5 Styles of Effective Listening That Will Make You Smarter

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You may think knowing styles of effective listening won’t mean much or matter to you. But think about this…

When someone is talking to you, do you find yourself thinking of what you’re going to say next rather than really listening? Or worse, thinking of something completely unrelated, like what you’ll watch on Netflix after work?

Or worse, do you look at your phone and scroll through texts or email?

Sometimes listening takes effort.

And not all styles of listening are the same.

And not every situation calls for the same style of listening.

Understanding your role as a listener can help you listen better and be more present.

Using the styles of effective listening listed below will improve your performance in different situations.

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5 Styles of Effective Listening



What it is: listening to appreciate or enjoy what you’re listening to.

When you think of appreciative listening, you most likely think of music or other forms of entertainment. Maybe you think of watching a movie or going to the theater. You likely don’t think about work.

But there are work-related situations where appreciative listening is appropriate, too. If you’re on a work outing and entertainment is involved, or if you’re listening to a presentation that starts with a great story, pay attention and enjoy what’s being shared.

You’ll also use appreciative listening when listening to a great speaker you admire.

You’ll use appreciative listening when out with co-workers you enjoy spending time with. Sometimes a lunch break with good, fun conversation can do a lot to enhance teamwork.

Tips for better appreciative listening: Relax, get engaged, pay attention, and give cues that you’re involved and listening. It’s great for team bonding.



What it is: listening to understand the content of what the speaker is explaining.

You’ll use comprehensive listening when listening to instructions or if you need to understand better how to do something. If your boss is explaining to you what she wants you to include in a report or presentation you’re creating, you’re most likely (hopefully) listening for comprehension. You’re listening to get the details and to understand the content of the message.

Tips for better comprehensive listening: When listening for comprehension, don’t hesitate to ask questions if something’s not clear, or if you need more information. Paraphrase back what you heard to verify that it’s correct. And if you walk away and realize you’re unsure of something, reach out to ask follow-up questions if possible. Clearing up any misunderstanding or filling gaps can save rework or time later.



What it is: listening to gather information and form an opinion or judgment about what is being said.

Critical thinking takes effort because you’re assessing the information that’s being shared at the same time you’re taking it in. You’re listening to the words, and thinking about the context and content, and applying your experience and knowledge. You’re thinking about motives and details and the big picture. You take all that information and make judgments about what’s being shared. It’s not a passive activity.

In the workplace, engaging in debate or having intense strategic discussions both involve critical listening. But critical listening skills aren’t only needed when you’re engaging in the discussion. If you’re listening to a speaker that presents challenging ideas, you’ll likely find yourself analyzing the content and forming opinions or further ideas on what’s presented.

Tips for better critical listening: If you know in advance that you’ll need to use critical listening skills, make sure you’ve had enough sleep and don’t eat foods that will make you sleepy or groggy. Especially if the stakes are high.



What it is: listening for inconsistencies or an underlying message.

When you’re engaging in discriminative listening, you’re taking in words, body language, and tone of voice to assess for any inconsistencies. Taking this all in can help you determine if the words are giving the right message.

Examples of times when you might use discriminative listening at work:

  • Your boss tells you your presentation looks fine, but he’s squinting at the pages and frowning. Ask if he has any suggestions.
  • You ask your project team member if he can complete a task by a specific date and he says yes, but he tenses up and looks at a large stack of papers on his desk. Question him further about this. Ask if you need to discuss alternatives.

When listening to customers, pay attention to the words they use and watch body language. This will give you clues about any dissatisfaction or doubt they may have. If you’re presenting to a customer and she scowls or fidgets, she’s likely reacting to something you said. It can be helpful to ask for insight about it. “Tammy, I sense you’re uncomfortable with an element of the plan. What are you thinking?”

Tips for better discriminative listening: Take note of body language and tone of voice to see if there’s an underlying message that’s different than the one they’re stating. This could be your clue to ask for more information.



What it is: listening to understand another’s feelings or emotions.

Empathetic listening is listening – without judgment – to understand how someone else feels.

It can be useful for building trust. It allows the speaker to release emotions, and it can reduce tension in uncomfortable situations.

Additionally, listening empathetically to customers can provide insight into their feelings and what frustrates them, which can be valuable when presenting solutions.

When listening empathetically, be fully present and fully focused on the person you’re listening to. Try to identify the feeling they’re expressing. Paraphrase back to them what they’re telling you. This will make them feel heard, which is the goal of empathetic listening.

Empathetic listening may be difficult initially. Our instinct is to solve problems, but there’s also value in letting someone feel heard.

Empathetic listening may be a part of problem-solving or some other activity. If you’re mediating a conflict or facilitating a problem-solving session, letting the speaker know you understand his or her feelings can help diffuse tension or reduce anger.

If you’re not sure what feeling they’re sharing, you can guess or ask. For example, “I hear you say you’re working longer hours than anyone else on the team. It sounds like you’re stressed, and maybe even angry. Am I right?” The speaker will be thankful that you’re trying and help you understand more clearly if needed.

What not to do:
• Don’t interrupt
• Don’t get defensive
• Don’t judge or label
• Don’t betray someone’s trust if they share something confidentially

Tips for better empathetic listening: Give clues that you’re listening, such as paraphrasing or using statements such as “that sounds like a tough situation.” Search for the feeling behind the words and state it back to the speaker. Ask for help understanding if you’re not clear. Don’t try to solve the problem right away, but instead listen for the feeling the speaker is experiencing.

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These styles of effective listening are helpful in all settings: at work, at home, and with friends.

And if you’re not listening, you’re sending a message, too. You’re saying, “I don’t value what you have to say right now.”

It’s common for people to multitask, stare at screens, and have side conversations during meetings and presentations. By giving the speaker your full attention, and being engaged with what they’re saying, you’ll benefit by getting more from the experience.

And the speaker will appreciate you for it.

For more on communication, read 20 Easy-to-Use Assertive Communication Skills for Confidence and Respect


Capitalizing on the Science Behind Emotionally Intelligent Leadership

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