top of page

Styles of Listening and How to Improve

Although it's important to avoid interrupting others, we've also realized that just alternating who speaks does not constitute active listening.

And it's often with the best of intentions that we mistakenly hijack talks to offer advice, add humor, show empathy, place an emphasis on efficiency, or otherwise insert ourselves into the speaker's narrative, but doing so can break the human connection we were hoping to forge.

It's possible to have more fruitful and meaningful encounters if we learn to recognize when to break out of our usual patterns of behavior and use alternate listening and reacting strategies.

A good manager understands the value of active listening, however, few individuals possess the necessary skills. Sometimes, even the most tried and true methods, like "active listening," can backfire. After all, it's not enough to just agree on the length of each speaker's allotment or to repeat what they said word for word in order to grasp the ideas being presented.

Consider these three everyday exchanges:

Staff member: "I'm really stressed about my presentation at the board meeting."

The boss said, "Oh, you're doing fantastic. The day I gave a presentation without feeling nervous didn't come for a long time.

Work colleague A: "I have to get away for a while."

Friend and coworker B said, "You should go to this primitive lodge in the highlands. Just got back from the trip of a lifetime; I was there for a week. Send me your email address, and I'll give you the details.

The patient said, "The procedure makes me nervous."

"Your surgeon has done hundreds of them," the doctor reassured me. The risk of complications is minimal.

The aforementioned responses are well-intentioned but fall short of resolving the issues raised by the original speakers.

When an employee is anxious about a board meeting, it's better to provide critical feedback than premature reassurance; when a coworker casually mentions needing a vacation, it may signal deeper unstated problems that can't be solved with a vacation itinerary; and when a patient is emotional, it's possible that there are legitimate concerns underlying their emotions that are missed by attempts at reassurance.

These instances highlight a crucial feature of leadership: the fact that the majority of us fail to make the most of our interactions due to our habitual methods of listening.

Understanding the purpose, recognizing our own listening patterns, and deciding how to respond are all necessary components of effective listening. The good news is that we can all learn to become better listeners with time and effort.

Related: Turn Your Ideas into Reality

Styles of Listening

The first step in improving as a listener is realizing what kind of listener you naturally are. We have seen four diverse listening styles in our roles as critical care clinicians and debriefing experts who teach how to maximize learning interactions.

  • The goal of an analytical listener is to approach a topic objectively.

  • A person who listens with the intention of developing relationships (relational listener) and comprehending the feelings behind a communication does so as they listen.

  • The goal of a good critical listener is to form an opinion about the validity of the speaker's claims and the dialogue itself.

  • A task-oriented listener directs a conversation toward the efficient transmission of vital information.

Gaining the flexibility to switch between these approaches allows you to better meet the demands of the speaker and have more fruitful dialogues. Taking this action is the first step toward enhancing your listening skills.

Related: Why Your Business Needs a Strategy

Here are 5 techniques that help you listen better

Improving your listening skills takes more than just awareness of your own listening habits. The top five things our listeners can do to get better are outlined.

Determine your motivation for listening.

Humans listen in a variety of ways for a wide variety of purposes, including efficiency, conflict avoidance, attention-seeking, support, and entertainment. When we regularly (and probably unknowingly) put these factors ahead of other listening goals, we fail to achieve those goals.

As you prepare to join a discussion, take a time to think about the people you will be talking to, the topic at hand, and how you can listen to them most effectively. It's possible they want an open critique, an in-depth analysis, or a heartfelt connection.

It's possible that we're only "surface listening" because we don't have the emotional or mental resources to give the other person what they need right now.

Be aware of your default mode of listening.

It's possible that the way we "usually" listen is holding us back. Though we may have been told we are witty, articulate, and supportive on the whole, our default listening style may be preventing us from achieving other goals that might benefit from a more attentive ear

For instance, in time-sensitive situations, it's helpful to adopt a critical or task-oriented listening style so that you can make snap judgments. Although that may prove fruitful in the workplace, it could backfire when routinely used by loved ones who require more thoughtful consideration than is afforded by a quick decision-making process.

- Kid: "I'm skipping class today. I am all alone.

You have friends, of course," the parent said. To celebrate her birthday, Sally has invited you to her party. Introduce yourself to the three new students at recess today.

