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Listening is the best trait that communicators can have

Blog posted by: Stephanie Hill, Acting Head of GCS Curriculum, Cabinet Office, 29 July 2022.

If someone has a different point of view than you, are you listening? Really listening? Are you doing other tasks while you are in a meeting – now all meetings are online – and not listening? I have been guilty of that. And sometimes when I hear someone who disagrees with me, I want to switch off.

Zoom call on laptop

This made me reflect on the past year. Because most of us were working at home, it was more challenging to listen and to be heard. How do you listen to ‘squares on a screen’? How do you find the right moment to talk? 

I’ve been reading and learning about developing listening skills and want to share my findings with you.

Listening can make you a better communicator

The first tip is to get ready to listen. 

When was the last time you thought about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes? When was the last time you got interested in an alternative point of view?

Try listening to someone you disagree with and see how you feel. 

Listening is the willingness to have your mind changed. It is challenging and not easy, and it is about empathy. The International Listening Association (ILA; 2012) defines listening as, “the process of receiving, constructing meaning from and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages”.

I learned about listening when I was a journalism student and learnt techniques such as nodding and looking at the person in the eyes when they spoke. It was hard to not say “ok,  hmm, I see” after each answer when recording for radio interviews, but after a while it became natural.

two people talking

Listening brings effective leadership

Listening is a critical skill for communicators that you can learn. Strong listening has been directly tied to effective leadership.

The Success profiles, a recruitment framework used within the Civil Service, mentions listening behaviour many times. Here are some examples from the Success Profiles framework: 

  • listen to alternative perspectives and needs, respond sensitively and check understanding where necessary.
  • Leadership: be considerate and understanding of other people’s points of view
  • Communicating and influencing:
    • listen and ask questions to ensure your understanding
    • handle challenging conversations with confidence and sensitivity
  • Working together: remain available and approachable to all colleagues and be receptive to new ideas

Activate your active listening skills

So how do you do that? Start by asking: “Is this a conversation where you want me to listen or is this a conversation where you want some suggestions?”. And get ready to listen. 

Use phrases like “tell me more,” “what else,” and, use silence. These are 3 powerful techniques explained by Oscar Trimboli, author and host of the podcast Deep Listening. In an interview, he talked about the following research.

“My favourite research was in 1993 in Ottawa, Canada, they discovered that if you breathed, you listened, they had 414 students paired off, and they had a little device connected to their fingers to measure their oxygen, their current O2 rate. And what they noticed is that people with a higher O2 rate were having more productive conversations, which was interesting. But what was the most interesting was, the most productive conversations, the O2 level was synchronised. So, people were literally breathing at the same rate. So, that was something for me”.

His top tips are:

  • to get ready to listen
  • remove electronic devices or put in flight mode
  • drink water, as a hydrated brain is a listening brain 
  • take 3 deep breaths

Training yourself to listen 

Consider the 5 strategies from this Business tutorial: effective listening actions:

  1. recall details
  2. understand the big picture
  3. evaluate content
  4. attune to subtle cues
  5. listen with empathy

Number 4 is interesting in regards to subtle cues. The trainers in this video highlight:

“ Listening is not just an auditory process. Much of the meaning of a message comes from the nonverbal cues a speaker gives us, facial expressions, body language, tone of voice. So are you good at noticing  and interpreting those body language signals?”

How do we do this now that we work from home and cameras are not always on? Are we listening better if we cannot see the person? Putting your hand up, virtually, to ask permission to speak is a recent feature of video conferencing. Does it help listen for the subtle clue for when is a good time to speak? Maybe discuss with your team how to improve your meetings. 

I have noticed that following some of these tips, I am listening better. 

Even at home, with my sons, I take care to look at them when they speak and not be in another room. At work, I close all other tabs, during a meeting so I am not distracted. I write my questions down for a suitable time to talk and I am interrupting less.

Develop good listening behaviours that will allow you to become a better listener and a better colleague and friend. Start at your next interaction. Keep in mind what Peter Drucker, who was a prolific author and influential thinker on management said:

“The most important part of communication is listening to what’s not said”.

Interested in training?

Search for the word ‘listening’ on the Civil Service Learning website or do one of our on-demand learning available:


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