Core Listening Skills

Listening is a bedrock conversation skill. It's easy to explain its benefits by mentioning the consequences of not doing it well:

Being able to pay attention to people and take in what they're saying, while not coming off as totally disengaged, is mandatory, bare minimum stuff. When people talk of "listening skills" sometimes what they're referring to is listening in a more active, focused, empathetic way. It's when you really try to understand where someone is coming from, show your interest, and read between the lines of what's being said. You'd use that if someone was telling you about their problems, or you were having a deep philosophical discussion, trying to see their perspective during a disagreement, or taking part in tough negotiations.

This second type of listening is more mentally taxing and takes practice to master, but has a lot of benefits. It helps you connect with people. It helps them feel accepted and supported. It can make arguments go more smoothly. Also, if you tend to be anxious and stuck in your head during conversations, making an effort to listen forces your attention outside yourself, and away from your nervous thoughts.

While listening skills are very important, I think their significance is still oversold at times. Some self-help sources imply that good listeners are rare, and that people appreciate nothing more than someone who truly listens to them. In my experience that's an exaggeration. Good listeners aren't that scarce, and being able to listen to people doesn't guarantee they'll love you, or that you'll easily be able to get through any conversation.

Listening And Being Interested In People Isn't A Conversation Cure-All

Basic listening skills

With a little practice it's not that hard to become a half-decent listener.


It sounds obvious, but one of the keys to listening properly is to want to do it. When people are poor listeners they usually aren't that way on purpose. They unconsciously come into the conversation with another agenda or their own issues, which overrides their listening skills. Like they may be too focused on what they want to talk about, or with trying to impress everyone. When you speak with people make a deliberate decision to try to listen well. Try to...

Of course, those won't all apply in every situation. If your friend is telling you about a video game she played the other day you probably don't have to worry about being open-minded and accepting.

In regards to placing equal importance on each person's conversation goals, what I mean is don't only focus on what you want. If the other person has a light story they want to tell, or a problem they want to discuss, then be a listener for them so they can do that. But that's not to say you have to completely put your own needs aside. You don't always have to be in Listener Mode, just that when other people are speaking you should make an effort to listen well. Your own needs are valid too. If you've got a story of your own you're dying to share you can work that in at an appropriate time. If you're talking to a known long-winded monopoliser, you don't have to be trapped forever by your listener duties. You may decide to politely cut them off once they've told one anecdote and are about to launch into another one.

Adjust the level of your listening depending on the context. If a friend is telling you about a funny YouTube clip his brother just sent him you don't need to try to commune with his very soul. Just let him say what he wants to say and don't interrupt. A mistake some people make when they first learn about listening skills is they overdo it and act like overly intense, super-fascinated therapists all the time.

Body language

This is a big part of appearing engaged:

Do each of these with a light touch. Again, the idea is to appear interested, not act like a caricature of a therapist. Also, adjust this basic template based on the circumstances. If you're lounging on a couch and watching reality TV with a buddy while they casually tell you about something weird that happened at work, you don't need to full-on face and lean into them. You could show you're listening by turning your head slightly toward them and going 'uh huh' and 'yeah' every so often. Having a mindset of wanting to listen is still important. Even if you nail all the non-verbals, people will usually be able to tell if you're just going through the motions.

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Avoiding being a poor listener

A lot of being a good listener is avoiding the habits and behaviors that make you a poor one. Here are some general poor listening behaviors:

This article is about day to day listening skills, so I'll only briefly cover the next two sub-topics. Along with the above, the following are poor listening behaviors when someone has come to you for help or support:

Again, in addition to everything above, in the context of an argument or disagreement these can also peg you as a poor listener:

Non-malicious reasons people can seem to be bad listeners

People can be poor listeners because they're self-centered, sure they're right, or not interested in the subject. Though as you were reading the poor listening behaviors above you may have thought, "Well that doesn't always happen because the person is a terrible listener, what about...?" It's not always cut and dry. Here are some more excusable reasons people can seem to be bad listeners:

You can't always get it right. Sometimes there will be a misunderstanding and you'll be seen as a bad listener without meaning to. However, for the most part if you know you're prone to any of the issues above, working on them will indirectly help you become a better listener.