Enhancing Your Listening

Be a Serious Listener: Resist Distractions and Listen Actively

Resisting distractions and listening actively are two ways to become a more effective listener.

Learning Objectives

Explain how resisting distractions and listening actively can make you a more effective listener

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Distractions can be internal or external. External distractions include auditory, visual, or physical noise. Internal distractions may be psychological or emotional.
  • In order to best focus in on a speaker's message, try to eliminate as many distractions as possible.
  • Active listening is a communication technique that requires the listener to feed back what they hear to the speaker.
  • Active listening also involves observing and assessing the speaker's behavior and body language.

Key Terms

  • active listening: A particular communication technique that requires the listener to provide feedback on what he or she hears to the speaker.

Resisting Distraction

A picture of four panelists sitting at a small table. One panelist is talking while the others listen.

Distractions Are Everywhere: Learning how to tune out distractions enables people to be better listeners.

Distractions can come in all shapes and sizes. To be serious, effective listeners, people must learn how to resist the distractions that cross their path so they can better focus in on what they are trying to hear. Distractions and noise come in two broad types: internal and external.

External distractions often come in the form of physical noise in the physical environment. Auditory and visual distractions are often the most easily identifiable types of external distractions. Loud or extraneous noises can inhibit effective listening, as can unnecessary or excessive images. Think about trying to have a meaningful conversation with a friend while someone else is watching an action movie in the same room. Pretty impossible, right?

Internal distractions often refer to psychological and emotional noise. Distractions can also originate internally or can be physical responses to the environment. Feeling hungry, upset, or physically uncomfortable can be just as detrimental to effective listening as extraneous things in the physical environment. If a speaker is nervous about presenting a speech, he or she may have a litany of negative thoughts in his or her inner monologue, or the "little voice in your head. " Internal distractions also occur when someone is thinking about plans for after your speech, or thinking about topics and things completely unrelated to the speech at hand. These are all examples of internal distractions.

In order to best focus in on a speaker's message, try to eliminate as many possible distractions as possible. Turn off all mobile devices, relocate to a quiet space, and close unnecessary windows on the computer.

Active Listening

Active listening is a communication technique that requires the listener to feed back what they hear to the speaker. Most often, listeners will do this by re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words. This activity confirms what the listener heard and, moreover, confirms that both parties understand each other. It is important to note, however, that by paraphrasing the speaker's message, the listener is not necessarily agreeing with the speaker. Paraphrasing also helps the listener better retain that information for future access.

If someone is actively listening, then he or she is typically not distracted. Speakers can also cultivate the habit of avoiding distractions (for example, by addressing questions after the presentation, not during).

In addition to internalizing what a speaker says, active listening also involves observing and assessing the speaker's behavior and body language, and relaying that information back to the speaker as well. Having the ability to interpret a speaker's body language lets the listener develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker's message. When the listener does not respond to the speaker's nonverbal language, he or she engages in a content-only response that ignores the emotions that guide the message; this can limit understanding.

The ability to listen actively demonstrates sincerity on the part of the listener and helps to make sure that no information is being assumed or taken for granted. Active listening is most often used to improve personal relationships, reduce misunderstanding and conflicts, strengthen cooperation, and foster understanding.

Be an Open-Minded Listener: Suspend Judgment and Exercise Empathy

Open-minded listening requires empathy and a suspension of judgment on the part of the listener.

Learning Objectives

Explain how to listen with an open mind

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Listening with an open mind means being receptive to being influenced by what one hears.
  • Suspend judgment by becoming aware of pre-conceived notions; listening to the entire speech before jumping to conclusions; and listening to what the speaker has to say for understanding, not just to determine whether the speaker is right or wrong.
  • Listening with empathy lets the listener better understand where the speaker is coming from, emotionally and conceptually.
  • To be an effective open-minded listener, learn to leave ego at the door, and instead strive to find common ground with your speaker.

Key Terms

  • empathy: The capacity to understand another person's point of view or the result of such understanding.
  • Judgment: The evaluation of evidence in the making of a decision.

Suspending Judgment


Be an Open-Minded Listener: Open mindedness is essential to effective listening.

Someone who listens with an open mind is willing to be influenced by what he or she hears. It does not mean that the listener should not have strong views of his or her own, but it does require the listener to be willing to consider the merit of what other people say. This can be difficult when listening to something one does not want to hear or something about which one has pre-conceived notions.

All people have their own opinions on just about everything, so when people listen, they are tempted to immediately judge what someone else is saying from their own perspectives. However, this kind of pre-judging can lead to misunderstanding. People who listen with an open mind avoid anticipating what they think their conversational partners are going to say. They do not jump to conclusions, but rather hear the speaker out entirely and make an effort to understand his or her lines of argument.

Judgmental listening also occurs when the listener is only listening to the speaker in order to determine whether he or she is right or wrong, rather than listening to understand the speaker's ideas and where they come from. This kind of judgmental listening prevents the listener from fully engaging with the speaker on his or her own terms, and therefore limits the scope of the conversation.

Carrying pre-conceived notions about the speaker or the content of a speech into a conversation further limits effective listening. Listeners may have overwhelmingly positive or negative associations with particular people or ideas, and those associations can affect how listeners interpret. To listen effectively, one must work to temporarily suspend those associations in order to understand the speaker on his or her own terms.

Exercising Empathy

Exercising empathy while listening to a speaker is related to suspending judgment in that it requires the listener to work to understand what the speaker says from his or her point of view. This does not mean that the listener must automatically agree with the speaker; rather, the listener should simply put him- or herself in the speaker's shoes and try to see the presented arguments from that perspective. One of the primary jobs of an effective listener is to get in touch with the speaker's perspective and not to color it with his or her own.

Empathetic listening helps promote effective listening because it allows the listener to take into account where the speaker is coming from, both emotionally and in terms of the content of his or her speech. This lets the listener assess what the speaker says and how it is presented more accurately, which ultimately leads to better understanding.

Tips for Being an Open-Minded Listener

  1. Leave ego at the door. Come to the presentation with a mind like a blank slate.
  2. When disagreeing with the speaker, write down the objections rather than tuning out the presenter.
  3. Be open to new ideas or new ways of thinking.
  4. Look for opportunities to share common ground with the speaker, such as beliefs, ideologies, or experiences.

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