What Does it Mean to Listen, and Why is it Important?
Part 1 of 2

Why Listen?

When you’re told, “Listen!” by someone, most often you think, “I need to hear this.” Listen to your boss's instructions; listen to the PA announcement at the airport; listen to the information your friend is sharing, and on it goes. But listening is so much more than hearing. It’s what happens when we open not only our ears, but also open our minds – and sometimes our hearts – to another person.

“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”
Larry King

Good listening isn’t something that we should limit to authority figures. It’s something you can do with everyone you encounter: your friends, your family, significant others, new people in your life – and even yourself. Effective listening offers you many benefits, and encourages the speaker to feel valued as well.

Being a good listener is important for a number of reasons. There’s the obvious practical side – you can’t do well academically if you don’t pay attention to instructions and you won’t keep a job if you ignore your boss’s orders. Good listening connects you to the world around you and helps you understand your responsibilities.

Aside from the practical benefits, being a good listener is important for the quality of your social life. What kind of relationship would you have with someone who talks all the time and never listens to you? No real relationship at all. There is reciprocation in the communications involved in any good relationship – a “back and forth,” a mutual exchange. If you’re being talked at without being listened to in return, that’s no relationship; and the same goes if you’re the one doing all the talking. Being a good listener fosters meaningful relationships with those around you.

Finally, listening to others, and listening well, is important for your personal development because it allows you to expand your horizon. As Larry King points out in the quote above, we don’t learn things from what we have to say; we learn from what others have to say. We each have a world of our own, filled with our thoughts, ideas, opinions, values, experiences and perspectives. Collectively, these make up our horizon. One of the best ways to expand that horizon is to expose ourselves to other thoughts, ideas, opinions, values, experiences and perspectives. We do this by opening our ears and minds to them; we do this by listening.

Listening vs. Hearing

“When you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.”
Jiddu Krishnamurti

A good place to start on your way to becoming a better listener is to think about the difference between listening and hearing. Hearing is a sense – it happens when sound hits our ears and involves the processing of sound in the brain. I hear a truck outside my window; I hear my roommate's footsteps upstairs. Hearing is a passive physical process. In this sense, saying “I hear” is almost too generous, since it describes hearing as an action I perform. It’s not something that I “do,” it’s simply that sound is heard by my ears and, to some extent, by my brain.

Listening, on the other hand, is an action we consciously take. When we listen, we go beyond simply hearing words by giving our attention to what is being said. In the section above, we went over the practical, social and personal developmental benefits of listening well; now let’s consider what kind of attention is required to listen effectively in these three areas.

  • Practical: This one’s pretty basic. When you listen to instructions, you pay attention to them with the intention of understanding them. This allows you to do well on tests, stay out of trouble, keep a job, and do what you are supposed to do among other things.
  • Social: When you listen to another person attentively and try to understand him or her, you go beyond the words to the speaker him- or herself. This may be what Krishnamurti was getting at in the above quote – we should listen to the feeling within what a person says. Speakers and their intentions or feelings are part of the words they speak. Until we consider those intentions or feelings without immediately butting in with our own, we’re not listening to the whole of the speaker’s words. Listening involves empathy – the act of putting yourself in another’s shoes, attempting, to the extent possible, to understand what he or she feels. In this sense, listening involves not only the brain and ears, but the heart as well. When we give our attention to the person speaking as well as to the words spoken, we are treating that person and his or her feelings with respect.
  • Personal Development: When we give our attention to other people and try to understand them, we are treating them as people with something potentially valuable to say. In this way, we acknowledge that the individual before us, whose experiences and perspective are different from our own, may be giving us something of a gift. Listening well is how we set ourselves up to accept that gift, with the full understanding that our own world is limited and that the speaker may be able to expand our horizon and improve our understanding of the world around us. When we listen to another, we allow ourselves to reflect, learn and grow as we work to make more informed choices in our own life.

It should also be noted that effective listening involves paying attention to what is said, but not judging it at that time. Judgment is a different faculty, and one that should certainly be used after you have listened to another. Paying a person respect with your attention doesn’t mean accepting everything another person says. Sometimes, what people have to say is not very valuable, or could even be harmful to us – their “gift” is no gift at all. But we can’t judge another person’s offerings very well if we have not first allowed them into our minds and hearts, nonjudgmentally, by attentively listening to them. Only by listening first are we in a good position to know if we’ve been given a gift or something never to be a part of our thinking or our lives. 

Why Don’t We Listen?

While being a good listener is certainly important for getting by in the world, for the quality of our relationships with others and for our own development, it likely doesn’t come naturally for most of us. One study, reported in the book Business Communications: Strategies and Skills, found that the average person retains only about 25% of what he or she hears; that means most of us are missing out on a lot when we’re not paying close attention. Here are some common reasons people don’t listen well:

  • Self-absorption: Frankly, it’s easy to get wrapped up in our own worlds, populated by our own thoughts, values, ideas, opinions, etc. In a sense, we’re each the center of our own universe; it can be easy to forget that we aren’t the center of everyone else’s – that each individual has his own universe, and one of the ways each universe expands is by allowing another to share part of hers with you. A “me-centered” attitude is a huge impediment to good listening.
  • Know-it-all attitude: As mentioned above, listening is one of the most effective ways to learn and grow. However, sometimes we like to think that we’ve already got it all figured out. So we don’t allow the perspectives, knowledge, ideas, opinions, etc. of others entry into our minds and hearts. Sadly, we’re wrong – none of us, no matter how old, smart, cultured, mature – has it all figured out. So long as there are different perspectives and experiences in the world – and there are as many different perspectives and experiences as there are people – there’s always something new we could learn from someone else.
  • Distraction: Sometimes we simply get distracted. There is no shortage of distractions today, particularly with the number of smart phones, apps, text messages, viral videos, reality television and so on drawing our attention away from people in the flesh to the screen. It’s commonplace for us to pull out a phone at work or in the middle of a conversation and start texting, or browsing the internet. We may also simply drift off in thought when someone is speaking to us – an older but in no way extinct form of distraction.
  • Overestimating our listening skills: If you think you’re already great at something, why work to improve it? The truth is, no matter how well we may listen now, listening is a skill that can be developed. Like all skills, performance increases with practice. Listening well is something we have to work for, and we won’t do that work if we’re convinced we have nothing to improve upon.

We owe it to ourselves and to those around us to cultivate our listening skills. For some of us, this may mean first dropping the ego, accepting that we aren’t the center of the universe and that we don’t know it all. For others, the obstacle may be distraction; this, too, can be overcome. 

Improve Your Life: Become a Better Listener

If you want to improve your life practically, socially and developmentally, become a better listener. Having finished this first part, you can now proceed to Part 2 of this series. There, you’ll learn about common listening mistakes people make, allowing you to more easily identify these and avoid them in the future. You will also find a detailed action plan for developing and implementing better listening skills. It is our hope that this series will provide you with a newfound appreciation for what other people have to offer you and equip you with tools to become a better listener.

“We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak."

Written by Amee LaTour


Part 2:
Building Your Listening Skills

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“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.” Larry King