Laura Schneider for HBR

Chances are you think you’re a good listener. People’s appraisal of their listening ability is much like their assessment of their driving skills, in that the great bulk of adults think they’re above average.

In our experience, most people think good listening comes down to doing three things:

  • Not talking when others are speaking
  • Letting others know you’re listening through facial expressions and verbal sounds (“Mmm-hmm”)
  • Being able to repeat what others have said, practically word-for-word

In fact, much management advice on listening suggests doing these very things – encouraging listeners to remain quiet, nod and “mm-hmm” encouragingly, and then repeat back to the talker something like, “So, let me make sure I understand. What you’re saying is…” However, recent research that we conducted suggests that these behaviors fall far short of describing good listening skills.

We analyzed data describing the behavior of 3,492 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches. As part of this program, their coaching skills were assessed by others in 360-degree assessments. We identified those who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%). We then compared the best listeners to the average of all other people in the data set and identified the 20 items showing the largest significant difference. With those results in hand we identified the differences between great and average listeners and analyzed the data to determine what characteristics their colleagues identified as the behaviors that made them outstanding listeners.

We found some surprising conclusions, along with some qualities we expected to hear. We grouped them into four main findings:

  • Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. To the contrary, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. These questions gently challenge old assumptions, but do so in a constructive way. Sitting there silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but that they comprehended it well enough to want additional information. Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialog, rather than a one-way “speaker versus hearer” interaction. The best conversations were active.
  • Good listening included interactions that build a person’s self-esteem. The best listeners made the conversation a positive experience for the other party, which doesn’t happen when the listener is passive (or, for that matter, critical!). Good listeners made the other person feel supported and conveyed confidence in them. Good listening was characterized by the creation of a safe environment in which issues and differences could be discussed openly.
  • Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation. In these interactions, feedback flowed smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made. By contrast, poor listeners were seen as competitive — as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. That might make you an excellent debater, but it doesn’t make you a good listener. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.
  • Good listeners tended to make suggestions. Good listening invariably included some feedback provided in a way others would accept and that opened up alternative paths to consider. This finding somewhat surprised us, since it’s not uncommon to hear complaints that “So-and-so didn’t listen, he just jumped in and tried to solve the problem.” Perhaps what the data is telling us is that making suggestions is not itself the problem; it may be the skill with which those suggestions are made. Another possibility is that we’re more likely to accept suggestions from people we already think are good listeners. (Someone who is silent for the whole conversation and then jumps in with a suggestion may not be seen as credible. Someone who seems combative or critical and then tries to give advice may not be seen as trustworthy.)

While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

Of course, there are different levels of listening. Not every conversation requires the highest levels of listening, but many conversations would benefit from greater focus and listening skill. Consider which level of listening you’d like to aim for:

Level 1: The listener creates a safe environment in which difficult, complex, or emotional issues can be discussed.

Level 2: The listener clears away distractions like phones and laptops, focusing attention on the other person and making appropriate eye-contact. (This behavior not only affects how you are perceived as the listener; it immediately influences the listener’s own attitudes and inner feelings. Acting the part changes how you feel inside. This in turn makes you a better listener.)

Level 3: The listener seeks to understand the substance of what the other person is saying. They capture ideas, ask questions, and restate issues to confirm that their understanding is correct.

Level 4: The listener observes nonbverbal cues, such as facial expressions, perspiration, respiration rates, gestures, posture, and numerous other subtle body language signals. It is estimated that 80% of what we communicate comes from these signals. It sounds strange to some, but you listen with your eyes as well as your ears.

Level 5: The listener increasingly understands the other person’s emotions and feelings about the topic at hand, and identifies and acknowledges them. The listener empathizes with and validates those feelings in a supportive, nonjudgmental way.

Level 6: The listener asks questions that clarify assumptions the other person holds and helps the other person to see the issue in a new light. This could include the listener injecting some thoughts and ideas about the topic that could be useful to the other person. However, good listeners never highjack the conversation so that they or their issues become the subject of the discussion.

Each of the levels builds on the others; thus, if you’ve been criticized (for example) for offering solutions rather than listening, it may mean you need to attend to some of the other levels (such as clearing away distractions or empathizing) before your proffered suggestions can be appreciated.

We suspect that in being a good listener, most of us are more likely to stop short rather than go too far. Our hope is that this research will help by providing a new perspective on listening. We hope those who labor under an illusion of superiority about their listening skills will see where they really stand. We also hope the common perception that good listening is mainly about acting like an absorbent sponge will wane. Finally, we hope all will see that the highest and best form of listening comes in playing the same role for the other person that a trampoline plays for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height and amplification. These are the hallmarks of great listening.

What Pocket Users are Saying

  • Jodi Ettenberg

    July 16, 2016

    Worth a read!

  • Trending Now

    July 22, 2016

    Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks.

  • jonathan bruck

    August 20, 2016

    While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

  • Ross Morrison McGill

    October 16, 2016

    Research: good listening is seen as a cooperative conversation.

  • Ross Morrison McGill

    December 4, 2016

    Energy, acceleration, height and amplification. These are the hallmarks of great listening.

  • Sofie Verhalle

    October 26, 2016

    good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

  • khal Davenport

    July 25, 2016

    some good insight on how to conduct better interviews

  • Nishan Pantha

    August 8, 2016

    Not to mention the level of patience one should have to consume the information...

  • Nishan Pantha

    November 18, 2018

    Of course, there are different levels of listening. Not every conversation requires the highest levels of listening, but many conversations would benefit from greater focus and listening skill...

  • Ashutosh Mundhada

    July 17, 2016

    Read, Implement, Review, Repeat.

