Art of Listening

In today’s fast-paced world, effective communication is more important than ever. And at the heart of effective communication lies the often-overlooked skill of listening. But what does it mean to be a great listener? Is it simply about staying silent while others speak and nodding along? According to recent research, the answer is far from that. In this article, we will explore the surprising qualities and behaviors that make someone a great listener. From asking insightful questions to creating a safe and supportive environment, we will uncover the true art of active listening.

The Myth of Silent Listening

Many of us believe that being a good listener means staying quiet and letting others do the talking. We assume that by nodding and making occasional affirming sounds, we are demonstrating our attentiveness. However, recent studies challenge this notion. According to a survey conducted by Zenger and Folkman (2016), the most effective listeners are those who actively engage in the conversation, asking questions that promote discovery and insight. Rather than being passive recipients of information, they challenge assumptions and encourage a two-way dialog.

The Power of Asking Questions

One of the key characteristics of great listeners is their ability to ask thought-provoking questions. These questions not only show that they have heard what was said but also demonstrate their genuine interest in understanding the speaker’s perspective. By gently challenging assumptions, great listeners create an environment that encourages open and constructive dialogue. They don’t just accept information at face value; they seek to uncover deeper insights and promote discovery.

“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.” – Zenger and Folkman (2016)

Building Self-Esteem Through Listening

Another surprising finding from the research is that great listeners have the ability to build the self-esteem of the person they are listening to. Instead of being passive or critical, they create a positive and supportive experience for the speaker. By conveying confidence and support, they make the other person feel valued and understood. This is a crucial aspect of effective listening, as it creates a safe space for discussing difficult or sensitive topics.

“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!).” – Zenger and Folkman (2016)

The Cooperative Conversation

Listening is not a one-way street; it is a cooperative conversation. Great listeners understand this and ensure that feedback flows smoothly in both directions. They are not defensive about the comments made by the speaker; instead, they seek to understand and validate their perspective. Unlike poor listeners who listen only to identify errors and prepare their next response, great listeners focus on helping rather than winning an argument. They challenge assumptions and offer suggestions in a way that is constructive and supportive.

“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.” – Zenger and Folkman (2016)

The Art of Making Suggestions

Contrary to popular belief, great listeners do not shy away from making suggestions. However, the key lies in how these suggestions are made. Rather than jumping in and trying to solve the problem without fully understanding the speaker’s perspective, great listeners provide feedback in a way that is accepted and opens up alternative paths for consideration. This finding challenges the notion that making suggestions is inherently problematic. Instead, it suggests that the skill with which suggestions are made is what truly matters.

“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.” – Zenger and Folkman (2016)

The Trampoline Effect

While many of us have believed that being a good listener means passively absorbing information, the research reveals a different perspective. Great listeners are more like trampolines than sponges. They don’t just absorb ideas and energy; they amplify, energize, and clarify the speaker’s thinking. They actively support and engage with the speaker, providing them with the energy and height to explore new ideas and perspectives.

“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.” – Zenger and Folkman (2016)

The Levels of Listening

Listening is not a one-size-fits-all skill. Different conversations require different levels of listening. Zenger and Folkman (2016) propose six levels of listening, each building upon the previous one:

Level 1: Creating a Safe Environment

At this level, the listener creates a safe space for discussing difficult, complex, or emotional issues. They establish trust and make the speaker feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings.

Level 2: Focusing Attention

The listener clears away distractions and gives their undivided attention to the speaker. They make appropriate eye contact and actively engage in the conversation.

Level 3: Seeking Understanding

The listener seeks to understand the substance of what the speaker is saying. They capture ideas, ask questions, and restate issues to confirm their understanding.

Level 4: Observing Nonverbal Cues

Listening goes beyond just hearing words; it involves paying attention to nonverbal cues. Great listeners observe facial expressions, gestures, and posture to gain a deeper understanding of the speaker’s message.

Level 5: Understanding Emotions

Effective listeners go beyond understanding the content of the conversation; they also seek to understand the speaker’s emotions and feelings about the topic at hand. They validate and empathize with these emotions in a supportive and nonjudgmental way.

Level 6: Challenging Assumptions

At the highest level of listening, the listener asks questions that challenge the assumptions held by the speaker. They help the speaker see the issue in a new light by injecting their own thoughts and ideas, all while ensuring that the conversation remains focused on the speaker’s needs.


Being a great listener is not just about staying silent or nodding along. It is an active and engaging process that involves asking insightful questions, creating a supportive environment, and providing constructive feedback. By mastering the art of active listening, we can enhance our communication skills and build stronger relationships. So, the next time you find yourself in a conversation, remember to be a trampoline for the speaker, amplifying their ideas and energizing their thinking.

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