Good Communication Starts with Listening

By Deirdre Murray, Managing Consultant/Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator with PEOPLE RESOURCES

“Seek first to understand, then be understood.”

Stephen R. Covey

When we think about communication, we  often think about verbal or written communication. However, we are communicating all the time, even when we are not actually saying anything, through our non-verbals, such as eye contact, facial expressions,  body language, and gestures. Giving people your time and full attention speaks volumes.

Good communication starts with listening, really  listening  to the other person in an effort to understand them first. When we listen for the emotions and message behind the words, silence can sometimes be the best response. Often people don’t want you to say anything – just to be present and listen. This will feel like the best conversation they’ve had all day.

Listening is a powerful skill, as it builds a strong connection with the other person and helps them feel understood, even when you might not necessarily agree with everything they’re saying.

We all think we are great listeners but if we’re honest, it’s rarely the case. A study by Harvard Business Review found that over 87% of interpersonal issues in business are down to problems with communication or lack of it. We are communicating all the time, but in  many cases, not about the right thing, at the wrong time, with the wrong person and not in the right way.

We are so bombarded with emails, Facebook, I-messaging , WhatsApp, or google, that a recent study by Microsoft indicated that our attention span is rapidly diminishing to that of a goldfish, 7 or 8 seconds! We are so distracted that often listening is something we think we can multitask, along with typing, writing and continuing to do whatever task we were doing in the first place.

I meet many busy  Executives who often tell me, “I can’t listen.” My response to them is twofold: “One, there’s no such word as can’t and two, you just haven’t practised enough yet.”

As Nancy Kline tells us, far too often we are waiting for our chance to speak rather than paying any attention to what the last person has said.

“Are you listening or are you just waiting to talk?” Nancy Kline

Listening occurs on 3 levels:

  1. The first is merely transactional – when we are just looking for information, for example,

“Could you please direct me to the train station is?” We just want instructions; we do not seek any interaction with the person.

  1. The second is dialogue – a two-way conversation with a colleague or friend that is casual and each interrupts the other on hearing something that they can relate to, for example, “Yes I had the exact same experience… and they often proceed to take over the conversation.
  2. Real listening in contrast, means Active listening – when we stop what we are doing and stay focused totally on the other person, really consider what they are saying before jumping to conclusions. We take the time to listen for the meaning behind the words and the emotion and message which we are receiving though their body language and gestures.

Here are 7 practical steps to improve your listening skills and help you become an excellent communicator.

  1. Decide to listen. Stop what you are doing and cut out distractions. Often we think we are great multitaskers and can write, listen and speak on the phone at the one time! We are not. What message is the other person getting from you? They will stop what they’re trying to say or walk away as you’re not paying them any attention. Be open-minded in entering the conversation rather than interacting with a fixed mindset.
  2. Build some “slack time” into your day. One of the biggest problems that employees experience is “back-to-back” meetings and hurried interactions where only half of the message is heard or understood. Manage your calendar and create some “slack time” between meetings. It’s important to give yourself some time for reflection and space throughout the day, so that when you are talking with someone, you can give them your time and full attention.
  3. Speak in simple, clear, unambiguous terms that minimises jargon, legalese and colloquialisms that may not be understood. Some people like to use complicated terms as it boosts their own ego and sense of self-importance but the message is lost on others.
  4. Take time to listen. Don’t interrupt or finish their sentences because we have made up our own minds due to cognitive bias or are impatient with their speed of thought.
  5. Pay attention to the ‘how.’ Demonstrate that you are listening.  Face the other person and be mindful of your tone of voice – is it harsh, dogmatic or sarcastic? Our tone of voice makes up 38% cent of our message.
  6. Don’t interrupt. Be patient and focus on facilitating their thinking, not interrupting it. When people feel really listened to they can often come up with their own solutions.
  7. Check for understanding. Pause and reflect. Paraphrase in summary fashion what their message is, as appropriate, to show that you really understand their point of view.

As you begin to really focus on listening actively and attentively, you will observe a positive response from your friends, your family and work colleagues. The key is to focus on it, as what you focus on grows.

About the author

Deirdre Murray, Founder and Director of PEOPLE RESOURCES, partners as an Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator with leading multinationals and public sector bodies across all sectors.
Deirdre is co-author of “Emotional Intelligence (EQ) – A Leadership Imperative!” Her second book in the management briefs series, “Communicate with Impact! Communicate & Influence Successfully,” is out now at She is a regular motivational speaker at conferences, seminars and on radio broadcasts and provides journal entries for leading business magazines.