Are you blocking conversation when you think you’re listening?

Your boss wants you to listen attentively (not just when he speaks). Good listening is critical for building trust, within a team and without. So whether it’s with your boss, a colleague, a customer, partner or vendor, take the cotton out of your ears!

If we were playing baseball, good listening would be first base. To hit a home run, first you need to listen, because there’s no home-run that doesn’t pass through first-base and then remember, act, and follow through. Your listening skills are the foundation for the home run.

How hard could it be? Well, in my experience, easy or hard, good listeners are exceedingly rare. That makes this one of the best ways for you to stand out. Here’s how to polish your listening skills:

  1. Give your full attention to the speaker. Stay focused – think about what’s being said. You think many times faster than most people speak, so use the extra time to understand and organize what you are hearing.
  2. Don’t interrupt – especially if you are being attacked or there is an emotional charge in the speaker. If you interrupt, the speaker will not ‘feel heard’ and will just repeat again and again.
  3. Make eye contact
  4. Use good body language – face the person, uncross your arms and legs, lean slightly forward and avoid fidgeting with hands or feet.
  5. Reflect back on what you’ve heard – paraphrase like this: “So you’re saying that…” and then ask if you got it right: “Have I got it?”
  6. Encourage the speaker to tell more – say: “Oh?” and then stay quiet. Learn to accept and appreciate a little bit of silence in a conversation even if it’s uncomfortable for you at first.
  7. Avoid conversation blockers. Here are 7 different ways of taking the wind out of someone else’s sail. They invalidate the feelings of the person speaking and will make sure the speaker doesn’t feel heard. These are trust breakers:
  • Opinion giving – ex: “Don’t worry about him, he wastes everyone’s time and no one pays attention to what he says, trust me.”
  • Criticizing/judging – ex: “You’re still working on that? You’re such a perfectionist! I don’t see how you’ll ever get anything done at that pace.”
  • Preaching – ex: “You shouldn’t let anything distract you – you should really manage your time better.”
  • Fixing – ex: “You tell him to mind his own business. If he doesn’t, I’ll have a talk with him.”
  • Comparing – ex: “You did what? This never happened with John, he never made any mistakes.”
  • Denial – ex: “I know you don’t mean that. You couldn’t possibly feel that way.”
  • Change the focus to yourself – ex: “That’s great! I remember when I won the spelling bee in second grade and…”

Can you see that there are endless ways to screw up as a listener? Conversation blocking is really much easier and more natural for most people than good listening is. How many times have you been distracted in a restaurant or an airplane by someone talking too loudly who won’t let his conversation partner say three words? That’s human nature, but we can do better.

Best advice for changing your listening habits?

  1. Understand attentive listening is a precious gift you can give at any moment, a gift that will enrich your relationships and your life.
  2. Assume you are not the smartest person in the room and try to learn something new from everyone you meet.

Are you a parent? There is a great book for teaching listening skills to your kids: Peaceful Parents, Peaceful Kids by Naomi Drew.  Highly recommended.

Get the ebook! If you liked what you read here, and think you may want to refer back to this guide later, grab the Kindle version – we’re hoping you’ll thank us with a five-star review on Amazon if you found this material helpful. The ebook also includes our job search guide.

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  • “Give everyone your ear, but few your words.” This is a somewhat translated quote from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. After reading this< I thought of how useful listening to others is, especially when you are trying to learn about different things. If you are always talking and interrupting others just to talk and say your opinion, you will never be able to expand outside of yourself. By listening to others, you are able to expand upon what you already know as well as learn new things that you may have never known before.

    On my robotics team this was a very important skill indeed. When you are collaborating with many others to concoct a solution to a problem, every idea that is available can possibly end up on the final product. But, if someone commands the whole design process, no new ideas that could actually be better and more efficient, can be voiced.

    Also, listening is very beneficial for example when conflict happens. I've known friends who were fighting, but because they didn't sit down and listen to each other speak on why they were mad, neither could resolve the conflict quickly.

