Learning to Listen Better

By ACS Distance Education on November 21, 2022 in Education, Jobs Success & Psychology | comments

When we talk about successful teachers, salespeople or managers, we often mention their communication skills. We talk about ‘good communicators’ clearly getting their ideas across in ways that have their audiences nodding and agreeing with them. But here’s a secret: the best communicators learned how to listen first. By listening carefully, they learned

  • What mattered to the people around them
  • What those people felt about their situations 
  • What words they used to describe themselves and the things or events they care about
  • How to use what they had heard to solve problems

So what is really involved in learning to listen?


An effective communicator is a good active listener. Good listening skills are needed to develop empathy and understanding and to assess whether someone understands what the speaker has said. Listening skills also help in negotiating with others and defusing any potential conflicts.
Listening is a two-way process. A teacher may do most of the talking but they also learn to listen to their students. As they listen to the students and develop an understanding of their needs, respect can grow between all of those involved in the learning experience. Listening to students allows teachers to personalise the learning experience, making learning more relevant to the student(s).  

Stages of Listening

Listening can be divided into a series of stages. In practice, no one keeps strictly to these stages, but reflecting on them can improve a person’s listening skills.

  1. Receiving a message
    Actively listening to an 'incoming message' can involve letting down your defences, and trying to sense the underlying meaning behind the words. Listen for ideas, implications and feelings, as well as the facts conveyed. Taking brief mental notes may help to focus your attention, but it can also distract you from the real meaning. Providing direct eye contact can also show a real commitment to the speaker and their specific message.
  2. Interpreting the message. The second step is to interpret, or reconstruct, what is said. Words have different meanings to different people. Keep asking yourself whether you really understand the message. Do your best to listen with full attention, and withhold judgement, assumption and criticism at this stage. Don't jump to conclusions before the story is complete. Allow the other person to finish their message before attempting to speak.
  3. Evaluate the message. The third step is to evaluate what is being said, once you have made a reasonably objective interpretation. At this point you can reflect on the information and options presented, and sift through the evidence. Unfortunately, judging often starts far too early in the listening process, especially when the topic has emotional implications or there is a long history of painful conflict. Many people will judge according to their own personal life experiences. Unskilled listeners close their ears to words they do not want to hear and only hear the words they want to hear.
  4. Respond to the message.  The fourth stage is responding. This stage allows you to demonstrate that you have truly been listening. Reassuring the speaker that you have given them full attention is a critical aspect of constructive listening. Feedback is usually given by asking for clarification, for more information, or by giving a visible acknowledgment such as smiling, nodding or frowning. Even making small remarks such as “Ah ha” during the message conveys a real interest in what the other person is saying.

Improving listening skills in others

People will be filtering and interpreting everything they hear through a personal screen of attitudes, values, assumptions, judgements, past experiences and strong feelings. Listening behaviour will also be influenced by factors such as age, sex, cultural background and even physical appearance and mannerisms.
In some cases you need to make allowances for poor listening in others, and take positive action to remedy the situation. Some of the steps you can take to improve listening skills in others include:

  • Reducing anxiety – identify the causes of any anxiety can help people to listen.
  • Reducing distractions – boredom and the need to seek distraction can impede good listening. As a speaker, change your delivery style, vary your tone of voice and consider the atmosphere of the room in which you are speaking. Is it conducive to concentrating?
  • Reducing bias – people have basic convictions, attitudes and beliefs based on their life stories and experiences. You may need to address your own bias and how you might prejudge others because of your relationship with specific cultural groups.
  • Reducing language barriers – check whether the people listening to you are fluent in the language you speak or if they need support to understand and be understood. Building these relationships can promote a clear understanding of their needs
  • Adjusting attitude, tone and words – people may be tired, hungry, thirsty, uncomfortable or distracted by personal issues. Changing how you deliver information, encouraging people to get up and move around or use relaxation exercises can change the speed at which information is absorbed.
  • Listen with empathy – empathy is the ability to understand the emotions or feelings of another person. Empathy is not always possible – you might experience personality clashes or differences in age/sex/cultural background which make it hard to relate to someone. Listening with empathy can reduce tension, promote honest communication and increase self-respect for all concerned.

Improving listening skills ourselves

Improving listening skills starts with the motivation to concentrate on communication.  Some of the ways a person can convey a genuine desire to listen and understand are:

  • Be attentive, alert and not easily distracted.
  • Create a positive atmosphere with your nonverbal behaviour - your body language and facial expressions.
  •  Be interested in the other person’s needs.
  •  Listen in a friendly way
  •  Do not judge or criticise
  •  Respect privacy: do not ask intrusive or complicated questions
  •  Act like a mirror: reflect what you think is being felt and said
  •  Show that you are in no hurry. Remember that silences are good, as they give others a range of opportunities to think and reflect before verbally giving an answer
  •  Don’t brush aside the person’s feeling with phrases like 'It’s not that bad' or 'you’re making a mountain out of a molehill'.
  •  Never belittle or negate any aspect of a problem, even if it seems unimportant to you. 
  •  Don't get emotionally involved, angry, upset or argumentative. Try to remain professional in your interactions.
  •  Don't jump to conclusions or judgements 
  •  Try not to have any pre-conceived ideas or notions about anyone based on what you may have heard from someone else.

Ways to indicate that you are listening:

  • Give encouraging acknowledgements (eg. “Yes” or “I see” or nodding or “Ah ha”).
  • Give nonverbal acknowledgements (eg. relaxed body posture, eye contact, facial expression. Remember that people can speak with their bodies without saying a solitary word; a movement can indicate a great deal about how a person is feeling)
  • Invite more responses (eg. 'Tell me more' or 'I'd like to hear about that' – these few words can imply you are keen for the student to expand on their message because it has relevance to you and the rest of the group).

Don’ts for group listening:

  • Don't interrupt
  • Don't change the subject
  • Don't rehearse in your head instead of listening
  • Don't interrogate
  • Don't teach or preach
  • Don't give advice
  • Don’t talk down to anyone. People can sense when someone is not on their level and may not respond appropriately

Developing listening skills is a critical part of a range of distance learning courses. If you would like to learn to be more effective at listening, click on one of the courses below do find out more.

  • Abnormal psychology
  • Adolescent psychology
  • Advanced certificate in Behavioural Sciences
  • Advanced certificate in child and youth psychology
  • Advanced certificate in coaching
  • Advanced certificate in counselling & psychology
  • Advanced certificate in organisational psychology
  • Advanced certificate in psychology
  • Aged care and counselling
  • Anger management
  • Anxiety management
  • Careers counselling
  • Certificate in adolescent studies
  • Certificate in applied developmental psychology
  • Certificate in business psychology
  • Certificate in careers counselling
  • Certificate in child and youth counselling
  • Certificate in life coaching
  • Certificate in sports psychology
  • Certificate in stress management
  • Child and adolescent mental health
  • Conflict management
  • Counselling children
  • Counselling skills I
  • Counselling skills II
  • Counselling techniques
  • Criminal psychology
  • Crisis counselling
  • Developmental psychology
  • Developmental, learning and behavioural disorders in children and adolescents
  • Educational psychology
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Family counselling
  • Grief counselling
  • Life coaching
  • Managing mental health in adults
  • Relationships and communication
  • Social psychology
  • Sports psychology
  • Stress management

You can also contact our careers counselling team for more advice finding the course that is right for you.