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How to improve listening skills

Improve Listening Skills

You can improve your listening skills. Listening is a skill just like running, talking, or reading.

Because listening is so habitual, we often forget that we learned our particular way of doing it at some point during our life. Anyone can improve how they listen. Ultimately, when we improve how we listen, we will better understand what someone is trying to communicate. 

With improved listening skills, we are better able to sell, manage, lead, or really any other task we need to get done. Like other skills, improving how you listen will take time and practice.

In this article, we will outline how anyone can start improving listening skills by:

  1. Identifying preferred listening styles
  2. Learning to identify what information is actually being communicated

Identify Your Listening Style

To start improving your listening skills, you must first answer the following question about yourself, “What are you listening for?”

Research has shown that we all develop listening habits. Our habits filter both what information we listen for, and how we interpret the information we are hearing. Usually, our listening skills are developed during childhood, but they can adapt and change over time.

There are at least four primary types of listening styles:

  1. Connective listening – This style focuses on the effect of information on others (team, clients, family etc.)
  2. Reflective listening – This style focuses on how information affects the listener. 
  3. Analytical listening – This style focuses on facts and quantifiable data. This style wants to prove if what they are hearing is accurate or true.
  4. Conceptual listening – This style focuses on possibility and what could be.

To learn your listening style, you can take a validated self-assessment. The ECHO Listening assessment is designed to provide you with your personal listening style. Additionally, it contains strategies that you can use to improve your listening skills. 

If you are unable to take the assessment, think back to your last conversation at work. Did you ask any of the following questions during the past few conversations you recently had:

  • How can I support you? Are you ok with this? (Connective Listening)
  • Can you give me some time to think about this? What do you need from me? (Reflective Listening)
  • How much will this cost? Can you prove it? (Analytical Listening)
  • What are our other options? What’s the big picture? (Conceptual Listening)

If you found yourself leaning towards one group of questions over another, you are taking the first step towards identifying your listening habits. This exercise won’t tell you what your exact listening style is, but it can help you orient yourself towards the styles. The more you understand your current listening styles, the easier it will be for you to improve your listening skills.

Identify what is being communicated

The children’s game ‘Whisper Down the Lane’ or ‘Telephone’ is a great example of how people frequently misunderstand what is being said. The game provides a setting where it’s difficult to hear what is being said. However, the true culprit of miscommunication is from our own listening filters.

Frequently, we filter information based on our listening preferences. Like what happens during the telephone game, we could entirely misinterpret what someone telling us.

During the game (video shown above), all of the statements are about the purchase of a magazine. When the last person says what they think they heard, frequently they believe the original statement was about an individual or living being (i.e. a Tucan). It’s possible that one or multiple individuals in the group’s Connective Listening Style changed the meaning to be about a person. If someone is constantly listening for information about other people, they will easily change what they hear to match what they are listening for.

To understand this concept further and why it happens, look at the image below, and say out loud what you see immediately:

Do you see an old woman or a young woman? 

Can you see both women?

  • If you only see the young woman, but not the older woman, stare at the young woman’s neck. This is the older woman’s mouth.
  • If you only see the older woman, stare at the wart on the older woman’s nose – this is the young woman’s nose, and above it is her eyelash.

When we look at this picture, our brains interpret the information quickly as possible. For some, it’s almost completely impossible to see the other picture. For many, it’s a task that requires a deeper concentration. We are fighting with our brains to find a different connection than what comes naturally to us.

Our brains have developed this immediate connection as a survival technique. It has allowed humans to survive predators for tens of thousands of years. 

Unlike animals, we don’t have sharp claws, the ability to run 35 miles per hour, or the ability to fly. However, we do have our brains, and our brains allowed us to create tools, weapons, and homes. Unfortunately, while the threat of nature is minimal today, our brains are still processing the information as quickly as possible.

This process happens while we are listening too. If we aren’t careful, we might miss important information because we are filtering it to match what we have learned to hear.


Are you listening habitually?

To understand how this works, here is a list of the four listening styles that are identified in the ECHO Listening Profile. Everyone has a preferred method of listening. Here are their potential weaknesses if they are left unchecked:

  1. Connective listening – This style might accept information at face value and can be ruled by emotions.
  2. Reflective listening – This style may miss the usefulness of information for other people. 
  3. Analytical listening – This style may get stuck in the details or discard information that could be valuable.
  4. Conceptual listening – This style may miss the tree for the forest or they might lack focus on the present.

To fight this habit, go back to the first step of this article and identify your listening style. When you are in a conversation, ask yourself “am I listening for information to satisfy my listening style?” 

By asking yourself this question, you are ensuring you are listening to what is being communicated – not what you want to hear.