Listening Skills in Business

views updated


Expressive skills and receptive skills make up the two skills of communication. Speaking and writing are generally referred to as expressive skills; they provide the means by which people express themselves to others. The receptive skills, listening and reading, are the ways in which people receive information.


It has been reported that senior officers of major North American corporations spend up to 80 percent of their working time in meetings, discussions, face-to-face conversations, or telephone conversations. Most employees spend about 60 percent of the workday listening. Since such a large percentage of one's waking time is consumed by listening activities, it is clear that one's productivity could be increased through listening training.

Listening consumes about half of all communication time, yet people typically listen with only about 25 percent of their attention. Ineffective listening is costly, whether it occurs in families, businesses, government, or international affairs. Most people make numerous listening mistakes every day, but the costsfinancial and otherwiseare seldom analyzed. Because of listening mistakes, appointments have to be rescheduled, letters retyped, and shipments rerouted. Any number of catastrophes can arise from a failed communication, regardless of the type of industry. Productivity is affected and profits suffer.

Research indicates that people hear only 25 percent of what is said and, after two months, remember only one-half of that. This is not true at all stages of one's life. First graders listen to 90 percent of what is said, second graders 80 percent, seventh graders 43 percent, and ninth graders only 25 percent.

It is imperative that people strive to improve their listening skills. When having difficulty understanding a document while reading, it can be reread for clarification. Oral messages, however, unless they are mechanically recorded, cannot be heard more than once. The listener may misunderstand, misinterpret, or forget a high percentage of the original message. With proper training, though, listening skills can be improved. It has been proven that with extended, focused training in listening, one can more than double one's listening efficiency and effectiveness.


Communication involves message reception and interpretation. Studies of communication have routinely found that almost all people listen more than they talk, read more than they write, and spend a lot more time receiving messages than sending them. The average person speaks at a rate of 100 to 200 words per minute. An average listener, however, can adequately process 400 words per minute. Given this differential between what is normally heard and what potentially can be processed, it is little wonder that people tend to "tune out" at certain times. Mental tangents are the obvious product of this differential, and managers who believe that subordinates are listening intently to every word they utter are deluding themselves.

Listening can be compared to exercising or wearing seat belts: Everybody knows it is desirable, but everybody finds it difficult to do on a regular basis. Most people yearn to talk and want to be center stage. If one listens to any casual conversation between friends, one will probably note that most people spend much of the conversation paying maximum attention to what they are going to say next. As people listen to others, they spend much of the time thinking about the next thing they will be saying.


Listening is more than just hearing what a speaker says. Hearing is simply the reception of sounds by one's ears; listening is interpreting, or making sense of, the sounds that one hears. Hearing is a physical perception; listening is a mental activity. Listening requires concentration, cooperation, and an open mind.

Many situations at work demand skilled listening. Conferences, interviews, receiving instructions, and handling complaints, all call for alert, sensitive listening. Whether one is listening in order to learn how to do a task, make a decision, or achieve friendly relations with one's coworkers, it is important to make a concentrated effort to understand what the speaker is saying.


Three types of listening exist. The first type is casual, or informal. One usually does not need to remember details. The second type of listening is active, or formal. This type of listening takes concentration and requires that the listener absorb details. The last type of listening is nonverbal listening.

Speakers have the responsibility to communicate as effectively as they can, but listeners also have responsibilities. They cannot sit back and contentedly assume they have nothing to do. Like speakers, listeners also need to prepare themselves. As they listen, they must concentrate on both the verbal and nonverbal message of the speaker. Listeners are influenced by the speaker, the message, other listeners, physical conditions, and their emotional state at the time of the listening activity. While the first three cannot be controlled by the listener, the last two can.

Body Language

To give complete attention to the speaker and the speaker's message, the listener should choose a position that allows a full view of the speaker's gestures. Fifty-five percent of a person's message involves nonverbal communication, 38 percent of the message derives from the speaker's voice inflection, and only 7 percent of the message involves the actual words spoken.

In addition to the verbal message, the listener should also concentrate on the speaker's nonverbal messagescommunicated through gestures, tone of voice, and physical movements. Do the speaker's gestures seem to reinforce or contradict the words? If the speaker is trying to paint herself as a sincere, dedicated woman, or do you detect elements of dishonesty? Is the speaker actually timid even though he is trying to play the role of a man full of confidence? Only by carefully watching and analyzing a presenter's body language and thoughtfully listening to his or her words can one receive the full impact of the message.

As with the spoken word, body language has its own special pace, rhythm, vocabulary, and grammar. Just as in verbal language, there are "letters" that, when correctly joined, form unspoken "words." Such words are then linked to create the "phrases" and "sentences" by which messages are exchanged. Relaxed gesturing on the part of the speaker, for example, is usually associated with confidence, while jerking and abrupt motions display nervousness and discomfort. Putting learned information about nonverbal communication to practical use can spell the difference between success or failure in many business and social encounters.


Whether one is involved in a serious negotiation, job interview, company meeting, or personal interaction, the need to listen more effectively is vital. Active listening is important because listening enables people to:

  • Gain important information
  • Be more effective in interpreting a message
  • Gather data to make sound decisions
  • Respond appropriately to the messages they hear To become a better listener, one should:
  1. Look the part: Face the speaker and display feedback that the message is being heard and understood. Lean toward the speaker to show interest. Maintain eye contact at least 80 percent of the time. Do not distract the speaker with strange facial expressions and fidgeting.
  2. Listen for nonverbal messages: Observe the speaker's body language, gestures, and the physical distance. Observe the speaker's facial expressions, eyes, mouth, and hands for hidden messages.
  3. Listen for the main points: Filter out the nonessential and look for the principal message of the words.
  4. Be silent before replying: Be certain that the speaker is completely finished speaking before attempting to speak. Resist the temptation to interrupt unnecessarily.
  5. Ask questions: It is appropriate to question the speaker in order to clarify meanings and reinforce messages heard.
  6. Sense how the speaker is feeling: To receive the complete message, it is important to sift out any feelings the speaker is trying to convey. Determine what the speaker is not saying.
  7. Take notes: Jotting down important ideas allows one to review the message at a later time and reinforces the information heard/learned.
  8. Be available: To be spoken to, one must be available. Stop working and concentrate totally on the speaker. Encourage others to listen by doing the following:
  • Do not speak loudly. It forces others to listen.
  • Make what is said interesting. Focus on the listeners' favorite subjectthemselves. Encourage others to participate by bringing them into the conversation.
  • Create the right environment. Speak where one can be easily heard and understood.
  • Be human to the listeners. Address people by name whenever possible; it helps to get their attention.

Good listening habits are an important ingredient in one's journey to success. By practicing careful listening, one will become more efficient in one's job and more knowledgeable about all topics. Responsible, patient listening is a rare thing, but it is a skill that can be developed with practice.

see also Communication Channels ; Communications in Business ; Reading Skills in Business ; Speaking Skills in Business ; Writing Skills in Business

Jan Hargrave