minds, don’t ever assume you know what the other person meant if they didn’t explicitly say it. Good listeners don’t make guesses. They listen to the facts that the speaker is presenting.

Giving Verbal and Non-verbal Feedback

Part of listening to others is showing them you’re listening. To show someone you are listening to them, you should use a combination of verbal and non-verbal cues. Verbal feedback can be a simple phrase such as “uh-huh” or “mm-hmm” or laughing when appropriate. Other types of verbal feedback are a little more complicated.

Rephrasing is a great way to provide feedback and serves three purposes. First, it shows the person you heard what they said. Second, it helps you double-check whether you correctly comprehended what the person said. Third, when you rephrase something in your own words, you help cement it in your memory so you can remember it for future conversations.

Another example of verbal feedback is reflection. You can reflect on the points the person made or what emotions they are feeling. Using phrases like “You made a good point about…” or “I can see how frustrating that is for you” shows the person you are listening and you care about what they are saying. It also helps them feel validated when you empathize with them.

Non-verbal cues can also be an effective form of feedback. We mentioned earlier that maintaining eye contact allows you to pick up on the other person’s facial expressions and gestures. The effect works both ways, provided that the other person is also making eye contact with you.

You can give the speaker non-verbal feedback through the use of facial expressions like smiling or frowning. You can shake your head to show that you understand the other person’s distress, or nod to let them know you agree with them or understand what they are saying.

Providing feedback also assists you by helping you stay engaged in the conversation. By providing the speaker with regular feedback, it prompts you to pay attention to what the other person is saying so you can respond appropriately at the right moments.

Showing respect even when you disagree

However, you choose to give feedback, make sure you respond, and do so in a way that is respectful and proper for the context of the conversation. Be polite even if you disagree with the other person. Continue to wait until it’s your turn to speak to, then calmly state your opinion without arguing with them.

While this certainly is easier said than done, both you and your conversation partner will have a more positive experience if a difference in opinion does not become a heated argument. Whenever one or both people get defensive, it becomes impossible to communicate effectively with each other.

Remember, even when you are speaking with someone, and a disagreement arises, that doesn’t mean you should just block them out or walk away from the conversation. You should still listen to the points they are making and the facts they are basing those points on.

Your thoughts and feelings on a subject matter should not be what you use to judge the validity of someone else’s claims. You need to make judgments based on the quality and dependability of the information they are using to support those claims.

Many people fall into the trap of thinking that if they disagree with someone else, they must proceed to try to convince the other person why that person’s opinion wrong and their opinion is right.

It can be incredibly difficult for two people to agree to disagree on a subject matter, especially one they are passionate about. Yet genuinely listening and trying to understand another person means you’ll sometimes need to listen to things you don’t want to hear.

How Do I Develop Basic Listening Skills?

Practice makes perfect when you are trying to strengthen your listening skills. Developing strong basic listening skills requires you to be very aware of how you are interacting with others during a conversation. To help yourself practice, try to take a minimum of 10 minutes a week and practice conversing with a friend.

Make sure your friend knows what you are trying to do, so they can help you by giving feedback. As you take turns listening and speaking to each other, keep in mind the basic listening skills discussed above, and how they are playing out in your conversation.

You may find that one or two of these listening skills are much harder for you than others. If this is the case, you’ll want to focus your efforts on those specific skills. However, if you feel as if all these listening skills are difficult for you, try focusing only on a few at a time.

You don’t want to overwhelm yourself when you are just starting to build your listening skills, or it’s unlikely you will keep up the effort for long. As an alternative to trying to learn all the skills at the same time, choose to practice one skill a week for a month. If you have more than 10 minutes to spare, you may even want to practice one skill daily until it becomes automatic.

If listening feels a little forced or artificial at first, don’t worry. While it may seem like you’re running through a checklist in your head initially, the more you practice, the easier it will be. You’ll find excellent listening skills become second nature with consistent application, and soon you will no longer need to keep checking yourself against a list of skills.

Thankfully, listening skills are not skills that you need to master before you begin to reap the benefits. Your conversations will flow more smoothly and naturally, and you’ll find your retention rate will go up, the more familiar you become with using your newly acquired skills. The good news is you can improve your listening skills at any age, even if you’ve struggled for years with listening.

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