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Hearing is not always listening

How many presentational skills courses have you been on? How many books about public speaking are lying half read around your house?


We get so much help and information these days on communication, but how often do we learn about listening?


As a business owner you probably count communication as one of your core skills but I’d ask you how good are you at listening?


Too many people believe that communication is about talking. What you say, how you say it and the way you present your body as you speak. However, as an old boss of mine was fond of saying, we have one mouth, two eyes and two ears, so we might as well use them all.


Good communicators speak well and have the right body language, but great communicators are those that take the time to listen and respond to what they hear and see. Because hearing is not always listening:

  • Hearing can sometimes be just perceiving the sounds of a person’s voice, while listening means hearing and understanding whatever you are listening too.
  • Hearing is a passive activity while listening is an active process
  • Hearing does not take much effort but listening is an activity that requires conscious effort, concentration and genuine interest in others.

When you are speaking and someone is not paying attention, how do you feel? Are you annoyed, frustrated, anxious or angry? These feelings usually make communication more difficult.


So how can we show someone who is speaking that we are paying attention to them?

We can do this both nonverbally and verbally. But do we have the skills?


We receive almost no training in good listening.  Really hearing someone is not a passive activity, it’s a skill we need to develop.


Here are tips I have gathered over the years, listening to those that communicate well.


11 Effective listening skills

  1. Take time to discover what makes the people you talk to tick. What are their interests, their passions and areas of expertise? Remember it’s not all about you!
  2. If you don’t understand what someone is saying don’t bluff, don’t switch off, ask them to repeat what they are saying or explain it in more detail.
  3. Make sure your mind and body language are open to new ideas and information.
  4. Take a note of the key points of the conversation.
  5. Repeat back the key elements of the speaker’s ideas.
  6. A good listener uses questions sparingly because questions tend to focus the conversation on the questioner’s perspective and can make the speaker lose their train of thought.
  7. Keep away from your phone or tablet and focus on the conversation you are having.
  8. Never lose your temper. Anger hampers and inhibits communication.
  9. Maintain good eye contact, it’s easy to listen if you’re concentrating on the person speaking.
  10. Put yourself in the position of the speaker and observe things from their point of view.
  11. Remember most communication is nonverbal so use your eyes and ears.

Remember the 93% rule


One of the most frequently quoted statistics on nonverbal communication is that 93% of all communication is nonverbal.


Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, conducted several studies on nonverbal communication. He found that 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc). Subtracting the 7% for actual vocal content gives us the 93% statistic.


The fact of the matter is that the exact number is irrelevant.


The important part is that most communication is nonverbal. In fact, nonverbal behaviour is the most crucial aspect of communication.


So, when someone is speaking to you, is your posture inclined toward the speaker, so as to invite and encourage expression? Or is your back turned or your arms or legs tightly crossed, which discourages and cuts off involvement?


Are you fidgeting or otherwise distracting the speaker or yourself?


Are you making good eye contact with the person?


By looking at and observing the speaker, not only will the speaker feel "attended" to, you will learn more about what is really important to him or her as you observe their body language and facial expressions.


Finally, we cannot pretend to pay attention by employing these physical techniques without also being psychologically present.


The vast majority of people can’t fake interest. The speaker will know if our hearts and minds are not really there and with them.


If we adopt these techniques, we may find over time, we are not only hearing what people say but listening to them. This can only improve the way we live and work.


John Joe McGinley Glassagh Consulting November 2019


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