    Just this summer I participated in a small class called inter-group relations and it was about the differences between people and how one should go about working and acting in a group where everyone is different. Listening was definitely a key factor in whether or not you would learn anything in that class because if you weren't listening to someone else in the class speak, then you were missing out on a learning experience. Specifically, you were missing out on learning about different cultures, religions, social classes and economic status', and even gender, race, and sexual orientation. Listening to all the other student's stories about where they came from and their experiences concerning various opportunities they had and why they were able to obtain those while others didn't helped me to see the opportunities I've had that I take for guaranteed. Listening thus is a skill one must have if they wish to succeed within a global environment.

  • Mikeyfree

    I am often the go to person in my workplace. People come to me with problems related to work, their personal lives and otherwise. I like to believe I am a good listener, and I feel that one of the most important skills as a good listener is to make eye contact. You comprehend a lot more, and you also will find yourself absorbing more of what they are telling you.

  • This article is amazing! This isn’t my first time reading it and I come back occasionally to brush up on my listening skills. I first came across this article after my mother told me I wasn’t a “people person”. I was working as an appointment setter for an exclusive travel agency. My boss and his boss were trying to cut costs. So they decided to move the call center of 20 people from Utah or Arizona to the corporate location in Georgia. I, one person, was now that call center of 20 people to a load of pretentious clients. Untold to me this position required a lot of listening and not so much talking. Being a “people person” requires a lot of listening and not so much talking. ‘Don’t interrupt’ and ‘Encourage the speaker’, Helped me get a 2 dollar raise, random bonuses, and now I get along with almost everyone.

  • Nicole130

    Reading this lesson was very eye-opening for me. One of the hardest things for me to do is to give my full attention to the speaker because I think so fast and am already generating my next question without fully hearing everything they are saying. Also, this lesson made me realize that while I do possess most of the listening skills listed I have used the conversation blockers. I always thought I was saying the right thing when I wasn’t. I know that in my first full time job I would say things related to the first three conversation blockers to coworkers. Now I know I was wrong for doing so and was an ineffectual listener. In addition, I can think of others who I have worked with that have also used conversation blockers and made me feel like they weren’t hearing what I was saying. Until reading this lesson, I never connected the dots that what bothered me about some people’s listening skills was the exact same thing that I did and more than likely bothered them. I will now be mindful of not using conversation blockers in future conversations thanks to this article.

  • Jamie Sculley

    I’ve been working on good eye contact and giving my full attention to the speaker. I sometimes find my mind wandering because, as the article says, the mind works so fast. I have to remind myself to keep listening and really tune into what the other person is saying so that I can show that I understand their point. I’ve found that maintaining good eye contact can help me focus on listening intently, and it helps me feel connected to the person, too. In this day of texting and emails, we can forget that we are talking to another human being, but eye contact reminds us that conversation is a way to make a personal connection.

    The conversation blockers part of this article was interesting. I find myself doing a few of them and can think of others who do them, too. One person I know always used to turn the conversation back to himself, and I never felt heard by him. Now I understand why I didn’t usually enjoy talking with him. I’ll keep these conversation blockers in mind because I feel like good listening is rare, but it’s imperative to doing good work.

  • I have always been taught to look at someone in the eyes when they are speaking. That was just how I has raised. And do not interupt while grown people are talking. I see grown people now, seeing as I have now become that grown person, as wait until it is my turn to speak, or contribute to the conversation.
    I have been in a meeting once that he made everyone sit down because he said with everyone standing it is like he was superior to all of us, and we may feel not as apt to tell him things as if he was sitting down beside us, it was like it made us tense. That is so true.

  • I sometimes jsut have difficulty focusing when someone is talking to me depending on what is going on around us. I work in a high stress job so taking in all the information for the task that need to be done each shift can be hard.

  • Tony Hawkins

    This is the lesson that I learn and re-learn constantly. Just when I think I have it mastered, I realize I need a refresher. I get so enthused about the things that others might be saying that I can’t wait to interject my own comments. Yet, when I am patient, I do get a chance to contribute. And, often I learn even more since, by letting others finish, there are frequently pearls of wisdom left until the end.

    I just forget what I was taught as a child, “You have 2 ears and 1 mouth – Use them in that proportion.”

