Why You Need Excellent Listening Skills

Good listening skills help work relationships thrive.
••• Cavan Images/Iconica/Getty Images

​​Many years ago there was a public service announcement that talked about the importance of good listening skills. It sought to explain the difference between hearing and listening. While hearing is a physical ability—actually one of our five senses—listening is a skill. It is possible to have one but not the other. Someone who is hearing impaired can be a great listener if he or she pays attention to the information someone conveys despite the fact that they can't use their sense of hearing to receive the message.

Likewise, someone with sharp hearing can be a poor listener.

In 1991 the United States Department of Labor Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) identified five competencies and three foundation skills that are essential for those entering the workforce. Active listening is one of those foundation skills. It is also a soft skill, which is a character trait or personal quality that an individual is either born with or can acquire through educational, work, or life experiences.

Listening skills allow people, regardless of how they take in information, to make sense of what others are saying. To put it in the simplest terms possible, they allow you to understand what someone is "talking about." Imagine what being an active listener can do for you at work?

How Good Listening Skills Can Improve Your Performance at Work

Good listening skills will help make you a more productive worker. They will allow you to: 

  • Better understand assignments and what your boss expects of you
  • Build rapport with coworkers, bosses, and clients since everyone craves to be understood
  • Show support for others
  • Work better in a team-based environment
  • Resolve problems with customers, co-workers, and bosses
  • Answer questions
  • Uncover the true meaning of what others are saying

How to Be an Active Listener and Look Like One

Many people aren't born with good listening skills. Even those who are great listeners sometimes engage in behaviors that make them appear not to be paying attention. The following tips will help you learn how to be an active listener, as well as look like one:

  • Maintain Eye Contact: When you are looking someone in the eye, you have no choice but to pay attention. And there will be no question about whether you are doing so.
  • Don't Interrupt the Speaker: Save your questions and comments until the speaker finishes talking and you can digest his or her words.
  • Sit Still: Fidgeting makes you look bored.
  • Nod Your Head: This indicates to the speaker that you are taking in the information he or she is conveying.
  • Be Attentive to Non-Verbal Cues: Paying attention to what the speaker doesn't say is as important as being attentive to his or her words. Look for non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and posture to get the full gist of what information the speaker is conveying.
  • Lean Toward the Speaker: You will appear to be, and actually will be, engaged.
  • Repeat Instructions and Ask Appropriate Questions: Once the speaker has finished talking, repeat his or her instructions to confirm that you understand them. This is also a good time to ask questions if you have any.

Barriers to Listening

If you follow these tips, you should become a better listener, but several barriers might get in the way, including:

  • Your own biases or prejudices;
  • Failure to understand the speaker because of a foreign accent;
  • Inability to hear because of background noise;
  • Worry, fear, or anger; and
  • A short attention span.

If you encounter one or more of these roadblocks, you should try your best to overcome them. For example, ask someone with a thick accent to speak more slowly. Move to a quieter place when background noise is interfering with your ability to take in what the speaker is saying. It will be harder to conquer your biases or prejudices than to deal with the other barriers, but being aware of them is a good place to start.

Listening Starts Early

If you have children, you know what it's like to feel like you're talking to a wall. Kids have an uncanny ability to appear to be listening to you while they are actually not paying attention at all. While this is something that may pass as they get older, it is important to help children develop good listening skills early. They will do better in school, and you will keep your sanity. As the SCANS report points out, good listening skills will prepare children to succeed in the workforce in the future.

Here are some things you can do:

  • When you tell your child to do something, ask him to repeat your instructions.
  • Teach your child to maintain eye contact when talking to or listening to someone.
  • Read out loud to your child and then engage her in a conversation about what you have read.
  • Engage your child in age-appropriate activities that promote good listening skills.