5.5 Improving Listening Competence

Learning Objectives

  • Identify strategies for improving listening competence at each stage of the listening process.
  • Summarize the characteristics of active listening.
  • Describe empathetic listening skills.
  • Discuss ways to improve listening competence in relational, professional, and cultural contexts.

Many people admit that they could stand to improve their listening skills. In this section, we will learn strategies for developing and improving competence at each stage of the listening process. We will also define active listening and the behaviours that go along with it. Looking back to the types of listening discussed earlier, we will learn specific strategies for sharpening our critical and empathetic listening skills. In keeping with our focus on integrative learning, we will also apply the skills we have learned in academic, professional, and relational contexts and explore how culture and gender affect listening.

Listening Competence at Each Stage of the Listening Process

We can develop competence within each stage of the listening process, as the following list indicates:

To improve listening at the receiving stage:

    • prepare yourself to listen
    • discern between intentional messages and noise
    • concentrate on stimuli most relevant to your listening purpose(s) or goal(s)
    • be mindful of the selection and attention process as much as possible
    • pay attention to turn-taking signals so you can follow the conversational flow
    • avoid interrupting someone while they are speaking to maintain your ability to receive stimuli and listen

To improve listening at the interpreting stage:

    • identify main points and supporting points
    • use contextual clues from the person or environment to discern additional meaning
    • be aware of how a relational, cultural, or situational context can influence the meaning
    • be aware of the different meanings of silence
    • note differences in tone of voice and other paralinguistic cues that influence the meaning

To improve listening at the recalling stage:

    • use multiple sensory channels to decode messages and make more complete memories
    • repeat, rephrase, and reorganize information to fit your cognitive preferences
    • use mnemonic devices as a gimmick to help with recall

To improve listening at the evaluating stage:

    • separate opinions, facts, inferences, and judgments
    • be familiar with and able to identify persuasive strategies and fallacies of reasoning
    • assess the credibility of the speaker and the message
    • be aware of your own biases and how your perceptual filters can create barriers to effective listening

To improve listening at the responding stage:

    • ask appropriate clarifying and follow-up questions and paraphrase information to check to understand
    • give feedback that is relevant to the speaker’s purpose or motivation for speaking
    • adapt your response to the speaker and the context
    • do not let the preparation and rehearsal of your response diminish earlier stages of listening

(Ridge, 1993)

Active Listening

Active listening refers to pairing outwardly visible positive listening behaviours with positive cognitive listening practices. Active listening can help address many environmental, physical, cognitive, and personal barriers to effective listening that we discussed earlier. The behaviours associated with active listening can also enhance informational, critical, and empathetic listening.

Active Listening Can Help Overcome Barriers to Effective Listening

Being an active listener begins before you start receiving a message. Active listeners make strategic choices and take action to set up ideal listening conditions. Physical and environmental noises can often be managed by moving locations or manipulating lighting, temperature, or furniture. When possible, avoid important listening activities during distracting psychological or physiologic noise. For example, we often know when we will be hungry, full, more awake, less awake, more anxious, or less anxious, and planning can alleviate these barriers. Knowing when you best listen can help you make strategic choices regarding which class to take and at what time. Of course, you do not always have control over your academic schedule, so you must utilize other effective listening strategies.
In the last section, we explored poor listening habits, including pseudo-listening, where we pretend to listen but do not listen.

Watch: The Big Bang Theory Active Listening

Note the transition from passive to active listening in this video. But is the woman empathizing or supporting, or is she engaging in pseudo-listening? How can you tell?

Video Transcript (see Appendix B 5.5.1)

Active Listening Behaviours

From the suggestions discussed, we can prepare for active listening in advance and engage in specific cognitive strategies to help us listen better. We also engage in active listening behaviours as we receive and process messages.

Eye contact is a crucial sign of active listening. Speakers usually interpret a listener’s eye contact as a signal of attentiveness. While a lack of eye contact may indicate inattentiveness, it can signal cognitive processing. We usually do it unconsciously when we look away to process new information. Be aware, however, that your conversational partner may interpret this as not listening. If you do need to take a moment to think about something, you could indicate that to the other person by saying, “That is new information to me. Give me just a second to think through it.” We have already learned the role that back-channel cues play in listening. An occasional head nod and “uh-huh” signals that you are paying attention. However, when we give these cues as a form of “autopilot” listening, others can usually tell we are pseudo-listening. Whether they call us on it or not, that impression could lead to negative judgments.

