Am I Really Listening?

As children, we are taught the importance of listening. Listening keeps us safe and helps us learn. Yet somehow, between our first steps at home and our first steps into the office, we forget this nifty trick. Despite how far they got us in life, we pocket our listening skills and often let our mouths run the show!

One may think that listening is a fairly basic ability and yet we struggle. Other aspects of conversation take over. We typically neglect ‘listening in order to understand our partner in conversation’ and opt only to ‘listen for the purpose of talking’ to express our opinions.

Obviously this is not done intentionally, it is a subconscious process. When opening a conversation with a thought or question, we have generally already formed an opinion on what we expect the answer to be. As such, rather than waiting for our conversational partner to respond, we will reword our opening line, or even go as far as to answer our own question ourselves! If we cannot refrain from talking, how can we take the opportunity to listen?

Moreover, even if we do give the other person the chance to talk, we do not necessarily hear or digest their answer. We are too busy concentrating on the response to what we believe their answer will be. When communicating in this manner, we effectively negate the need for conversation – we could equally as effectively talk to ourselves at home as we do in the office! In our efforts to come across as intelligent and bearers of infinite comebacks, we lose out on valuable – and even critical – data.

The Four Levels of Listening (NLP)

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) was developed in the 1970s, focusing on communication, personal development and psychotherapy. Specifically, NLP implies an innate relationship between neurological processes, language, and behaviour ingrained from experience. NLP finds that there are four levels of listening to be recognised, each more immersive than the last;

Cosmetic Listening

‘Cosmetic Listening’ involves feigning listening; looking at the speaker, nodding/shaking your head, and even making attentive sounds e.g. ‘uh-huh’ or ‘I agree’. The speaker may not be aware of it, but you are not on the same path as them. You are contemplating something utterly different to the topic of conversation. Nonetheless, their subconscious knows that.

You may ‘get away’ with Cosmetic Listening socially (although this sort of listening does not imply respect – or care – for the other person, and so it is not the recommended listening style) but in a work-related situation, you do not want to be caught asking a colleague, manager, or client to repeat themselves frequently.

That said, it is not always necessary to practice ‘Deep Listening’. Sometimes people talk with no real purpose, to sound off, or to list a load of terms and conditions that you cannot change regardless of your opinion on them! Yet again, ‘Conversational Listening’ is still preferred in such situations.

Conversational Listening

This is the most commonly practiced form of listening. In ‘Conversational Listening’, we listen to the other person, focus on what they are saying, respond and concentrate on our own thoughts. Listening to the other occurs simultaneously with developing our next sentence. This gets us through the day-to-day, but for more significant conversations, ‘Active’ or ‘Deep Listening’ are more appropriate.

Active Listening

The scales tip. In the first two levels, concentration centres more – if not equally – on the other’s words as one’s own thoughts. ‘Active Listening’ involves purposefully listening to the other and digesting the data they deliver. The listener’s personal thoughts and potential quips fade into the background.

Conversations where Active Listening occurs involve the listener seeking to understand the speaker. Clarification occurs through questioning, repeating, and probing. That said, probing requires asking questions without leading the other person, which is often easier said than done. Coming to one’s own conclusions is tempting, but if the listener succumbs to this temptation, they are no longer practicing ‘Active Listening’. This is a skill and an art, developed over time.

‘Active Listening’ is commonly found in coaching sessions – conversation unequivocably revolves around the client and not the coach.

Deep Listening

‘Deep Listening’ means listening to both what is being said and what is not being said, i.e. what is being implied through body language, facial expressions and tone. The listener’s complete awareness is focused on the speaker and no thoughts are directed towards themselves. With practice, a listener can learn so much more about a speaker; track patterns in speech and behaviour and learn about who the person is in addition to which experiences they have been through.


Whether conversing with your client over a new project or your manager over a meeting agenda, in order that both parties benefit most from a discussion, it is vital to truly listen. On a personal level, if I ‘zone out’ during a university lecture for so much as five minutes, I struggle to get back into ‘learning mode’ for the rest of that session.

It may not always be necessary to understand every word, nuance and bodily action; discussing chores or shopping lists may not require your full attention.

That said, when you’re trying to make a good impression, demonstrating to others that their conversation made a big impression on you will go a long way towards helping.

How do you do that? Take note of the little things. Are they excited about the information they are sharing, or are they perhaps nervous? Does their volume or tone vary? What non-verbal messages can you pick up on?

Consider your responses too. Does your body language imply you are closed off? If you keep your legs crossed and arms folded, yes. Or are you open to someone else’s opinion? Is your facial expression vague or responsive? Do you lean towards or away from them?

Do you cut people off? I’ll be the first one to raise my hand in admission of guilt! That said, I am making a conscious effort to break this habit. Though unintentional, ‘conversation hijacking’ comes across as poor-mannered. Worse, whether it is realised or not, cutting people off distracts them from their original point, which they may forget and/or struggle to repeat.

So… How do I show I am really listening? Wait until the other has finished what they are saying, count to three before reciprocating. Those three seconds may feel like forever, but they demonstrate respect for the other. I have found that in turn, I receive acknowledgment of my comments too. After all, listening is only half of conversing, you have to talk well too!


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