    Excerpt:
    Good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.

  • Nick Heynen

    September 14, 2016

    Some good ideas for how to make yourself a better listener.

  • Rakesh Gupta

    July 25, 2016

    Most people think good listening comes down to things like not speaking, active listening, and repeating what others have said. But truly great listeners do much more.

  • Nick Lenten

    August 20, 2016

    Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks.

  • Gaurav Singh

    July 14, 2016

    Explains what we think good listeners do vs what their research shows good listeners do and also breaks good listening into levels

  • Rajat Verma

    July 20, 2016

    the highest and best form of listening comes in playing the same role for the other person that a trampoline plays for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height and amplification. These are the hallmarks of great listening.

  • Rakesh Gupta

    August 5, 2016

    Most people think good listening comes down to things like not speaking, active listening, and repeating what others have said. But truly great listeners do much more.

  • Prateek Keshari

    September 22, 2016

    Noted.

  • Gary-Yau Chan

    August 1, 2016

    They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

  • Eric Fung

    August 17, 2016

    This reminds me of the feeling when you can tell a good interviewer from a mediocre one

  • Adam B

    November 4, 2018

    good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting.

  • Ritika Upadhyay

    August 29, 2016

    While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

  • Fabricio Lemos

    January 8, 2017

    Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks.

  • Katy LaVallee

    January 12, 2017

    Seems like they are saying good listening is like good conversation, except you let the other person guide the conversation.

  • Mattias Jägerskog

    July 29, 2016

    Be a trampoline.

    good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

  • Mark Anderson

    November 20, 2018

    people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight

  • Scott Light

    July 16, 2016

    This is so good

    what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

  • Scott Light

    July 16, 2016

    Finally, we hope all will see that the highest and best form of listening comes in playing the same role for the other person that a trampoline plays for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height and amplification. These are the hallmarks of great listening.

  • Sebastian Andil

    August 17, 2016

    Are you a good listener?

  • Gary L

    June 24, 2017

    Great listening is more than being quiet while the other person speaks. And it's more than repeating what was said. It's providing a safe and empathetic space.

  • tal allweil

    August 1, 2016

    Good listening is a skill worth cultivating!

  • Jasper

    August 22, 2016

    While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.

  • Antonia Inri

    September 18, 2016

    looking for a listener, but none came. so i try to become one. hope i could be a good listener...

  • Xinyi Tieu

    October 19, 2016

    I need more people like this in my life.

    The listener asks questions that clarify assumptions the other person holds and helps the other person to see the issue in a new light.

  • Gabriela Cardoso

    August 4, 2016

    Esse artigo me deu algumas lições de casa 🤔😜

    what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.

  • Chris ~

    August 20, 2016

    "Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. The best conversations were active.

    Good listening included interactions that build a person’s self-esteem.

    Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation.

    Good listeners tended to make suggestions."

  • Samy Amirou

    July 22, 2016

    good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.

  • J Norby

    July 27, 2016

    the highest and best form of listening comes in playing the same role for the other person that a trampoline plays for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height and amplification.

  • Samantha Go

    August 29, 2016

    I think we could all use a reminder of how to be better listeners. Or even better ones, if you think you're great already

  • Lindsay Wilcox

    November 11, 2016

    Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. To the contrary, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. These questions gently challenge old assumptions, but do so in a constructive way. Sitting there silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but that they comprehended it well enough to want additional information.

  • Leslie McIntire

    July 18, 2016

    I think we all would benefit from honing our listening skills.

  • Bradley Wehrwein

    November 18, 2018

    good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

  • Jeremy Schreifels

    July 28, 2016

    much management advice on listening suggests doing these very things – encouraging listeners to remain quiet, nod and “mm-hmm” encouragingly, and then repeat back to the talker something like, “So, let me make sure I understand. What you’re saying is…” However, recent research that we conducted suggests that these behaviors fall far short of describing good listening skills.

  • Chris Le

    July 19, 2016

    A trampoline - I like that word image.

    While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

  • Kamil Steć

    November 24, 2018

    Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. To the contrary, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight.

    Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. To the contrary, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight.

  • carla panda

    July 21, 2016

    poor listeners were seen as competitive — as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. That might make you an excellent debater, but it doesn’t make you a good listener.

  • liu 刘

    August 17, 2016

    Chances are you think you’re a good listener. People’s appraisal of their listening ability is much like their assessment of their driving skills, in that the great bulk of adults think they’re above average.

  • David Christian

    September 10, 2016

    Good listening requires so much more than: (a) not talking when others are speaking, (b) letting others know you’re listening through facial expressions and verbal sounds, and (c) being able to repeat what others have said

    It also requires active and constructive two-way conversation, asking the right questions, improving the speaker's thought process by giving some appropriate feedbacks instead of always imposing your own view and winning an argument with the speaker.

  • Tania Orellana

    December 7, 2018

    the highest and best form of listening comes in playing the same role for the other person that a trampoline plays for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height and amplification.

  • Linda Lou Lee

    July 31, 2016

    This describes my best friend to a tee!

  • Jesús Miguel Hernández

    July 17, 2016

    Finally, we hope all will see that the highest and best form of listening comes in playing the same role for the other person that a trampoline plays for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height and amplification. These are the hallmarks of great listening.

  • Ralph Wolff

    July 18, 2016

    Good insights.

  • Chad Huber

    July 27, 2016

    #whatimreading good listening is a rewarding skill, not a task.

  • Manuel K

    August 25, 2016

    the

  • Emiliano Huescas

    November 19, 2018

    TIL un buen oyente es como un trampolín.

Discover more great stories—get Pocket.