Are You Truly Listening?

Most people believe they are good listeners however it turns out that most are not and that is why many experience so much conflict, disappointment, resentment, confusion, and complaining in their lives.

So what makes a person a good listener?

One needs to remember that there are two sides to each conversation so there are things that both the speaker and the listener must take into consideration if an effective exchange is going to take place.

The speaker needs to be aware of the various interferences that can occur with the listener which will impact on whether or not they actually hear the message the speaker is sending, process it the way the speaker expects so that in the end the speaker will get what they are seeking and both parties will be satisfied and happy.  If the speaker does not pay attention to these issues and get some concrete feedback before the listener departs, often the speaker will not get what they want.  In fact, have you ever given instructions or directions and walked away from the conversation feeling you have fulfilled your responsibility in the situation, but in the end did not get what you expected?  Do you know what happened?  Well unless you are a mind reader you actually have no idea what the supposed listener actually heard, how they computed the information and what conclusion they arrived at without some feedback that reassures you that they did, in fact, hear your intended message.

So what does the speaker need to be aware of?

  1. Not Focusing on the Message: The human brain processes information at about 800-1000 words per minute. However, most people speak at about 150 words per minute which is rather slow for a brain intake and so it makes it difficult for a person to focus very long on such a slow intake of data. Now, some people do speak a little faster, maybe 200 or 250 words per minute, but that is still very slow for your brain.  Which means that the listener often “checks out” long before you have finished your message.   Have you ever been supposedly listening to someone and all of a sudden realize you have not heard anything they said for the last 15 minutes?  Well, that means you lost focus and “wool gathered” instead of listening.  You may have looked like you were listening and the speaker would, therefore, have no idea that you did not hear the whole message.
  2. Passive Listening: A person can look as if they are listening. Especially if they are looking at you.  However, again, unless you are a mind reader, you cannot know for sure that they are actually listening.  That is why you must get confirmation of what they heard before you part ways.  Otherwise, you could be disappointed because your “listener” did not hear your message fully.
  1. Unfamiliar Language: If you use language that the listener does not understand, and ask them if they understood, they will likely tell you that they did because they do not want you to think they are stupid. Many professionals find that their terminology is the most specific way to describe a condition or situation.  If they are speaking to colleagues who understand the technical, medical, etc. terms, there is no problem, however it the “listener” is a “lay person”, it is unlikely that they will understand your message as it takes a great deal of energy to focus on a message that is full of words that you do not understand.  Therefore you must use language that anyone can comprehend to describe conditions for situations that you wish the listener to fully understand and possibly act upon.
  2. Poor Physical Setting: It is important to have a conversation in a location that is free of noise and other distractions so that the listener can focus and concentrate on the exchange. If there is traffic noise, people going in and out of the room, other conversations going on, construction noise, cell phone conversations, business machines like faxes or copiers, they all cause distractions that make it that much harder for the listener to focus on your message.  Therefore it is better to choose a location that does not have those distractions so that you will have a better chance for your message to be heard.
  3. Listener’s Physical State: Again, if you are not a mind reader you will not know if the listener is tired, hungry, not feeling well, or has a problem of their own that they are struggling with, and all of those interferences will supercede your message and make it very difficult for them to focus on what you are saying to them.
  4. Preset Ideas: Sometimes a person will come to an exchange believing that they know what is going to be said or feeling that the message is below their level of expertise or is something they already know. When that happens they literally bring down a wall in their mind and nothing you say will penetrate that wall.

As the speaker, you need to be aware of those six interferences and be sure to get confirmation from the listener that the message you sent was indeed the one received and that you are both satisfied that the result of the conversation is going to be what both are expecting and wanting.

Now as the listener, you need to be aware of the common roadblocks that are often thrown up when someone is trying to tell you something.  Often you think you are being a good listener by helping to “fix” the issue being offered when in actual fact, you are interrupting and being somewhat rude by not letting the speaker tell you first what they want and then at the end, you can offer input.

