“Listening, at times, seems to contradict everything I learned in school. It’s about forgetting yourself for a moment, letting go of your agendas, abandoning the need to prove anything or dominate the conversation or convert someone to your cause by showing them how wrong they are. It is, instead, simply — and challengingly — about witnessing someone.” – Andrew Forsthoefel, author of “Living to Listen”

Listening Listening: The Gist Factors in Listening Styles and Levels of Listening Listening Challenges 1: the Dinner Guests Listening Challenges 2 Better Listening Elevated Conversation Hearing and Understanding Listening Practice and Exercises Listening Inspiration and Resources

The Chinese Hanzi character for the word “Listen” wisely acknowledges the range of vital parts involved in this complex and nuanced skill. Each section of the Hanzi corresponds to the words of the same color.

Ears (to hear)
Mind (to think)
Eyes (to see)
Attention (to focus)
Heart (to feel)

Chances are you believe that you’re a good listener. Even above average.

And we hate to break it to you, but studies suggest you’re wrong– and not alone!

Apparently, most people believe that they’re above average listeners …which is logically impossible. Not everyone can be above average. In fact, one study showed that the average person actually only listens with 25% efficiency!1

“It can be stated, with practically no qualification, that people in general do not know how to listen. They have ears that hear very well, but seldom have they acquired the necessary aural skills which would allow those ears to be used effectively for what is called listening.” -Listening Researcher Ralph Nichols, Harvard Business Review 1957

Listening is just one of many factors of well-being. You can measure it in detail—along with 50+ other factors and 225+ subfactors—using the Assessment Center.
For a quick assessment of your listening skills, try this quiz:

Later in this section you’ll learn about the Dinner Guests, which caricaturize the common challenges of listening.
If you want, you can already print out the following flowchart to test what dinner guest challenges you the most!

You can also use this Questionnaire, in which you have a friend answer questions about your listening skills in order to give you feedback:

Woah, right? How is there such a massive gap in perception and reality when it comes to our listening abilities?  There are a vast array of reasons for this discrepancy. One reason is that being taught to listen is rarely a part of our education.

Yes, listening can be taught and learned.

This is wonderful news, because it means the myriad of rich benefits of effective listening are accessible to those who put in the effort to learn the skill set!  Better listening has the power to impact every area of your life where relationships play a role. Sure it can impact your life with your partner, family, and friends; but also your career, your healthcare, in school, in personal development, and on ad nauseum!

Wonder where you stand?  If you believe one or more of the following common assumptions, you’re likely not meeting your listening potential…

Traits of…

The Common Listener

  • May be distracted or multi-tasking.
  • Not showing signs of engagement: body may be facing away, lack of eye contact, lack of appropriate responses.
  • Asks yes/no or leading questions.
  • Engaging in conversation to be understood instead of to understand.
  • Interruption
  • Off-topic responses.
  • Keeps score of the conversation: Your turn to talk, now my turn, now your turn, etc.
  • Constantly relates or redirects focus to themselves, their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or experiences.
  • Reactive (versus responsive)  to what they hear.

The Better Listener

  • Cultivates genuine interest for and curiosity about the speaker.
  • Shows verbal and nonverbal engagement through eye contact, nodding, affirmative utterances, etc.
  • Encourages elaboration.
  • Asks insightful questions.
  • Reflects back what they understand in their own words to clarify meaning.
  • Doesn’t personalize the content of the message or make the conversation about their own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or experiences.
  • Calm and centered.

5 Listening Myths

1. Listening is the same as hearing.
Hearing is the passive process of perceiving sound, while listening is an active process of attending to and interpreting meaning from sounds.

2. Listening is a passive, automatic ability.
Listening is an active process! This means we engage in it intentionally- we must apply effort to listen and understand.

3. Listening is natural and easy.
Listening is a skill that must be practiced.  Anyone can develop it.  It is not a character trait or natural ability.
It can be challenging because it takes considerable attention, intention, self-awareness, curiosity, authenticity, and self-regulation.

4. Smarter people are better listeners.
A high IQ does not make someone a better listener.  In fact, a better indicator is higher emotional intelligence2.  This may be because higher IQ often indicates a greater mental capacity, which leads to more chances to be distracted. Plenty of people with high IQs are good listeners, however, your IQ is not a reliable factor in predicting your listening ability. People with high EQ are better able to accurately predict the emotions of the person they’re listening to (which is essential to deeper understanding), regardless of their IQ.