  • I often change the focus of a conversation to myself. I thought I was keeping the conversation lively and connecting with the other person.
    However after reading this text, I don’t think I am. The conversation DOES often come back to me which makes me feel I am dominating and not participating in the conversation

    • That’s a very easy habit to fall into… the funny thing is that when you are really listening, it might seem boring to you but will always be lively to the person doing the talking, lol.

  • I’ve found that people have a difficult time listening, because they can’t relate to the information being presented or have trouble focusing on what is being said. some things i found that help when soeaking to some one who has a difficult time listening to key information, is the begin the conversation off with something they can relate to or something that hits home. then follow through with information tha i orignally planned on telling them.

    • So true! that’s a very useful technique Jasmyne…

  • effective listening helps build trust and long lasting relationships. It makes a person feel they are important enough to be listen to.It also will keep a customer coming back.Many times active listening has given me valuable information about myself and given me feedback I can use to be helpful with a client.

  • Tracey2133

    During my summer job as a cashier I realized how important listening really is. If a customer does not believe you are giving them your full attention they tend to get disgruntled. There were several instances when a distraction had occurred leaving parts of the customers conversation lost. Whenever one listens interactively and intensely to the speaker, the result is more effective for not only the speaker, but also the receiver.

  • Barb Favela

    Effective and efficient communication can be difficult for the parties involved. Without proper communication the meaning of the message can be distorted, which is why good listening comes in handy. Listening skills can give way to an environment that is comfortable and trusting for each person involved.

  • Carol Collum

    Listening is an essential element of communication and I believe this lesson emphasizes its importance. I am a social worker and my profession requires listening to others.  I can recall many instances in which I have to “just lend an ear” and not impose feelings or judgment.  Listening is a self-discipline and skill that enhances as it is exercised.  It becomes valued and appreciated by others as they experience this kind of communication.      

  • Faye Ellis

    Wow, after reading this article I can see how communication is so important in any situation. Listening is an essential part of communicating. Far to often I have been guilty of thinking about a response to someones comments, instead of really actively listening to what it is they are saying. This is true at work, home and in relationships. Thanks for this article.

  • Wayne2004

    Listening skill are very important within the business world and in today’s companies.

  • Melissa

    Listening skills are so important in many aspects of life.  Listening skills are required throughout life and at your job.  I would say that good listening skills are very important when you are in elementary, high school and college.  Listening is how we learned and will continue to learn.  Active listening is the most important.  I work for a company that requires active listening because the way things are done is always changing.  I have a few co-workers that feel they are just being attacked when our supervisor is trying to help them with a mistake they have made.  One girl especially cuts our boss of in mid sentence instead of listening.  If she would just listen to our boss, she would not make the same mistake twice.  I on the other had welcome new advices and changes very well.  I make sure that I listen actively so that I do not make many mistakes.

  • Aj

    After my schoolage children boarded the school bus, I was listening to another mom tell about her very first “tooth fairy” story. Her husband put a $20 dollar bill under the child’s pillow. I was flabbergasted and shared my smarter views on how not to spoil your children and how horrible they will turn out with this type of excess. I returned home and realized that the mother had said nothing, just listened. I made some bread, wrote a note and delivered both to her with a smile. I learned about stopping to listen without simply listening to myself.

  • Tscreated2serve

    Eighteen years of marriage has taught me many things. One thing is that I did not know as much as I thought I did. When I got married I thought I knew what it was to be in a relationship. Also I thought I knew what type of person I was. I have come to realize that I can be a very selfish person. Listening has been a challenge for me because I would find myself always wanting to get the last word or talk until I got my point across, regardless of his feelings or what he needed to say. Even on the rare occassion he got to say something, I would be thinking about what I was going to say next. 
    However, through out the years, I began to see how this was affecting my husband, and it starting bothering me.  So I began to read more about effective communication and about love languages, because I truly loved my husbands and wanted him to feel valued and appreciated.  A lot of what I read, said the same things as this article so I know I am on the right track.

    Tammie Smith

  • Josecanaura

    At my job and in my personal life, there have been moments
    when not listening has gotten me into more trouble that i called for. Acting
    before asking is usually what i do, by this, not listening has become a
    situation where i have become victim of my own actions. Lately, as i matured, i
    have been able to stop and listen instead of blocking and pretending. My boss,
    has been one of the most influential people in this, he has had the patience to
    slowly and patiently teach me to listen before i speak, because as he said
    “After the words come out, there is no way to erase them.”

