Learning Soft Skills - Improve Your Listening Skills

Imagine this:

While having dinner with your coworker, you notice she seems a bit distracted, and you ask if everything's OK. Soon, she opens up and says that she's fed up with one of her coworkers. 

After a moment of silence, it's your turn to respond.

Would you try to empathize or offer advice?

  • "Oh, don't I know it – the new girl on my team is the worst. Do you know what she said to me last week?"
  • "I know exactly what you mean. The same thing happened to me in my last team."
  • "You know what you should do? The best thing to do would be…"
  • "Maybe it's time for you to start looking for a new job."

What these well-intentioned responses have in common is that there's not much actual listening. Listening has the more powerful position in communication - it is how we learn, connect, cooperate, empathise, and grow as individuals. The responses listed above don't offer much possibilities for this growth.

This is the third article in the series of posts on developing soft skills. 

Other articles bring tips on developing skills in:

In this article:

Listening and Brain

We acquire our first auditory experiences as early as in prenatal life and develop our auditory sensitivity and memory, resulting in a readiness to process auditory information, which lays the foundation for the later development of musical aptitude (1) and language learning (2). But good listening is so much more. 

It is about building more rewarding relationships, improving problem-solving skills, and enriching our understanding of the world. So, how do we build these relationships? To answer this question, let's explore what happens inside our heads when we listen. Our brain waves are a powerful indicator of whether we are understanding and connecting with others. Neuroscientists (3) found that the greater the overlap between the speaker's and the listener's brain activity, the better the communication. More specifically, the researchers applied fMRI to record brain activity from both speakers and listeners during natural verbal communication. They used the speaker's spatiotemporal brain activity to model listeners' brain activity and found that the speaker's activity is spatially and temporally coupled with the listener's activity. This coupling vanishes when participants fail to communicate. In conclusion, we could say that when we truly listen to others, our brains literally sync up with theirs. The better we listen, the more likely we are to connect with and understand them. Also, the more in sync our brain waves are with someone else's, the more likely we are to feel close to them. In the following text, we'll explore some strategies for developing listening skills.

Developing Listening Skills

As listening is a crucial element of successful communication, it's not surprising that strategies for developing listening and communication skills are closely intertwined. In this article, you can read more about the ways to develop communication skills. Since listening is fundamental to successful relationships—personal and professional—here are two approaches to developing listening skills.

Demonstrate Interest

Two studies (4) explored the way attentive, distracted, or disagreeable listeners influence the speakers' way of retelling recent experiences. The results show that when talking to inattentive listeners, speakers tend to remember less information and are less articulate. On the other hand, attentive listeners elicit more information, relevant detail, and elaboration from speakers, even when the listeners don't ask questions. What can we learn from this research? If you're barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring or not worth your time, you will actually make it so. 

Supporting and Shifting Conversation

Compare these two replies.

The other day, I met my neighbour who complained about being exhausted because her daughter had the flu. 

Response 1: "Oh, I completely get you. My son also had a fever last week. Actually, it lasted for ten days. We were so exhausted."

Response 2: "Oh no, is she feeling better now?" 

Both of these answers are related to the speaker's message. However, they direct attention in different directions. We call the first type of response the shift response. It directs attention away from the speaker and toward the respondent. The sociologist Charles Derber describes this type of communication as "conversational narcissism" (5) and claims that "without attention being exchanged and distributed, there is no social life." On the other hand, we have support responses. These responses are usually not self-referential statements—or hasty advice—but open-ended, other-directed questions. 

should we always opt for supportive responses

Well, no. It's about the balance of shift and support responses in your conversations. Keep in mind the advantages of becoming a good questioner - people who ask questions collect stories. As a result, they have something interesting to contribute to almost any discussion.


Our listening abilities start developing even before we are born. However, becoming a better listener is a life-long process. These skills are crucial to building better relationships, driving your career forward, and more. The better we listen, the more likely we are to connect with and understand our interlocutors.

Key Takeaways

  • Active listening contributes to building more rewarding relationships, improving problem-solving skills, and enriching our understanding of the world.
  • Shift response directs attention away from the speaker and toward the respondent.
  • Support responses encourage elaboration from the speaker to help the respondent gain a better understanding
  • Monitor the balance of shift and support responses in your conversations
  • If you demonstrate an interest in someone by being attentive, they'll be more likely to share information about themselves.

Suggested reading on the topic

(1) Parncutt R. (2016). Prenatal development. In: McPherson G. (ed) The Child as Musician. The Handbook of Musical Development (pp. 3–30). Oxford University Press; Oxford.

(2) Woodward S.C. (2019). Fetal, neonatal, and early infant experiences of maternal singing. In: Welch G.F., Howard D.M., Nix J. (eds). The Oxford Handbook of Singing (pp. 431–453). Oxford University Press; Oxford.

(3) Stephens, G., Silbert, L., Hasson, U. (2010). Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 107 (32). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

(4) Pasupathi, M. & Rich, B. (2005). Inattentive Listening Undermines Self-Verification in Personal Storytelling. Journal of personality. 73. 1051-85. 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00338.x. 

(5) Derber, C. (2005). The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life (2nd ed). Oxford University Press Inc.