We live and work in a high-tech, high-speed, highly stressful world. Good communication is more important then ever, however, many of us are not really listening to one another.

According to the late Brant Burleson, professor of communication and author of Communication of Social Support there is strong scientific evidence that when we listen ineptly, particularly if someone is upset the effect can:

  • Make them feel much worse and increase the degree to which they are upset
  • Inhibit their ability to solve the problem and encourage an unhealthy dependence on the listener
  • Increase levels of stress
  • Create dissatisfaction in the relationship or destabilise the relationship
  • Damage the person’s health

Most people consider themselves average or good at listening. However, following training, even those who thought that they were competent recognised that there was quite a bit of room for improvement.

Research shows that most people who try to listen fail to do it well. People usually have good intentions and want to help; however, the outcome can be very harmful as good intentions are not enough.

People don’t talk to those that they think don’t listen. If you’re managing people and they’re not talking to you – you might want to check what they think about your listening skills, have they given up trying? Are they looking for another job?

Genuine listening takes time, effort, know-how and practice. It is essential to building relationships, solving problems, developing understanding and resolving conflicts. It encourages honesty and reduces stress.

At work, active listening results in fewer errors and reduces wasted time. Its effect also creates a productive, happier and fulfilled workforce. It can result in more creative and innovative work and drive greater levels of customer satisfaction.

Many successful leaders and entrepreneurs credit their success to effective listening skills. Sir Richard Branson frequently quotes listening as one of the main factors behind the success of Virgin.

When asked most people would cite the following as necessary skills to listening:

  • Keeping quiet when others are talking.
  • Showing you’re listening by non-verbal queues such as facial expression, nodding and using verbal encouragement such as “umm” and “hmm”.
  • Being able to paraphrase back.

These are all certainly good tips, but not enough on their own.   When analysing data from a development programme, with some 3,500 participants, experts were able to identify 20 differences that made the top 5% of the group the most effective listeners.

We’ve included the key characteristics in the guide below:

  • Prepare yourself to listen – relax, focus on the speaker and put all other things out of your mind; what’s for lunch, what time train you’re getting later etc.
  • Be available – If you’re busy when someone asks to speak to you, let him or her know how much time you need to finish what you are doing and that you’ll be completely available at that time. Don’t just leave it there, follow that through – book the time to listen or let them know that when you’re available you’ll go to them or contact them to let them know.
  • Let the other person know that you want to listen. Be sincere and show that you’re interested. Put them at ease to encourage them to talk.
  • Help with positive regard – let the other person know that you are listening to help you’re not a “fixer”. By listening you can help them to arrive at their own conclusion and solutions. Choose your timing with this one, it’s useful to explain this if someone asks you directly or early in the conversation for your advice or asks you “what would you do”.
  • Create a safe environment in which to talk – where neither of you will be interrupted or distracted.  Let them know it’s okay to show their feelings and that they won’t be judged. Don’t fiddle with papers, doodle, look out of the window, check your phone or anything similar that makes you look disinterested.
  • Give time and space to talk – however they need to, without judgement. Good listeners don’t ask to “cut a long story short” or tell the other person to stop pacing or whatever it is they were doing while they speak. Be patient, sometimes a pause is necessary for the other person to formulate what they want to say. Don’t interrupt, fill the silence or finish someone’s sentence.
  • Show empathy and understanding – put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see the conversation through their eyes not your own, respecting their views and opinions. In difficult situations let them know that you appreciate how difficult the situation is. Tell them how you guess they must be feeling, but let them know it’s only a guess and ask for them to explain to you (makes it less of an interrogation).
  • Ask questions – periodically ask questions to clarify your understanding and to ask about their feelings and reactions. Asking questions that gently challenge assumptions will show that you really are listening and that you understand what the other person is saying. Don’t ask questions that will change the course of the conversation for example: You’re listening to a colleague who’s telling you about a project they are working on and they mention an old colleague that you both know. The instant you ask, “How is Julie? I haven’t seen her in ages” the focus of the conversation is lost. Ask those questions when the person has finished telling you what they wanted you to listen to.
  • Listen for what is not being said – and observe body language. Saying they are “fine” through gritted teeth should raise a flag.
  • Build self-esteem – make the experience positive, without criticism. Let the other person know that their feelings and actions are perfectly understandable and reasonable.
  • Co-operate, don’t compete – poor listeners are often seen as competitive, identifying errors in reasoning or logic, using silence to prepare what they want to say. Whereas, good listeners will acknowledge what is being said and when challenging or disagreeing will do so in a positive way, such as “I’ve never thought of you as xxxxx, what makes you see it that way?”
  • Ally – Let the other person know that no matter what, you are on their side.


When dealing specifically with a problem, good listening isn’t just about what to do and say, it’s also about what not to do and say. Here are some golden rules:

  • Don’t say that they’re in this mess because they are incompetent and that it’s their own fault.
  • Don’t undermine their feelings by telling them they are overacting or blowing things out of proportion – even if you think they are, listening to them will help them come to that conclusion by themselves.
  • If the problem involves someone else, don’t comment on the other person or your feelings towards him or her.  The conversation is about the person you are listening to and how they feel, not about the other person.
  • Don’t reject their feelings by telling them that expressing their negative thoughts will make it worse or that how they are feeling is uncalled for because the problem is small or easy to solve.
  • Don’t make them feel incapable of dealing with it by being overly concerned, becoming too involved or wanting to take the problem on for them e.g., “do you want me to intervene on your behalf?”
  • Don’t give advice, help the person to arrive at their own solutions – ask what they think they can do or what they think their options are? If it’s a medical problem it’s easy to give advice by saying something like “why don’t you go to the doctor?” Try other questions such as “what is stopping you from going to a doctor?”
  • Don’t talk about your feelings or similar experiences that you’ve had or heard of. The conversation is about the other person, not you. No matter how similar the experience, it is not the same.
  • Don’t say, “think about happier thoughts” it really isn’t helpful.
  • Never tell the other person how they should think or feel.
  • Never tell them to ignore or forget the problem


Listening is key to all effective communication. Without the ability to listen well messages are easily misunderstood, people become frustrated or irritated and ultimately communication breaks down.

Effective listening is a skill that underpins all positive human relationships. Spend some time thinking about and developing your listening skills, be aware of how you listen and see how you can improve – it’s an essential skill that is a key building block of success.