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Mastering The Art of Better Listening
  Written By: Susan Ginsberg, Ed.D.
  Article Date:
September 22, 2008



Experts point out that every communication is really eight communications: what you mean to say, what you actually say, what the other person hears, what he thinks he hears, what he means to respond, what he actually responds, what you hear him say, and what you think you hear.

For example, at home after work your spouse might ask: ďHow was your day?Ē You could interpret this as a thoughtful way of reconnecting, OR ďYou left the house in a big huff this morning. I hope you are feeling better now,Ē OR you could also interpret it as: Iím really interested in what happened to you today-- OR the opposite: Spare me the details!

How we listen, and respond, in any given moment may depend on what we perceive to be the intent of the questioner, our mood, our energy level, and our willingness to state information. Sometimes we want to be heard (and responded to) in a particular way. For example, do we want some specific advice about something that went wrong or just a little bit of understanding? Most importantly, are we making this clear to the other person?


Good listening is more than just taking in information. It means understanding, communicating, and acknowledging other peopleís feelings, both good and bad. And like many other challenges in life, itís easier said than done.

One reason itís so hard, say the experts, is that we listen a lot faster than most people can speak so our minds tend to wander instead of concentrating fully. We listen in spurts. That is, we concentrate, let up and then concentrate again, and most of us only pay attention to what we hear for about 60 seconds at a time.

Another barrier--and we see this acted out everyday in the media--is the tendency to hear what we want to hear and believe what we want to believe. This leads people to ask questions in order to get the answers they want to hear and make assumptions about what other people will say--even before they say it.


In the over-hyped society in which we live, itís easy to become a passive listener, taking in a lot of information but not feeling the need to respond to, or talk about, what weíre seeing or hearing. Itís easy (and perhaps necessary for our own sanity on occasion) to just tune some things out. But ďtuning outĒ a habit can be risky because we may also be tuning out those voices in our lives that we should be paying attention to: our family and friends and the people we work with.

Here are some ideas to think about and suggestions for ways to overcome barriers to good listening.

Donít act like you are a mind reader or assume that other people should know what you are thinking. For example, when Jane says, ďItís cold in here,Ē her husband Dan may wonder: Does she want me to turn up the thermostat, put another blanket on the baby, or make her a cup of tea? If Jane wanted something in particular, she should have just said it. But as a good listener, itís Danís responsibility to get some clarification.

Donít let your own thoughts get in the way of what people are trying to say. As we listen to people, we often are trying to figure out the meaning of what they are saying and, at the same time, experiencing our relationship with them and wondering what we should say next and whether we should really say what is on our mind.