What Makes a Good Listener — and How to Be a Better One

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We’ve all done it if we’re being honest with ourselves: A friend or family member is talking to us about something important, but there we are scrolling through Instagram (what’s that Beyoncé posted?) or pondering what’s in our fridge to scrounge for dinner later (are there any vegetables left?!) . Maybe they’ve even stopped what they were saying to ask, “Are you even listening to me?”

Being a good listener is an important part of connecting with and learning from others. In the workplace, it can be a particularly useful tool, whether you’re dealing with a tough manager or an organization filled with communication silos.

Lucky for you, you can learn and hone good listening skills over time. Here’s how to be a better listener starting today.

What is a good listener?

Good listeners practice active and empathetic listening.

“Both kinds of listening require giving your full attention to another person in order to better understand them,” Ximena Vengoechea, a workplace expert and the author of Listen Like You Mean it: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection, previously wrote on The Muse.

“Through empathetic listening, you can create a space in which others feel safe being themselves, laying the foundation for open and honest communication between both the speaker and the listener,” she added.

Why is it so important to be a good listener?

Being a bad listener can negatively impact your own and others’ productivity and happiness at work.

On the flip side, being a good listener comes with a lot of perks. “Effective listening helps you to understand others better, allowing you to get your work done on time,” Vengoechea wrote. “It enables you to improve partnerships with your peers and thereby collaborate more effectively. It can even help you shift the balance of your relationship with your manager from head-scratching (what did their feedback mean?) to aligned.”

It can also make you popular at work: When you listen attentively and thoughtfully, people feel seen, heard, and supported, which can increase loyalty among your coworkers and supervisors, Nadia Ibrahim-Taney, a university career coach and lecturer, previously told The Muse. Similarly, it can make you a more attractive candidate in the eyes of recruiters and hiring managers during your next job search. 

Finally, being a good listener is also a crucial step to becoming a great boss: One 2020 study found that when supervisors practice active-empathetic listening, it has a significant positive relationship with employee work engagement.

4 qualities of good listeners

Through their actions, good listeners express and develop these crucial qualities. Good listeners are: 

1. Empathetic.

According to the leadership development nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, empathy is the “ability to perceive and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experiences of others”—something you can’t do if you’re not a good listener.
Empathetic people, a report from the CCL stated, are skilled at seeing situations from others’ perspectives and react first and foremost with compassion.

2. Patient.

Patience is a valuable workplace skill in all sorts of ways—and a quality that helps foster good listening. Because good listeners know meaningful conversations and connections happen when people aren’t interrupted, hurried along, or cut off.

3. Curious.

Good listeners are genuinely curious about people and the world around them. They aren’t asking questions or continuing conversations to seem polite—they want answers, and they’re excited about how the speaker will provide them.

“This means being open to learning more about a topic, idea, or person, even if it doesn’t initially pique your interest, and asking yourself, ‘What else can I learn?’ if you feel you’re an expert in a topic already,” Vengoechea wrote on The Muse.

4. Lifelong learners.

Good listeners use their curiosity to ensure they never stop learning, don’t assume they know everything, and approach each conversation with the goal of gaining new and valuable insight. This forces them to be fully engaged, ask follow-up questions, and avoid lecturing.

7 expert tips to be a better listener

Every new situation and person will present challenges on your path to becoming a good listener. Apply these expert tips when you attend business meetings, hop on a sales call, or chat with your manager in your weekly one-on-one, and you’ll be sure to show your colleagues you’re someone worth talking to.

1. Be fully present.

Being present means that you’re engaged in the current moment—not anticipating what someone will say next, practicing your own response, or letting your mind wander onto other topics or distractions (this is not the time to be thinking about the latest plot twist on Succession). 

Of course, being fully present is often easier said than done. Try silencing your devices and setting aside a set amount of uninterrupted time to speak with someone to ensure you’re able to be fully focused on the conversation. Practicing meditation is another great way to hone this skill.

Figure out what triggers your distraction, then come up with a way to revert your attention. It can be as simple as telling yourself, “Ah—I’m distracted again, time to refocus,” or noticing that you're always distracted before lunch and rescheduling the meetings you have then.

