14 Listening Skills

Listening Skills

Rebecca Hiebert

Learning Objectives

After reading this page, you will be able to:

  • understand the importance of listening as a communication strategy;
  • engage in active listening;
  • recognize different listening styles;
  • identify key information in lectures using listening strategies.

Why Is This Important?

In order to engage in meaningful communication, we need to both talk and listen. It is important to understand how listening affects our ability to make meaning when interacting with others. We need to use active listening strategies when interacting with classmates as well as when participating in class to ensure we get the information we need to succeed.


Communication is always two-way. It is not enough to just send out a message. One has to listen carefully to the response, and not only listen, but understand that the audience receiving your message might have a very different perspective on the topic. A person’s experience — due to gender, age, culture, and so forth — will have an effect on how well the communication is transmitted and received. Optimal communication occurs when both parties listen actively.

“We all feel better when we feel listened to. And we feel even better when we feel understood. In order to be understood, we must be listened to. Often it is more important to us to feel heard than to actually get what we said we wanted. On the other hand, feeling ignored and misunderstood is literally painful whether we are six or sixty.” Steve Hein[1]

Many variables get in the way of messages being received correctly. One of these is emotion — both yours and that of the person with whom you are trying to communicate. Sometimes you have to use emotional information to help you make a decision about how you are communicating. What this means is that you need to be able to understand your own feelings and those of others. There are five components to emotional intelligence (self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills). Understanding how these components work to help you get in touch with your and others’ emotional sides is an important part of listening.

Ultimately, communication is about information. The message you are sending may be as simple as one word or as complex as a job interview. How you act on that information, how you expect others to act on it, and how it registers in your brain are all part of the complexity of communication.

Listening Is a Communication Action

Our communication includes both sending and receiving messages. Unfortunately, we often don’t take the time to focus on the latter part. Often we are already thinking about what we are going to say next and not listening to what is being said to us. This lack of focus occurs in intense, oppositional discussions, but it can also be common in one-on-one conversations and when someone is confiding in us. When we listen, we need to embrace the concept of empathy, meaning you understand what a person might be feeling, and understand why that person’s actions made sense to them at the time. This way our ideas can be communicated in a way that makes sense to others, and it helps us understand others when they communicate with us.

Even though it is silent, listening is communication. We can often “hear” what is being said but don’t really listen well enough to discern what is meant by the person trying to communicate with us. In order to listen effectively, we should consider it an active process in the same way we think about speaking. We need to remember the difference between hearing and listening. We can hear noise, such as static coming from a unused radio channel, but we don’t get meaning from it. When we listen to information, we actively engage and make meaning from the message.

There are some strategies you can use to help you become a good listener. First of all, stop talking. You can’t listen if you are talking. Secondly, turn off the television, put your phone in your pocket, silence the music and, if needed, go somewhere quiet so you can actually focus on what is being said. Next, have empathy for the person talking to you. In other words, don’t begin thinking of ways to answer. Even if someone has a problem (with you or something else), avoid trying to immediately solve it; consider whether the person speaking to you really wants advice or action, or might simply want to be seen and heard. Finally, before you say anything as a reply, repeat what you heard so the other person can confirm that you heard and understood them correctly. You will be amazed at how well these strategies work to help avoid misunderstandings and confusion.

A photo shows two young women sitting on the floor of a wooden cubicle and talking to each other.
A photo shows two young women sitting on the floor of a wooden cubicle and talking to each other. Image source: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/8-4-the-context-of-communication, Attribution: University of the Fraser Valley / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0)



This is an activity of self-analysis. Remember, listening and hearing are not the same thing, and the difference can often lead to faulty communication. Think back on a time when your attempt at communicating with someone (face-to-face or online) didn’t go the way you intended. The message you were trying to convey wasn’t received in the way you meant it, and this led to some discord between you and whomever you were “talking” to. Write down what happened, then think about what could have been done differently. Was the problem yours? Did you send a message that wasn’t clear? Did the receiver of this message not really “listen” to what you were saying? What got in the way of what should have been a simple communication between you and someone else?

As noted earlier, emotions are frequently involved in communication. People have opinions, needs, desires, and outcomes they are looking for, feelings that can be hurt, and differing attitudes. What is important is that we need to be aware of our own emotions, and those of others, when attempting to communicate. Consider other people’s feelings as well as your own. Have empathy. And in the midst of trying to do that, don’t just hear, but listen actively.