5. Women are better listeners than men.
A study from Carnegie Mellon showed that women’s comprehension surpassed men’s. How are we to interpret these results? There are many factors at play culturally that lead us to make assumptions about sex differences and even motivate us to demonstrate them. In the past few decades, studies of this nature have fizzled out, as cross-culturally little has been concluded consistently. Having assumptions about our abilities or others is an example of a fixed mindset, which can limit our potential growth.

“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.” –Dean Jackson, poet

The quality of our listening has the power to be transformative across all dimensions of our lives and society. It enables us to open up to others in a curious, nonjudgmental, and conscious manner that leads to a greater depth of understanding and connection.

Not only does listening benefit the listener, it also benefits the person being listened to!  People who feel heard report greater clarity of ideas and feelings, greater self-esteem, and a strong sense of identity(Itzchakov et. al 2017)(Itzchatkov et. al 2018).

In today’s busy world, connecting with others is becoming rarer each day. By learning the skill of genuine listening, we could more regularly reap the benefits of connection and understanding.

Listen to these Stories of Transformational Listening from StoryCorps

  • Jenn and Peter Stanley
    A father and daughter that do not agree on politics discuss the nature of their relationship and how their disagreements make it challenging. In taking the time to listen to one another they are able to gain a deeper understanding of what is beyond their bickering.
  • Kate Musick and Harleé Patrick
    This recording includes two short stories of teachers that listened holistically to their students and had a lasting impact.

And check out these videos:

  • Being A Good Listener
    The School of Life explains the value of learning how to listen.  They touch on four things great listeners do: Encourage us to elaborate, urge us to clarify, don’t judge us, and separate disagreement from criticism.
  • Six Ways to Be a Better Listener
    Greater Good Science Center presents this short 1.25-minute video with 6 steps for better listening: avoid giving advice, avoid judgment, paraphrase, ask questions, offer empathy, and stay engaged.
  • Celeste Headlee: 10 ways to have a better conversation (11.5 minutes)
    In this powerful TED Talk, radio host Celeste Headlee offers 10 ways to have a better conversation. “Honesty, brevity, clarity, and a healthy amount of listening. In this insightful talk, she shares 10 useful rules for having better conversations. ‘Go out, talk to people, listen to people,’ she says. ‘And, most importantly, be prepared to be amazed.’”

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” – Ralph G. Nichols

So let’s get to it…

What Exactly Is Listening, Anyway?

According to the International Listening Association,

Listening is “the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or non-verbal messages.”

This is a very basic definition that encompasses all kinds of listening.  We can break it down even further with more nuance:

  • Listening is a skill, not a character trait or a passive ability.
  • Listening varies in style, intention, and quality.  You can learn about the types of listening here.
  • Listening involves actively attending to the speaker with intentional engagement.
  • Effective Listening includes expressing that we’re interested through both verbal and non-verbal cues.  This can include eye contact, affirmative noises, intentional questions, and reflection of what is being understood.
  • Effective listening seeks first to understand, then to be understood.
  • Listening is integral to communication.  Giving and receiving information are inextricable.  When two or more people are present, communication is never not occurring.
  • Listening is not only auditory and verbal.  It involves paying attention to content, body language, tone, and emotion.
  • Listening can be a form of love. Through being fully present with another and accepting them as they show up, you are being loving towards them.
  • Listening can be seen as bearing witness to someone’s experience.

On Generous Listening: “Listening is an everyday art and virtue, but it’s an art we have lost and must learn anew. Listening is more than being quiet while others have their say. It is about presence as much as receiving; it is about connection more than observing. Real listening is powered by curiosity. It involves vulnerability — a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. It is never in “gotcha” mode. The generous listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own most generous words and questions.“   From On Being, one of their Core Virtues

Benefits of Effective Listening

Effective Listening Benefits Yourself and Others in Dramatic Ways

For Others (The “Listened-To”)

  • Listening is a loving act that supports others.  Dr. Michael P. Nichols argues in his book, The Lost Art of Listening, that being listened to helps us solidify our identity and shape who we are by affirming our narrative and personal agency.  He explains that “Being heard means being taken seriously.”
  • Some researchers suggest that listening is linked to developing a secure attachment style, a way of relating to people that has a profound impact on developing healthy relationships (Nichols 2009).
  • When listening well, we listen without judgment or trying to fix the situation.  This supports the people we are listening to by not only validating their experiences, but empowering them to find solutions to their own problems and increase their agency.  Learn more about the negative effects of offering advice here.
  • Being listened to helps people stay in their creative brain (the cortex) and be less reactive (the amygdala) through the power of empathy.  This leads to more openness,  less extreme views, and more complex thoughts. (Itzchakov et. al 2017)
  • Being listened to well helps people develop greater self awareness. (Itzchatkov et. al 2018)

