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How to Listen Attentively

June 27, 2012 by Dr. Jon Warner in Listening

How to Listen Attentively

Listening often plays a vital role in our lives as a whole but it may have a more tangible and short-term impact in our working world even more often. At work, listening is important to our job performance (individually and at team level) and to the overall quality of our efforts. If we fail to hear instructions correctly we can cause loss of time and money (and perhaps frustrate our colleagues). If we fail to listen to clients’ complaints our organization could lose business.

As an attentive listener you learn to hear what people are really saying. But attentive listening requires a lot of energy—we need to really hear the speaker, select information appropriately, interpret the information accurately and respond positively—and all in just a few seconds.

We may all aspire to be attentive listeners but often we fail in practice. It is more than just trying to look interested in what the other person is saying. It is really hearing what people are saying, carefully watching their facial expressions, seeing their small hesitations or micro body movements (often in eyes, hands and even the feet) and responding to what has been said without immediately moving the conversation back to ourselves.

Most of us think of listening as a passive activity where we quietly and acquiescently simply take in or absorb the information sent by others. But good listeners are good at concentrating on the whole communication process (both their own and the other persons). Hence, at a simple level, good or active listeners are good concentrators who are able to not just take in information (verbal and non-verbal) but focus on what should ideally be said in response to what is heard. If this is the case then, we need to teach ourselves how to concentrate more effectively—this is what we mean by Attentive listening.

What is involved in the Attentive listening process?

When a sender encodes his or her ideas or thoughts into some form and transmits this as a message, the receiver must perceive the message and accurately decode it so that an understanding of the message is achieved. The receiver then ideally tells the sender that the message has been received and understood through feedback. Effective listening consequently requires being both attentive and “active” at all these stages, showing understanding, acknowledging the other person, being sensitive and concentrating. It means having an open and positive attitude. The diagram below describes this process more fully:

Attentive Listening Process Diagram

In summary then, listening as an attentive process involves:

  • being motivated and wanting to listen
  • paying attention, being aware and interested in understanding the other person
  • taking into account the whole message, including attitudes, values and feelings as well as the words
  • sharing responsibility for communication with the speaker (though the use of careful feedback wherever necessary)
  • using learned skills i.e. “how to listen”—usually displayed through positive body language and active summarizing or paraphrasing

As a listener you also need to be consciously ready to listen (or as we said earlier to concentrate) in order to share in the communication process. Generally, people choose to listen to messages that are important, interesting, communicated by a person they like or respect, or they feel like listening to. People also like to listen to messages that are about matters they have listened to in the past.

Paying careful attention to the speaker will show that you have a positive attitude to listening. Attentive listeners need to therefore set aside their ego to focus on the speaker rather than on themselves. They should not fake attention by being physically present but not really following the information being conveyed.

Rehearsing what you might say next or even daydreaming is another form of private escape and a barrier to effective listening. An attentive listener should indicate that he or she wants to be involved in the communication process by focusing on the speaker’s message as it unfolds. Ultimately then, the attentive listener continually shows his or her interest in the feelings and opinions of the speaker, as well as the words that the speaker is using.

The rewards for developing attentive listening skills include: getting more accurate information, gaining a better understanding of others, facilitating a mutual exchange of information, better problem-solving and better decision-making. It is also the key to enhancing relationships. This is quite a list for those people who are prepared to invest in developing this critical skill.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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