Multiple Perspectives

Indigenizing Our Listening Skills

According to Elder Terry P’ulsemet Prest at University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, Indigenous culture teaches that we have to “learn to listen so we can listen to learn” and over time we learn to make the connection between the heart and the mind, the mind and the heart. He tells his students — who are very often faculty instructors — that this is because he recognizes that education has not necessarily prepared us to be “good listeners.”

Read the following quote from Shirley Harman, who explains how she experiences listening differently.[2]

While you read, consider:

  • How do people from different cultures listen differently?
  • How might these differences affect communication?
  • What can you do to adjust your expectations to improve communication with people from diverse cultures?

As an educator I am often reminded that listening with our whole self is not necessarily practiced in the academy. I learned this the hard way. One of my instructors in my graduate program pointed out to me that I rarely “spoke up” in class. I reflected upon this feedback and thought of all the times that I was eager to participate in the classroom dialogue, only to be “beaten to the punch” by classmates who either spoke up as soon as one had finished speaking or who seemingly dominated the classroom dialogue (almost always!). This self-reflection led me to understand the different ways I, as an Indigenous person, listen in comparison to many of my non-Indigenous counterparts. I began to recognize that oftentimes people would be preparing what they were going to say while the other person was still talking. While I on the other hand listened, completely listened, and only when one finishes speaking do I think about how I might respond. This is true, I came to learn, for many of the Indigenous students in my classes and at our university.

– Shirley Hardman (personal communication, 2017)[3]

Active Listening at College

There are ways to actively listen in order to get the most out of lectures and, more importantly, take all of the notes that might be required. The video in the next exercise covers several active listening strategies along with why we sometimes have difficulty listening.


Watch the TED Talk and answer the following questions:

  1. What three types of listening does the speaker discuss?
  2. How and why have we been “losing our ability to listen,” as the speaker suggests? He cites five ways.
  3. What are the five tools we can use to listen better?

Identifying Key Information in Class

When you are attending class and listening to your instructor present information, there are two types of key information cues to be aware of. A speaker will often have unique nonverbal and verbal cues that alert you to the fact that they are sharing important information. Take note of these cues and pay special attention to the information shared at this time. Write this information down because it is most likely important for tests and assignments.

Nonverbal Cues

  • Nonverbal cues alert you to when the speaker will shift to a different topic. For example, the instructor may shift their weight to the other foot, move to the other side of the room, or start gesturing with the other hand.
  • Nonverbal cues can also alert you to when the information is of special significance. For example, the instructor may make make their voice louder or higher in pitch, use hand motions, widen their eyes, or stand taller.

Verbal Cues

  • Vocal cues may also be used when the speaker will shift to a different topic. For example, the instructor may say “Next I will discuss . . .,” “And on the other hand . . .,” or “Moving on. . . .”
  • Vocal cues can also alert you to when the information is of special significance. For example, the instructor may repeat particular information multiple times, or say “I really want to emphasize . . .,” “This next point is important . . .,” or “I want to clarify. . . .”  [4]

Key Takeaways

When we are interacting with others we need to remember to use our active listening skills to ensure we are making meaning of what others are saying. It is also important to adapt our listening and communication to accommodate interactions with people from diverse backgrounds. When using our active listening skills in college, we can use the presenter’s nonverbal and verbal cues to take note of important information.

Attribution Statement: Adapted from College Success by Amy Baldwin, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

  1. http://eqi.org/listen.htm
  2. Pulling Together: A Guide for Teachers and Instructors by Bruce Allan; Amy Perreault; John Chenoweth; Dianne Biin; Sharon Hobenshield; Todd Ormiston; Shirley Anne Hardman; Louise Lacerte; Lucas Wright; and Justin Wilson, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. https://opentextbc.ca/indigenizationinstructors/chapter/reciprocity-and-multiple-ways-of-listening-in-oral-traditions/
  3. https://opentextbc.ca/indigenizationinstructors/chapter/reciprocity-and-multiple-ways-of-listening-in-oral-traditions/
  4. Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Dave Dillon, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. https://press.rebus.community/blueprint2/chapter/26-preparation-for-note-taking/

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