If we respond to emotional expressions with a task-oriented or critical listening approach, as in the preceding example, we may miss out on opportunities to explore or offer validation of the other person's feelings, thereby gaining insight that can be put into action.

People may feel unheard and discouraged from speaking up if they are offered coaching or false comfort like a friendly "you'll be OK."

Related: How to Build a Dream Team

Recognize who is the center of interest.

We may change the emphasis of a discussion in more ways than one, including the way we listen and the way we interject ourselves into the story being told.

We think we're being sympathetic and developing rapport when we jump in with our own tales, but this actually prevents us from hearing the other person out.

Interrupting may be a lot of fun and can be a great way to build rapport, but if you don't pay attention, you could end up taking the discussion in a completely different direction than the one you intended.

As an example, studies demonstrate that when doctors try to connect with patients by interjecting a personal comment out of empathy, the conversation rarely circles back to the patient's original problem.

Sharing the emphasis without losing the speaker's message through redirecting back to the speaker is feasible when the interjector is cognizant of the impact of their words and maintains curiosity about the speaker's message. One way to accomplish this is to first share a personal reflection before shifting gears and resuming the discussion:

Work colleague A: "I have to get away for a while."

Work colleague B: "I just got back from a mountain lodge in the woods and it was very rejuvenating. To be honest, I'm wondering how you're doing. Want to have a chat?

Refine your listening strategy to help you reach your conversational objectives.

The more pressure we're under, the harder it is to shift out of our habitual way of listening. This is because our executive functioning and cognitive flexibility are being taxed. In any case, that's OK.

Concentrating on the presenter and the desired outcomes will help you adjust to the circumstances. When a patient is anxious, the physician can learn more about the patient's situation and better meet the patient's needs by reacting with affirmation and interest.

The patient said, "The procedure makes me nervous."

The risk of complications is low, but your doctor says it's natural to be anxious anyway. That's a very major operation, actually. [Pause.] Tell me about your greatest fear.

The natural reaction of the doctor is to reassure the patient by sharing statistics on the treatment's success rate. It might be weird to stop doing that altogether. The patient is more likely to feel heard and validated if the expressed feeling is acknowledged and explored.

The doctor might find out that the patient's brother recently had an operation that resulted in a stroke, or that the patient herself developed a potentially fatal cardiac rhythm during her most recent operation.

The clinician's approach to the patient's treatment before and throughout the procedure would alter dramatically if they were aware of such complications.

Related: Discover Your Core Values


If the person who initiates a conversation does not know what they want to gain from it, it might be challenging to determine the conversation's purpose.

Uncertainty regarding the end aim, reluctance to open up, repressed emotions and time constraints may all play a role in the discovery process. Our listening habits have a significant impact on this procedure, therefore we need to think about whether or not the current discussion is fruitful and what we might be missing.

It's possible that a more nuanced and consequential opportunity will become apparent if you give yourself a moment to pause and reflect before reacting instinctively. However, if that busy, problem-solving parent wants to connect with and understand their child in the long run, they may have more luck adopting a more relational listening approach from the get-go.

Youngster: "I'm skipping class today. I am all alone.

A Parent Saying, "That's a Difficult Emotion to Have." To this she paused and asked, "[Pause] Do you feel like talking about it?"

Analytical listening is a technique that can be incorporated into a conversation to help direct your listening style when making a decision is not an immediate necessity. This technique involves refraining from the temptation to reassure or offer solutions and instead inviting more detail to better understand what is behind a fraught statement.

Recommended Book: The Lost Art of Listening

Effects of Improved Listening

Think back to the anxious worker who is about to give a presentation. What if, instead, the boss said something like this in response:

Staff member: "I'm really stressed up about my presentation at the board meeting."

It's normal to be anxious before making your first presentation, says the supervisor. What's got you so worked up?"

Compared to the initial remark ("Oh, you're doing fantastic. The boss's acknowledgement of the employee's anxiety ("it took me years before I could present without being scared") demonstrates that the manager understands the employee's situation.

Trying out new methods of listening helps us become more engaged conversation partners. It allows more people to share their priorities and concerns, and it might be more productive if we focus on the core issues.

By consciously adopting and utilizing alternative methods of listening, we can better connect with others, get insight into their perspectives, work together, and solve problems.

12 views0 comments
bottom of page