For Ourselves (The “Listener”)

  • Better Listening skills improve relationships by building trust.  Effective listening is accepting and respectful.  It also allows for shared vulnerability, as fully listening requires us to become open to influence (a vulnerable state) and create a space for others to be vulnerable with us. (Itzchakov 2018)
    • Dr. John Gottman’s famous studies on marital stability indicate that you can predict the outcome of a conversation (and thus a relationship) based on the first three minutes of an interaction 96% of the time. Couples who listen effectively, are gentle with each other and have a high ratio of positive to negative interactions are more likely to stay together.
  • Dale Carnegie’s famous book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” returns to the principles of quality listening again and again.  Through demonstrating genuine interest in others and listening to them, they are likely to have more positive associations with the listener.
    • “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” -Psychiatrist Karl A. Menninger
    • This could mean being more liked by others, as they’ll feel open, comfortable, and interesting in your presence.
    • These same reasons can also lead people to accept more influence from you.
    • We don’t recommend using listening to get people to like you or to influence them, as having that agenda when listening inherently interferes with being genuine.  Read more about agendas here.
  • Effective Listening increases our understanding of others.  Maybe this one sounds like a “Duh” statement, but we often listen for the information someone is sharing rather than to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and why they are sharing particular information in the way that they’ve chosen.  Listening along multiple dimensions allows us to learn far more information and deepen our understanding of others.
  • Better Listening increases our understanding of ourselves.  Intrinsic to listening well is self-awareness.  We must become aware of, monitor, and question our own filters and biases in order to understand someone else’s perspective with clarity.  Through listening to ourselves in the process of listening to others, we’re more capable of self-regulating, increasing our agency, and authentically connecting with others. (Haley 2017)
  • Through these greater understandings of self and others, we can increase our accuracy in listening and thus become more effective in all related pursuits.
    • For example,
      • More accurate listening can help you understand the unmet needs in your spouse’s accusations, thus enabling a compassionate response that addresses the problem instead of resulting in a fight.
      • More accurate listening could help you understand what your coworkers, clients or boss want better, even if they are poor communicators.
  • Effective Listening is key to effective leadership. Studies indicate that employees associate good leadership with good listening skills, and employees who perceive their leaders as having effective listening skills show increased supportiveness, trust, and intrinsic motivation (Kluger & Zaidel 2013) (Stine et al. 2012).  Listening leaders are able to understand issues more accurately and come up with better solutions.  They gain the respect of others by showing respect for their perspective and valuing their input.
  • It can help you find more and better solutions.  Inherent to the practice of Better Listening is curiosity, openness, and staying regulated in order to operate from the cortex.  This enables creative and analytical thinking, which can make you a better problem solver.
  • Better Listening skills could make you luckier.  Studies indicate the people who consider themselves lucky are more open to and perceptive of opportunities in their immediate environment.  Listening well necessitates a level of attention and openness that can facilitate this. (Wiseman 2003)
  • Better Listening (aka Empathic and/or Deep Listening) can have a positive impact on our overall well-being.  Because they are based on high levels of self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathic connection, these styles of listening help us access the benefits of each of these practices.
  • Appreciative Listening has physiological benefits.  Listening to sounds we enjoy, like music, nature, or silence, has been shown to have various impacts on health such as releasing dopamine, decreasing cortisol, improving sleep, reducing pain, decreasing blood pressure, boosting immunity, and supporting the growth of new brain cells. (Chanda & Levitin 2013)

Listening Stories

These are a few stories of how effective listening can transform…

In Romance

When Greg’s wife tells him about something she is struggling with, he wants to help her and begins to offer her solutions. He gets frustrated when she responds by explaining away why everything he suggests will not work and wonders if she wants her problems to go away at all. His wife is frustrated because she feels bad for dismissing his offerings, but is equally frustrated because she has already thought of those and still wants to share her experience with him without alienating his response.

One afternoon while this is happening and he recognizes there is nothing he can do to ‘fix’ her situation, he listens for her underlying emotion and responds to that. “It sounds like you’re feeling stuck and wish Nadene would recognize the hard work you’ve already put into the project. That’s a tough spot to be in.” In response to this, his wife sighs of relief. She feels heard and validated for her experience. Greg learns through this that she doesn’t want or need him to fix her problems when she shares, rather needs to be listened to and empathized with.