Here are the roadblocks to be aware of when you are listener:

  1. Advice: There is nothing wrong with offering some suggestions to a resolve a situation, however, it is better to wait until the person has finished telling you what has already been done before jumping in with your ideas as they may already have thought of that. Better to just listen first!
  2. Advice Questions: Same idea, no point in asking when they are going to do something, who they should speak to about this, or how it would best be done until you hear what they have to say about the issue, because again, they may already have done what you are suggesting and you will have interrupted them for nothing.
  3. Reassurance: This is just patronizing…..don’t worry, everything is going to be just fine. Do you have a crystal ball?  This person has been struggling with this issue for over a week and it has not been okay, so what makes you think it will?  Again, better to just not speak and listen before offering this sort of assurance.
  4. Criticism: Now we usually save this “help” for those we are closest to, like family members, however, even family members are not enamored with this sort of “fixing” and if that is all that you generally offer, they will likely quit coming to you to discuss things…..and this is not a good idea as it is always better to keep open the channels of communication.
  5. Related Stories: We all have those and honestly, often when we examine the related story, it does not seem that relevant and anyway, this person likely does not care about your aunt’s friend and her problem as they are focused on their issue and are just looking for a sounding board.
  6. Interruptions: It is true that sometimes when an idea pops into your head you want to share it right away, especially, if you feel you might forget what you want to add if you do not say it right away. Or something may catch your attention that is totally unrelated to the conversation and you want to comment on it…..that too is annoying and could make both you and speaker lose your trend of thought and nothing will get resolved.  Better to keep those thoughts to yourself until the conversation has been completed.
  7. Eye Contact: It is more respectful to look at the person who is speaking to you, so you at least look like you are interested in listening to what they have to say.  It is rather disconcerting to be talking to someone and they are checking their phone or looking around.  More respectful to make some eye contact.

People do feel that by using these roadblocks they are helping to fix the problem or add to the solution, but actually, by using these interruptions you are being rude and disrespectful to the speaker.  It is sometimes difficult not to jump in with ideas however, it is really better to wait until the speaker has finished using you as a sounding board before offering suggestions that were not already mentioned.

Remember…….hearing is an ability, listening, on the other hand, is an art and requires your ears to hear, as well as your mind to process the information, your eyes to take in the non-verbal parts of the message, and your heart to be empathetic and compassionate as necessary.

If you really want to become an active listener you do need to be aware of both sides of the conversation and be sure to get concrete feedback before the conversation is over so that you can avoid the conflict, disappointment, resentment, confusion, and complaining that so often results from poor listening practices.


Sandy Chernoff
Sandy Chernoff
SANDY'S 30 years of didactic and clinical teaching in study clubs and continuing dental education, coupled with her almost 40 years of Dental Hygiene practice bring a wealth of experience to her interactive soft skills workshops. With her education background she easily customizes interactive sessions to suit the specific needs of her clients. Her energetic and humorous presentation style has entertained and informed audiences from Victoria to New York City. Sandy’s client list includes law firms, teaching institutions, volunteer and professional organizations and conferences, businesses, and individuals. Her newest project is turning her live workshops into e-learning programs using an LMS platform. Her teaching and education background have helped her to produce meaningful and somewhat interactive courses for the learners wanting the convenience of e-learning options. As the author of 5 Secrets to Effective Communication, Sandy has demonstrated her ability to demystify the complexities of communication so that the reader can learn better strategies and approaches which will greatly improve their communication skills and ultimately reduce conflict, resentment, disappointment, complaining, and confusion. As a result, the reader will be able to increase productivity, efficiency and creativity, improve all the relationships in their lives and ultimately enjoy a happier, healthier existence! Sandy blogs regularly on her two websites on the various soft skills topics that are featured in her workshops and e-learning programs.

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  1. A truly amazing analysis here!
    Knowing how to observe well the other person, perceiving also its nonverbal language and his tone of voice, encourages our concentration and therefore also our listening system is activated more effectively, as well as having a high degree of attention furthers our concentration, and then listening. Observation and listening will self-feed so in a positive spiral that promotes not only the development of an active listening, but also the improvement of the interpersonal communication competence. These elements turn out to be essential for the important process of learning of adults that is integrated especially with direct experience.

    • Hi Aldo, Once again, I want to thank you for both reading this article and adding your wisdom and expertise. We are obviously on the same page about this most important communication skill. It truly is essential for learning and for the development, maintenance and nurturing of important and long lasting relationships in all aspects of our lives. Besides, if you listen well you will reduce stress, conflict, disappointment, resentment, confusion and complaining.

    • Hi Ken, thank you so much, glad you enjoyed the article. I do feel this the most important communication skill and yet few people are actually good at it! Such a shame!

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