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How to be a good listener

Illustration of ears and the word 'listen'

ky_olsen / Flickr

Being successful in any communication field is, I would argue, about 40 percent dependent on communicating well and 60 percent dependent on effectively receiving what’s being communicated to you. You need to be a good listener.

I’ve been some form of journalist since 2005, which is long enough to know that being a good writer is important, but no one will care how well you write if you can’t listen well enough to know what the hell you’re talking about.

Listening, however, is hard; at least empathetic listening is. What’s that? I’ll let Tony Valdes, writing for The Art Of Manliness, explain:

[Empathetic listening] is the ideal.  We are able to set aside internal and external distractions so as to listen without judgment or interruption.  We are emotionally and mentally invested and provide verbal and nonverbal feedback to the speaker.

Tony, who has his BA in rhetoric and communication, is in the midst of a three-part series over on that site on how to be a better listener. Even if you consider yourself a good listener, I encourage you to check out the two parts that have already been published. It’s full of interesting tips and observations, such as:

Most of us probably received a minimum of twelve years of instruction on how to write well, yet it is a skill that is only used in approximately 9% of the average person’s daily communication.  Reading often receives between six and eight years of formal instruction, yet it only accounts for 16% of our communication.  Speaking receives a paltry one year of attention, perhaps two years if we’re lucky, and it is only 30% of our communication.  Listening, however, often receives less than a half-year of formal training, yet it makes up 45% of our daily communication.

That’s an extremely important 45 percent, too. Most of my communicative output throughout the day is predicated upon what I’ve learned — listened to — from someone else. I wager that’s probably the case for most other people, too.

Anyway, like I said, go read Tony’s posts.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Christinelharris

    Maybe it would be helpful to readers to give some helpful tips about how to listen empathetically, especially since you’ve previously commented on how difficult that can be. Or some real life examples, from your experience?

  • Sure, I can drop a few tips.

  • Oh I love that quote. Listening, however, often receives less than a half-year of formal training, yet it makes up 45% of our daily communication.

    Ouch! That hit home! Why is that we don’t spend the time training ourselves to listen. Is it our immediate ego of feeling we’re too important- or we have to be listened to. 

    I’ll go check out Tonys post on that. I’ve explored a few thoughts on this one myself 


    but I’m reluctant to mention it, as I probably should stop talking and listen far more! I do think it’s a fascinating subject and I’m keen to discuss it more with others who are exploring it. So if you fancy a conversation with someone who does as you so beautiful put it in your comment section- ‘Give a Shit’ I’d enjoying teasing it out further. 

    Thanks for the post Paul and every success with your journalism as you continue to listen!

  • Thanks for sharing the link, Caleb.

    I love that quote, too, and I think it explains why good listening skills can be hard to find.

    One of the most common missteps I notice — you mentioned this in your post — is the assumption that being included in a conversation is an invitation to share one’s own opinions or advice. In fact, I find it’s usually best to keep my mouth shut unless I’m prompted.

    The one exception is that I tend to ask a lot of questions. Often when someone needs a listener, what they really need is a proxy — someone to just act as a generic other person. (Don’t be offended by that as the listener; it takes a lot of trust to ask someone to perform that duty.) The speaker just needs to work through a problem or scenario and doesn’t need a bunch of new crap thrown at him/her. So as the listener, listen, and when you reach a point where you don’t understand something, ask the person speaking to clarify.

    A lot of times, you end up inadvertently helping that person work through whatever issue they’re having.

  • Fully agree on the proxy point. Such a beautiful gift when someone is able to get out of the way to enable the other person to really share. Thanks Paul.