This way of listening totally changes the dynamics of their conversations and enables them to become closer and deepen their relationship.

In a Casual Encounter

Hilda was walking her dog one morning when he pulled the leash out of her hand and ran up to greet another dog. Hilda rushed after her dog, apologizing to the other woman who looked stiff and closed off, trying to pull her own dog away from Hilda’s. When the woman does not respond to Hilda’s apology at all, Hilda starts to feel irritated.

Hilda recognizes her own judgment of this other woman as ‘too sensitive’ and ‘rude’ for not acknowledging her or giving her the benefit of the doubt. She knows that under that irritation is a fear of being a burden to others or inconveniencing or upsetting other people. Hilda decides to take a breath, allowing her own emotional reaction some space. She also decides to give this other woman the benefit of the doubt, noting the conditions that could be affecting her response.

The woman is older and the stiffness could indicate an injury she is worried about being affected by a stray, jumping dog. The woman’s dog could be sensitive and react aggressively to an off-leash dog, which the woman has no control over. Maybe she didn’t hear Hilda’s apology. Maybe she is having a bad day.

Hilda leashes her dog, tells the woman she wishes her a more peaceful walk, and moves on.

While her listening skills (to herself and the situation) did not alter Hilda’s behavior towards this stranger, it changed the way she experienced it and enabled her to be compassionate with the woman and with herself.

Between Close Friends

Rynn and Josh have been friends since they were 10,  grew up next door to one another, and even lived together in college. Having been through so many life experiences together, they have had their ups and downs.

A consistent challenge for the pair of pals has been their different responses to conflict. When Josh becomes upset about something he goes silent and won’t engage with Rynn at all. She has always interpreted this behavior as a power move on his part, imagining that it is his way of strong-arming her into getting his way. In response she becomes very angry and shuts him out in response, trying to force him to break the silence.

This pattern has been hard for Rynn especially because she feels inferior to her best friend when it arises, and she has built resentment around the belief that he doesn’t respect her.

One time when this has occurred she decides to be more curious than her typical reaction tends to offer her. She lets him have some space and goes to talk to him about it a few days later. Instead of talking about the trigger for the pattern, she brings up her observations and judgments (taking responsibility for them rather than blaming Josh) and asks him what his experience of these conflicts is.

Josh is shocked by her interpretation and explains that he shuts down and goes away because it is his way of managing his anger so he doesn’t lash out and say things he doesn’t mean. It is his form of self-care, and not a “power move” or personal in any way.

By taking the time to be curious about the situation and create the opportunity to listen to her friend, the two increase their understanding of one another and create a new chance for compassion in their relationship.

Between a Parent and Child

Ximena’s 16-year-old daughter Maria skipped class on Tuesday and managed to get a tattoo with her friend. Ximena was outraged when she discovered this and her initial reaction of anger made her want to punish her daughter and yell at her for her risky behavior.

Instead of following that thread without checking herself, Ximena took a moment to regulate and empathize with herself. The emotional reaction came from a place of wanting her daughter to be safe. Once regulated, Ximena does her best to connect to curiosity and compassion. She goes to speak with her daughter from this space instead of the reactive one.

Maria is ready to shut her mother out and be defensive. However, Ximena asks her to tell her about the tattoo and what made her want it, rather than blame and tell her daughter she is wrong.

Sensing that her mother is genuinely wondering why she would take this action, Maria feels safe to share that the tattoo feels like a declaration of what she cares about, as well as a way to feel more alive and do something risky.

Ximena can see now that her daughter is using the tattoo as a strategy to affirm her identity and test her independence and feel excitement. Ximena shares with her daughter that this strategy scares her and offers to help her come up with some other ways to experience what she is looking for.

Between “Enemies”

Daryl Davis is a black musician whose curiosity about the outrageousness of racism led him to begin attending KKK rallies. He wanted to understand how people could hold racist beliefs about another group of people when he saw it as completely absurd. By listening deeply to Klansmen in an effort to really understand how they formed their views, he eventually developed friendships. Throughout this journey of listening Daryl has influenced over 200 Klansmen to give up their robes through creating compassionate relationships.

Between Employer and Employee

The shoe retailer Zappos has a month-long onboarding process for employees. When the new CEO participated in onboarding, he heard new employees saying they weren’t sure they liked the job but would probably stay for the pay. Not wanting employees at Zappos who didn’t want to be there, he decided to offer new employees $100 to quit. This has since turned into a month’s pay, and often translates to greater commitment and faith in the company.

