Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Five Tips for Better Listening

Much of the business communication course focuses on improving one’s skills as a sender of messages, but successful communication requires the mindful and skillful participation of both the sender and the receiver. When we are engaged in a conversation, attending a presentation, or listening to a podcast or video, the success of the communication effort hinges on our performance as listeners.

Listening more effectively will help your students in every aspect of their personal and professional lives. To help you summarize your course coverage of listening, here are five handy tips your students can put to work right now to improve their listening habits.

1. Minimize the Barriers to Physical Reception

Before you can listen to someone, you obviously need to be able to hear the other party speak. Missing even a single word can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. Poor hearing can originate on the speaker’s side (such as when someone mumbles), on the receiver’s side (such as when someone is listening to music during a conversation), or in the surrounding environment (such as when other people in an open-plan office are talking). You might not be able to control all the barriers that get in the way of effective listening, but the more you can reduce them, the more satisfying the experience will be for everyone involved.

2. Manage Your Emotions

Communication suffers if listeners fail to monitor and manage their emotions during a conversation. During hectic periods or when emotions are running high, listening calmly and mindfully can be a challenge. However, these are the times when it is most important to exhibit emotional intelligence, including the ability to recognize when your emotions might be getting in the way.

As part of this challenge, selective attention and perceptual biases can lead listeners to mold messages to fit their own beliefs and conceptual frameworks. Listeners sometimes make up their minds before hearing the speaker’s full message, or they engage in defensive listening—protecting their egos by tuning out anything that doesn’t confirm their beliefs or their view of themselves. Feeling angry or annoyed during a conversation limits your effectiveness because you’ll be more likely to judge or reject what you hear.

3. Focus Your Attention

Your brain can process language three or four times faster than people typically speak, which means your brain has a lot of idle processing capacity while you are listening. If you don’t take active steps to stay focused, or if you divide your attention by multitasking, you might miss vital information and nonverbal signals that can help you interpret what you're hearing. Moreover, not paying attention is disrespectful and sends a message to the other person that what he or she has to say isn’t important to you.

4. Adapt Your Listening Style to the Situation

Effective listeners adapt their listening styles to different situations, including switching approaches during the course of a conversation or presentation if necessary. You can use three distinct styles:

  • Content listening focuses on understanding and retaining the information in the speaker’s message. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree, approve or disapprove—only that you understand. Filter out anything other than the information itself, including the speaker’s appearance, vocabulary, level of experience, or position in the relationship. If appropriate, ask questions to clarify any points you don’t understand or to get more details. However, don’t challenge or correct the speaker. Remember that your goal with content listening is to get the information that another person has to share. If the exchange starts to feel confrontational, he or she might “shut down” and hesitate to disclose valuable information.
  • Critical listening goes beyond information gathering to evaluating the meaning of the speaker’s message on several levels: the logic of the argument, the strength of the evidence, the validity of the conclusions, the implications of the message, the speaker’s intentions and motives, and the omission of any important or relevant points. If you’re skeptical, ask questions to explore the speaker’s point of view and credibility. Be on the lookout for bias that might influence how the information is presented, separate opinions from facts, and watch for logical fallacies that could undermine the speaker’s arguments or conclusions. (Note that “critical listening” does not mean you are listening with the intent to criticize but rather to understand the full meaning and implications of the speaker’s message.)
  • The goal of empathic listening is to understand the speaker’s feelings, needs, and wants so that you can appreciate his or her point of view, regardless of whether you share that perspective. Importantly, this style of listening gives the other person the freedom to share without fear of being judged or evaluated. In this sense, empathic listening is a complementary skill to critical listening because you need to silence your critical faculties and focus your attention on the other person. In fact, the information exchanged in an empathic conversion is sometimes less important than simply giving someone the opportunity to be heard. Be aware that empathic listening can be a difficult habit to get into, particularly for people who are used to solving problems and taking charge of situations.

Note that all three of these styles are forms of active listening—and taking action is a crucial point. Don’t sit back passively and place the entire burden of communication on the speaker. Put yourself in an open and positive frame of mind where you are ready to accept new information, manage your emotions and attention, and keep yourself engaged throughout the conversation.

If appropriate, help the speaker formulate and express ideas by asking insightful questions. However, don’t automatically jump in at the first moment of silence. Sometimes silence is an important part of the conversation. The other person might be collecting his or her thoughts or looking for a clearer way to express something. Also, if someone pauses in the middle of a sentence, don’t rush in to complete it—particularly if your real motivation is to demonstrate superior knowledge or intelligence.

5. Don’t Rely on Your Memory

Remembering information during a conversation is challenging because you need to store information you have just received while continuing to process new incoming information. This problem gets even more pronounced when the speaker is rambling or fails to periodically summarize what he or she has said.

If the information you are likely to receive is important, write it down. If you rely on memory, chances are you will forget or confuse important details. Naturally, the decision whether to take notes depends on the situation. If someone is sharing personal or confidential information or is asking for your advice, it might not be appropriate or necessary to take notes. If you are using a mobile device to take notes, make sure you can do so quickly enough to keep up with the conversation and in a way that doesn’t disturb others.

If you are unable to take notes and have no choice but to memorize, you can hold information in short-term memory by repeating it silently or creating lists in your head. To store information in long-term memory, four techniques can help: (1) associate new information with something closely related (such as the restaurant in which you had the conversation), (2) categorize the new information into logical groups (such as alphabetizing a list of names), (3) visualize words and ideas as pictures, and (4) create mnemonics such as acronyms or rhymes.

Self-Coaching Ideas for Your Students

  1. What steps can you take during a conversation if you feel your attention begin to wander or if you start to feel resentful or critical of the other party?
  2. Do you sometimes judge a speaker based on appearance, vocal characteristics, or other attributes unrelated to the content of a presentation, podcast, or converation? What can you do to overcome this tendency and keep your attention focused on the information and meaning the person is trying to convey?

Previous Posts in the Apply Your Skills Now Series

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Making Difficult Requests

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Writing Professional-Grade Email

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Make QA a Routine Part of the Writing Process

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Think Now, Write Later

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Preparing for Difficult Conversations

Encourage Your Students to Put Their New Skills to Work Right Away


Adapted from Courtland L. Bovée and John V. Thill, Business Communication Today, 15th Edition, 2021, pp. 52–57.

Photo credit: drain on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA