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Listening - The Overlooked Communication Skill

Adapted from Tero's Winning Communication Strategies Training Manual


Most of us not only fail to receive adequate training in effective listening, we receive a steady diet of anti-listening skills training. Infants who lay quietly and listen are considered "good babies." However, they quickly learn that to express their needs and wants, they have to speak up-something they learn how to do quickly and at top volume!

As we grow, we are often given conflicting messages about how to listen effectively. Although most parents would want their children to become effective listeners, few of them were ever taught how to listen themselves and are therefore, unsure of how to teach their children. As a result, they tend to repeat the patterns passed down to them by their parents. Moreover, American cultural forces favor the outgoing, talkative child as "confident" and "independent." In school, "classroom participation" grades are often included alongside completion of the required assignments. If a child steps over the line and is perceived as too talkative they are likely told to "be quiet" rather than to "Listen." As a result, silence is seen as passive rather than active. Listening is seen as a less involved and active activity than talking.

As children leave the predictability of the school setting and arrive in the competitive world of work, they quickly learn that the rest of their lives will be spent competing. No longer can they simply show up and do their work. In order to land their job, they must compete against other applicants. In order to advance in their job, they must compete against other employees. As a result, they must speak up and sell themselves and their ideas to the powers that be. If they do not, they run the risk of being overlooked in favor of someone more talkative.

Is there only bad news?

Some of us do receive some good (albeit ad hoc) lessons in listening. You can probably picture the close friend or treasured family member that truly listens to you when you talk. It is from these valuable moments of feeling truly listened to ourselves that we learn the value of returning the favor and listen to others. The unfortunate part is that although we can recognize the value of listening, few of us have been given any guidance about how to overcome the barriers that prevent effective listening or the elements of effective listening.

Sometimes you are a great listener. Sometimes (if you are honest with yourself), you probably find that you've tuned in and out of a conversation and just hope that you've retained enough to fake it when the talker stops talking and looks at you with that expectant look that says, "So, what do you think?"

According to listening expert Madelyn Burley-Allen (1995), we all tend to listen in three levels throughout the average day.

Level 1 - The highest and most effective level of listening:

In level one listening, the listener listens without passing judgment on the speaker or trying to prepare a response while he/she is still talking. Characteristics of level 1 listening include:


Level 2 - Hearing the words, but nothing else:

In level two listening, the listener only picks up the surface elements of what they talker is communicating. Although the listener may hear the words, they may miss the rest of the message. Characteristics of level 2 listening include:


Level 3 - Listening erratically:

In level three listening, the listener tunes in and out of the conversation. The effect is that the listener hears and incorporates as much of the conversation as he/she would if watching a show while channel surfing. Characteristics of level three listening include:


In most business interactions, only level one listening is appropriate. Levels two and three waste precious time, ideas and key pieces of information.

At which level do you listen the majority of the time?


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