Through listening to and responding directly to what employees were sharing, Zappos was able to craft a program that ensures what it values for the company and employees alike: people who are motivated, committed, and feel valued.

“Listening to people reminds them that their lives matter.” – David Isay, Founder of StoryCorps

Listening is an Extraordinary Power

This is the guide you want for harnessing yours!

Listening is a skill that has the potential to transform your life and your relationships, enabling you to have a more powerful and loving impact on the world around you.  This corner of the site is dedicated to aiding you in gaining a deeper insight into the layers and nuances of this force, how and why it works, and how to apply it in your life.  We aim to offer you a toolbelt for listening well, rather than a formula.

We recommend reading this section in the following order, as indicated by the teal graphic.

Feel free to also choose your own adventure!  Each of the sections are interwoven with the others, and it is possible to hop around and absorb a great deal of useful information according to your specific interests or gaps in knowledge.

We hope you discover and cultivate the magic that Listening has to offer, and that our site contributes to your journey.

Other Sections of AMeaningOfLife.org Related to Listening
We touch on all of these topics in detail and link to them throughout the Listening section. You can also visit them independently below!
NVC/Compassionate Communication Non-Violent Communication is a style of communicating based on Empathy. By focusing on understanding Wants and Needs, it equips practitioners to deeply connect and understand one another.
Curiosity Curiosity is essential to listening as it empowers us to learn by employing humility.
Mindfulness Mindfulness is a gateway to self-understanding. Knowing our personal biases, reactions, and emotions are vital to listening well.
Presence When listening deeply to someone, we must practice being totally present. This is an art within itself!
Vulnerability Listening deeply requires vulnerability as it asks us to accept influence and reveal our own truth.
Habits When learning to listen better you can use the tricks outlined in this section to help you practice and incorporate the skills into your life for more reliable change.
Wisdom Better Listening employs many of the same traits as wisdom: self-awareness, experiential knowledge, non-biased judgment, compassion, and insight.
Self Care Knowing your personal boundaries and needs, as well as respecting them, is indispensable to fulfilling your potential as a listener!

Listening Listening: The Gist Factors in Listening Styles and Levels of Listening Listening Challenges 1: the Dinner Guests Listening Challenges 2 Better Listening Elevated Conversation Hearing and Understanding Listening Practice and Exercises Listening Inspiration and Resources
  1. E. J. J. Kramar and Thomas B. Lewis, “Comparison of Visual and Nonvisual Listening,” Journal of Communication, November 1951, p. 16; and Arthur W. Heilman, “An Investigation in Measuring and Improving Listening Ability of College Freshmen,” Speech Monographs, November 1951, p. 308.
  2. The Correlation Between Intelligence Quotient and Listening Comprehension Academia, https://www.academia.edu/11389836/The_Correlation_Between_Intelligence_Quotient_and_Listening_Comprehension 
  3. Philip Emmert, Victoria Emmert & Janice Brandt (1993) An Analysis of Male-Female Differences on the Listening Practices Feedback Report, International Listening Association. Journal, 7:sup1, 43-55, DOI: 10.1080/10904018.1993.10499124
  4. Nichols, Michael. (2009) “The Lost Art of Listening.”
  5. Itzchakov, G., DeMarree, K. G., Kluger, A. N., & Turjeman-Levi, Y. (2018). The Listener Sets the Tone: High-Quality Listening Increases Attitude Clarity and Behavior-Intention Consequences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(5), 762–778. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167217747874
  6. Haley, B., et al. 2017. Relationships among active listening, self-awareness, empathy, and patient-centered care in associate and baccalaureate degree nursing students. NursingPlus Open 3. 11-16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.npls.2017.05.001.
  7. Itzchakov, G., Kluger, A. N., & Castro, D. R. (2017). I Am Aware of My Inconsistencies but Can Tolerate Them: The Effect of High Quality Listening on Speakers’ Attitude Ambivalence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(1), 105–120. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167216675339
  8. Avraham N. Kluger & Keren Zaidel (2013) Are Listeners Perceived as Leaders?, International Journal of Listening, 27:2, 73-84, DOI: 10.1080/10904018.2013.754283
  9. Chanda ML, Levitin DJ. The neurochemistry of music. Trends Cogn Sci. 2013;17(4):179-193. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2013.02.007
  10. Philip Emmert, Victoria Emmert & Janice Brandt (1993) An Analysis of Male-Female Differences on the Listening Practices Feedback Report, International Listening Association. Journal, 7:sup1, 43-55, DOI: 10.1080/10904018.1993.10499124