  • Tamikabennett1

     Listening is a very important skill. You must be attentive and take notes whether they are physical or mental. Always asks questions if you are not for certain about what you are hearing. Always make sure you get a good understanding. I do collections for a finance company and all day I have to listen to my customers. I listen to explanations as to why they have not made their payments or contacted us. When the customer is telling me that they have lost their job or a loved one I must show empathy by letting them know I am sorry to hear of that. Also I have to let the customers know I am listening by responding while they are talking by saying I understand or yes. My listening skills show when I document the account. I try to document as the customer is speaking to make sure I do not leave anything out. My customers feel like I am concerned about their situations and often thank me for listenng!
    Listening is a very important skill. You must be attentive and take notes whether they are physical or mental. Always asks questions if you are not for certain about what you are hearing. Always make
    sure you get a good understanding. I do collections for a finance company and all day I have to listen to my customers. I listen to explanations as to why they have not made their payments or contacted us. When the customer is telling me that they have lost their job or a loved one I must show empathy by letting them know I am sorry to hear of that. Also I have to let the customers know I am listening by responding while they are talking by saying I understand or yes. My listening skills show when I document the account. I try to document as the customer is speaking to make sure I do not leave anything out. My customers feel like I am concerned about their situations and often thank me for listenng!

  • Darlene Brooks

    Having good listening skills is a must in most career
    jobs. I can remember working in customer service where having good listening
    skill is a must to service your customer.  Well, I had a customer that needed to change a
    delivery address on a package that had already shipped out. The customer was
    mailing his mother a gift to her home, however, he found out at the last minute
    that she was going out of town to visit a relative and she forgot to tell him.  This was for Mother Day gift so this was very
    important that this package arrive on time and to the correct location. The
    customer started telling me that he had a great mother and how she had helped
    him all though school. He wanted to mail his mother a mother day gift to show
    her just how must he loved her, and appreciated her so you can understand that
    getting the correct delivery address was a must. He stated that he had already
    called before, but the person he was speaking with was not listening, and was
    only trying to get him off the phone. I felt bad for him because he should not
    have to call back a second time to check behind someone just to see it he or
    she is doing their job.  After looking up
    the tracking number I found that the customer was right. The customer service
    rep that he was speaking with had got everything wrong. By having poor
    listening skills, the customer service rep had type in the wrong street name.
    If he did not call back his mother would have receive her package on time.  I apologize for the poor customer service and ask
    him to spell out the correct street name for me. As a customer service rep we
    are paid to listen to the each customer request and help him or her.  The great news was that the package got
    deliver on time to his mother on Mother Day.

  • R_martinb1

    I understand I use to work for an outreach program for children that nobody really wanted to care for.  Thier parents where either drug addicted or they had been through truamatic issues in thier few years on earth.  One day one of my children who was known for lashing out broke out windows and stabbed me in the arm with a pair of scissors, even through all of this I was able to sit him down and listen to what was bothering him.  He told me that no one ever listened to him and his mom hated him.  I let him talk for over an hour and found out that because he was labled as a troubled child no one ever took the time to really listen to him.  Although he still acted out from time to time he always listened to me and at twenty one he still calls me to talk to me and thanked me for really being there for him and listening to him.

  • Sessamarie_k

    It is so easy to misinterpret people because you are not focused on what they are really saying. I know in our society today everything is fast paced which means that if the person we are listening to is rambling our minds tend to wonder and get distracted from the conversation and we miss the point. Thank you for the advice I know could use it.

  • Jane

    At my job as a waitress there was more than one instance where I got in trouble because I did not listen intentively and did not get an order right especially because it was in a different language. This article is very relatable. It is really important to reflect back and make sure that is what a customer really wanted so you don’t make silly mistakes! =)

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About the author

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In 1997, Eric Shannon launched the first job board for bilinguals who speak English/Spanish at LatPro.com. Eric still serves as CEO of LatPro Inc., developer of JustJobs.com. He lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two girls.

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