Are you a good listener?

Robbie Steinhouse, head of training, NLP School

Listening is a much overlooked skill.  Learning how to do it well is a key part of coach training – but we all need to be good at it, at work and at home.  Here are ten top tips on how to develop that expertise:

1. Understand that listening is a skill.  Like singing, everyone thinks they can listen – we’ve got ears, haven’t we? – but the good listener knows that it is a skill that has to be learnt and mastered.

2. Listen with your eyes as well.  Good listening is also about noticing the gestures and facial expressions that go along with what is being said.

3. Establish rapport.  Subtle copying of the other person’s gestures, pace, voice tone and language-use is not mimicry, but a way of ‘getting into step’ with them.  Watch a great one-to-one communicator at work, and see how they do this automatically.

4. Take the pace from the other person, then change it if you need to. If someone is very energetic, rise to their energy level then calm things down.  If they are sad or depleted, slow down and gradually build things up. Trying to set a pace first will create barriers.

5. Spot hot topics. Gestures and expressions will often tell you what topics the other person really cares about. Note these.

6. Let the other person lead. In ordinary conversation, the lead tends to change from one participant to the other, then back again (and so on), a bit like a tennis match. Good listeners allow the other person to lead, and restrain their desire to but in. When they do intervene, it is to learn more about what the other person is talking about, not to change the subject or interject something about themselves.

7. Ask open questions. Closed questions aim for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer; open ones invite the other person to expand on what they have just said. Ask what, where, when, how, who, why… Be careful with the last of these: in the UK, ‘Why?’ can be seen as confrontational. When you ask ‘Why?’, make sure the other person doesn’t get this negative message.

8. Nod. It sounds a bit silly – jokes about Toytown and Big Ears come to mind – but a well-placed nod in the middle of a narrative reminds the other person that you are listening.

9. Keep checking you are on track. If someone is explaining something, you need to know, and they need to know, that you are taking it all in correctly.  Don’t guess: from time to time summarize what they have said and ask if that is what they really mean. “So, what you’re saying is…  Am I right?”

10. Have empathy.  Using the skills above makes one a good, ‘active’ listener. Now go one better than that. Empathic listening is the ideal: listening with genuine curiosity and positive regard for another human being. 

Robbie Steinhouse is head of training at NLP School, <>  .  His most recent book, How to Coach with NLP, is published by Prentice Hall at £14.99 (available on amazon at


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