Five ways to improve your listening skills

The key to collaborative planning and decision making

Listening, rather than talking, is the key to making an effective plan of action for a company or school, according to Peter Hudson. The trouble is, most people are not very good at it. Here Peter looks at five key ideas that will help the members of a team improve as listeners, and therefore as effective collaborative planners.

1. Simple, but not easy

At the start of any training session about listening, I always ask participants ‘what do you want to get out of this course?’ One of the most commons answers goes something like this:

Well I think I’m a pretty good listener really but I could do with a few tips on how to improve

And, interestingly, the same person might comment after a two day course:

I had no idea just how much there is to proper listening! I now realise what a poor listener I was.

So why is listening not as straightforward as one might think?  I’ll leave that as a rhetorical question for now. In the meantime here are five ways in which you can learn how to listen more effectively.
When in conversation, just listen and do not comment, well for the time being at least. What could be simpler than that?  And yet very few people seem to be able to manage it.  We feel impelled to say something, and bring in our own views.  Teachers are often worse than others in this regard – an occupational hazard maybe: “if I’m not saying something I’m not teaching them!”. Other people’s talk becomes a peg for us to hang our own ideas on. We are all guilty of this at times.

Arrange a practice listening session with a friend or close colleague and just listen to them, without giving your own views to your “talking partner”. See what you feel like when you try this.

 2. Reflect Back to the talker

When in conversation, tell the other person what they have just said! Don’t interpret. Don’t’ leave anything out. Don’t comment.  Yes, I know it’s not usual and you might think you sound like a parrot.  It’s not easy, but it’s crucial.

Again – practise with a friend or colleague and ask them to comment about your summary of what they have said. Have you really refrained from giving your own comment or opinion? Then give them an opportunity to correct you about what was meant. This in turn often begins the process of clarification so that you understand the person’s meaning without your own views getting in the way.

3. Establish what is really important

After one or two exchanges, go on to give the other person a simple bullet point summary of all they’ve just said and then ask, ‘Of all these things, what is the most important one for you right now?’ Don’t guess.  Don’t suggest what you think the most important one ought to be. Don’t comment.

When the other person has answered, simply say something like ‘OK let’s talk some more about that’ and carry on listening and reflecting back. This continues the process of finding clarity.  Often, you might be surprised by what they choose to focus on. That’s because we don’t all rate things with the same importance. Going with the speaker’s priority can give a much greater sense of motivation and with that they can move to further clarify and get to the core of the matter and the possibility of creating a plan of action.  Once again, it’s not an easy role for you as the listener, but you need to be disciplined and not to throw in your own ideas.

4. Get to the core of things

So, what’s the core? It’s the nub, the kernel, the essence, the guts even of what is being talked about. Some people call it the ‘it’.  This is not a deeply abstruse or meaningful psychological term such as ‘ das Es’  or the ‘ Id’.  It is an expression of surprise at realising that the talker found the clarity needed and says ‘Gosh, that’s IT!’

This clarity or realisation is sometimes accompanied by an energetic and positive expression of emotion. But “uncovering the core” isn’t easy. What might help?

  • Watch out for signs of emotion
  • Ask questions.
    • What does this all add up to?
    • What would you say the core of this is?
  • Be aware of energy being generated by the other person in the conversation 
5. Move to Action

Having helped the speaker to clarify things, and to uncover the core of their meaning, now help them to use that clarity and the energy that comes with it to find any action that might be needed.  In other words, by listening further, help them create an action plan. There will now be more motivation to get on and do something.  Don’t suggest what they should do – it’s their plan not yours whether it’s a colleague, a student or a friend.  Also they are much more likely to implement the plan if it comes from them.  Again, discipline is required to hold back.

Some final advice

When moving from the core to action:

  • Ask step by step questions
    • Ok so you’ve discovered the core: how would you like things to be different?
    • Is there anything you can do to make things different?
    • What are you going to do?
  • Never ask ‘What’s the solution?’
      • Often there isn’t a solution
      • There is, however, always some action that can be taken, even if it is to think more about whatever has emerged within the listening session

    Peter Hudson is a practising psychotherapist, specialising in the development of listening skills, working with schools and businesses. For more about his ideas, training and facilitation, see

    For inquiries about booking Peter’s listening skills course for your school or business, please e-mail:


    Feature Image: wollyvonwolleroy – Pixabay

    Other Image: bella67 – Pixabay

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