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How Can I Improve my Listening Ability?

Studies have shown that typically we remember only about 30 percent of what we hear. The effective listener will try to improve on this percentage. The techniques for doing so include the following:

  • Practice active listening.
  • Prompt further information.
  • Beware of perceptual filtering.
  • Restate what has been said.

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Practice active listening. We think about four times faster than we talk. That is a lot of thinking time. We can take advantage of that time by focusing on the message and determining whether we need more information to understand it. We should not allow ourselves to become defensive and thereby shut out the speaker’s words, nor should we daydream.

If you are in a meeting, take notes to improve your retention. Don’t take notes if the act of note taking will distract you from what is being said.

Prompt further information. We often assume that an entire message has been communicated when a speaker stops talking. Not so. The speaker has just begun the conversation. Any statement made by a speaker can be followed up by at least one more statement of explanation or example. Therefore, a listener’s response, whenever possible, should be a question that elicits further information.

This question should be neutral, nonjudgmental, and nonaccusatory; it should seek only to keep the conversation flowing along the theme already established by the speaker. Instead of asking a specific question, the listener can simply repeat something that the speaker has just said with a questioning tone of voice. For example, if the speaker has just been talking about a situation in which he was unfairly blamed, the listener might respond, "What makes you feel that you are being blamed?" or "Why do you think this is happening?" This type of response will naturally lead to further information that can add to a growing understanding of the speaker’s concern.

If you are accustomed to worrying about what to say next in a conversation, this approach will help to eliminate that anxiety since a rephrasing of something already said takes little preparation and allows for further listening.

Beware of perceptual filtering. As we listen to what people are saying, the words pass through a filter. This filter is our personal frame of reference, a result of our life experiences. Since no two people have the same set of experiences, perceptual filters are as individual as any other personal trait.

These filters can change the meanings of words from their dictionary definitions. They are what cause us to feel happiness, sadness, anger, or concern when certain words are used. These emotions may cause us to misunderstand as we listen, simply because our perceptions of the words’ meanings may not match those of the speaker.

An important step toward being an effective listener, then, is to recognize that perception does influence understanding and must be considered in listening to what others have to say.

Restate what has been said. Repeat what the other party has said but in your own words. Say, "Let me be sure I understand clearly what you want me to do. First … second … third …," or "Are we saying that … ?" or "The main points covered so far by you are … have I left out anything you said?"

Practice these skills for showing respect for the speaker’s ideas and avoiding possible misunderstandings and thereby build credibility for you as a capable, effective listener.