2. Gauge what people need from you.

Good listeners know that while many conversations come with certain goals or expectations, they should be attentive to the needs and wants of the people they’re talking to.

Let your colleague get some things off their chest, and then assess what they’re looking for from you. If they ask for advice, give it. If they don’t, resist the urge to jump in with your opinion or ideas for “fixing” their situation. 

“If you aren’t sure what’s needed, try asking something like, ‘Would it be helpful to hear my advice on this?’ or, ‘I have some ideas about how to proceed—would you be open to that?’” Vengoechea wrote on The Muse. “If you’re not sure where to even start, asking simply, ‘Would you like me to listen or respond?’ can move the conversation in the right direction.”

3. Avoid interrupting.

We all know how frustrating it can be to have someone constantly interrupt you. Interruptions can come across as disrespectful and derail a conversation or a person’s train of thought. So if you want to be a better listener, avoid interrupting your conversation partner. 

You need to find a healthy balance of not letting someone ramble and go on a 20-minute tangent and allowing your colleague to finish their thoughts. If this is a bad habit of yours, work to be open to a slower pace of conversation. Pauses and silences are your friends. You don’t need to fill every moment with words or cut anyone off. 

Even if you're simply excited about an idea, cutting someone off is a surefire way to give the cue that you’re not a good partner and listener, which undermines your excitement and ambition.

4. Ask follow-up questions.

The best way to show you care about and fully understand someone is to ask relevant follow-up questions. 

“If you’re being asked to take over the planning of an annual work event, for example, you might want to ask about the goals and desired impact of the event as well as the obstacles former planners have run into in the past,” Leah Campbell, who holds a degree in psychology and worked in human resources for years, previously wrote on The Muse.

5. Pay attention to body and vocal cues.

Pay attention to the speaker’s intonation, pace of speech, and overall mood and how it may be different from other interactions you’ve had with them. For example, if a colleague is normally vivacious but changes their tone or gets quiet right after you make a comment, they may have felt shut down. Becoming aware of these cues can teach you better ways to respond (or not respond).

It's also important to pay attention to their body language. While your focus should be on listening to what they’re saying, their facial expressions or hand gestures may not always match their words—and could give you clues as to what’s happening below the surface.

6. Get your body language right.

Although they might not be speaking much during the conversation, good listeners show that they’re engaged by using active body language. This includes maintaining eye contact, nodding, or leaning in to show agreement or encourage the speaker to continue. 

“Listen in a neutral pose that shows you’re engaged, but not presumptuous. Use open body language (i.e., don’t cross your arms), avoid extreme facial expressions (regardless of whether they’re favorable or disapproving), and nix the foot tapping and other fidgety habits that signal impatience,” Lea McLeod, an experienced manager, career consultant, and job search coach, previously wrote on The Muse. “I’ve found that by assuming a neutral body pose, I’m mentally preparing to listen.”

You don’t need to stare them right in the eye for the entire conversation (that might be alarming), but you do need to be actively engaged, focusing your energy and attention on the speaker.

7. Summarize what you’ve heard.

“A great way to verbalize active listening is to summarize and confirm back to the person the subject of what they were trying to communicate,” Ibrahim-Taney told The Muse. 

McLeod suggests repeating what you’ve understood back to them with something like, “So what I hear you saying is _____. Is that right?” or “Let me summarize what I heard you say: _____. Did I miss or misinterpret anything?”

Use this tactic toward the end of a conversation to clarify any points, highlight important moments, or illuminate any outstanding issues—and maybe consider writing it down in a follow-up email for future reference.

We all slip up when listening at times. When you do, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, think about ways you can minimize these moments going forward. Good listening skills are like a muscle—you need to pay attention to growing and maintaining their strength. So practice, pay attention, and above all, really listen.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
Alyse Kalish (former editor at The Muse), Zoe Kaplan (former staff writer for Fairygodboss), and Jane Scudder (a certified coach, facilitator, workplace consultant, and Fairygodboss contributor based in Chicago) contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.

What's your no. 1 piece of advice to be a better listener? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!