The Art of Skillful Listening

“I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions” said Lee Iacocca, the former chief of Chrysler Corporation (Leadership Now, 2004). What the chief said holds true for not only business, but for all students too. Listening? How is listening so important? How is it going to help in knowledge acquisition? What are the consequences of not acquiring the skill? Why is it important for everyone, and not just a few, to learn this skill? This essay will try to explain some of the above.

Disadvantages of not Listening

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Listening is defined as 1) “To make an effort to hear something; 2) To pay attention; heed” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2004). “To make an effort to hear” something; this means that, the conscious mind is involved in the process of listening – something more than mere hearing. Generally, people mistake listening and hearing to be synonyms. This is a misconception. Listening requires energy and focus. It is said that human beings have the capacity to listen to 800 words / minute; however teachers generally speak at 200 words / minute. Many people are poor listeners and lose focus; often minds of people stray from what is being actually said. Lack of good-listening skills, result in a horde of problems, in daily life.

A few instances are cited here as examples to such problems. At the macro-level, if the developed nations had heeded, or listened carefully to the messages sent by the Islamic terrorist groups, the 9/11 catastrophe may have been prevented. On a micro-level, many of the problems faced in present day world, trace their roots to inattentive listening. Poor listening skills, cause many deserving candidates to falter in interviews; students to miss out on the extra bit of information given by the lecturers in the class; cause students to stumble during viva-voce examinations; bring about loss of customers to businesses that do not listen to the needs of the customers; break in friendships that do not care to give an attentive ear to the needs of the other; causes the government to collapse when it doesn’t listen to the people; … even personal relationships undergo many break-points, because skillful listening has not been developed in people. The truth is, human beings can think faster than talk, which is why, for example, the students often think that they already know what the lecturer is talking about. Burley-Allen (1982) research show that, an average student gets about “12 years of formal training in writing, 6-8 years in reading, 1-2 years in speaking, and from 0-1/2 year in listening”(Hyslop & Bruce, 1988).

Why does it make sense to learn to listen?

Dr. Larry Alan Nadig (1999), Clinical Psychologist says “We were given two ears but only one mouth, because listening is twice as hard as talking.” Dr. Nadig (1999) states that, “listening and understanding what others communicate to us” is important, and, “needed for interpersonal effectiveness.” Listening effectively, enables one to understand the ‘significant other’ perspective, gives a rare insight precisely into the other’s thoughts. Communications are an integral part of human lives, because human beings are social animals. As such, receiving information and responding to information are fundamental aspects of social lives. This being so, one of the primary tools bestowed on human beings to enable them to receive, understand/ respond to information, is through skilled listening. It is a well known fact that, in primitive times, Man used his sharp listening skills and scenting skills to save him-self from the sudden attack of wild predators. In the modern context, it would still benefit everyone, to learn and practice this skill of listening effectively, to survive in the hostile environment of cut-throat competition.

The benefits of acquiring the knowledge of skillful listening are manifold; for effective listening 1) Promotes mutual goodwill and respect 2) Listening without criticism helps another others to realize their own reasoning flaws 3) Helps diminish problem levels by putting things in their right perspective 4) Reduces frustration and paves way for solution 5) Throws light on the under currents driving the issue, and hence provides deeper understanding. (Adapted from Nadig, 1999).

Who can benefit from listening?

Actually, everyone, irrespective of age, occupation, gender, social class, income levels, geographic location etc can benefit from developing this skill. At home, listening to the children and spouse with care, can help unfold behavior patterns and therefore, offer opportunities to prevent mishaps or disasters before they arise. For example, children learn to lisp and speak the language of the parents by constantly listening to the words and sounds they hear; listening to the children with focus, can help in early identification of physical motor problems, personality-traits etc.  Paying attention to the spouse’s grievances shall help avert bitterness later on. Learning a second language, the pronunciation etc, are perfected by students, by practicing their listening skills. Mastering the listening skills has direct links to earning excellent grades (Bryant and Stratton College, 2003). Music professionals stand to benefit a lot by honing their listening skills.  Police/ Security investigators, lawyers, health-care providers, will progress tremendously by putting into practice their listening skills, since frequently the persons in these professions have to deal with clients who are from different walks of life and may not be in a position to precisely articulate what they want to convey. In such cases the onus falls on these professionals to listen carefully to the clients/ lay-persons and understand the inherent message/problems that they would have to find a solution to.  In business too, it is imperative for the sales-person and the customer-service personnel to listen attentively to what exactly are the needs of that particular customer and respond accordingly. A genuinely-dissatisfied customer has every chance of wrecking a well-established business. On the other hand, even if the business does not provide to the needs of one particular customer, an attentive and diligent personnel will earn the good-will of the customer, not only for him-self as a person, but also for the entire company he represents; and this customer may well become a goodwill-ambassador for the company, roping in untapped avenues.


Learning the skills of listening and putting such well-learnt skills into practice, shall certainly unfold realms of untold knowledge and happiness, and transform life into a piece d’art, that is why, it is important for everyone to learn and practice the art of skillful listening, early on.