A more direct way to indicate active listening is to reference previous statements made by the speaker. Norms of politeness usually call on us to reference a past statement or connect to the speaker’s current thought before starting a conversational turn. Summarizing what someone said to ensure that the topic has been satisfactorily covered and understood, or segueing in a way that validates what the previous speaker said, helps regulate conversational flow. Asking probing questions is another way to directly indicate listening and to keep a conversation going since they encourage and invite a person to speak more. You can also ask questions that seek clarification and not just elaboration. Speakers should present complex information at a slower speaking rate than familiar information, but many will not. Remember that your nonverbal feedback can be helpful for a speaker, as it signals that you are listening and whether you understand. If a speaker fails to read your nonverbal feedback, you may need to follow up with verbal communication through paraphrased messages and clarifying questions.

As active listeners, we want to be excited and engaged but not let excitement manifest itself in interruptions. Being an active listener means knowing when to maintain our role as listeners and resisting the urge to take a conversational turn. Research shows that people with higher social status are more likely to interrupt others, so keep this in mind and be prepared for it if you are speaking to a high-status person or try to resist it if you are the high-status person in an interaction (Hargie, 2011).

Watch: Improve Your Listening Skills

As you watch this video, carefully consider the listening skills you can improve upon from personal and professional contexts.


Video Transcript (see Appendix B 5.5.2)


Image of a man taking notes in a notebook.
Figure 5.5.1. Good note-taking skills allow listeners to stay engaged with a message and aid in the recall of information.  Image of a man taking notes in a notebook.

Note-taking can also indicate active listening. Translating information through writing into our cognitive structures and schemata allows us to interpret and assimilate information better. Of course, note-taking is not always a viable option. Taking notes during a first date or a casual exchange between new coworkers would be fairly awkward. But in some situations where we would not normally consider taking notes, a little awkwardness might be worth it to understand and recall the information. For example, many people do not think about taking notes when getting information from a health professional. Students could be invited to take notes during informal meetings because they sometimes do not think about it or do not think it is appropriate. But many people would rather have someone jot down notes instead of having to respond to follow-up questions on information that was already clearly conveyed. To help facilitate your note-taking, you might ask, “Do you mind if I jot down some notes? This seems important.”

In summary, active listening is exhibited through verbal techniques such as summarizing, clarification, probing and paraphrasing, and nonverbal cues including steady eye contact with the speaker, smiling, slightly raised eyebrows, upright posture, body position that is leaned in toward the speaker, nonverbal back-channel cues such as head nods, verbal back-channel cues such as “OK,”  or “oh,” and a lack of distracting mannerisms like doodling or fidgeting (Hargie, 2011).

Becoming a Better Critical Listener

Critical listening involves evaluating a speaker’s message’s credibility, completeness, and worth.  Critical listening is also important in a democracy that values free speech. North American and Western European citizens have the right to free speech, which many people duly protect. Since people can say just about anything they want, we are surrounded by countless messages that vary tremendously regarding their value, degree of ethics, accuracy, and quality. Therefore, we must responsibly and critically evaluate the messages we receive. Intentionally misleading people produce some messages that are ill-informed or motivated by the potential for personal gain. Still, such messages can be received as honest, credible, or altruistic even when they are not. Evaluating messages critically helps us have more control over and awareness of the influence such people may have on us. To critically evaluate messages, we must enhance our critical-listening skills.

Some critical-listening skills include distinguishing between facts and inferences, evaluating supporting evidence, discovering your own biases, and listening beyond the message. We noted earlier that part of being an ethical communicator is being accountable for what we say by distinguishing between facts and inferences (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990). This ideal is not always met in practice, so a critical listener should make these distinctions since the speaker may not. Since facts are widely agreed-on conclusions, they can be verified through extra research. Take care in your research to note the context from which the fact emerged, as speakers may take a statistic or quote out of context, distorting its meaning. Inferences are not as easy to evaluate because they are based on unverifiable thoughts of a speaker or speculation. Inferences are usually based at least partially on something known, so evaluating whether an inference was made carefully is possible. In this sense, you may evaluate an inference based on several known facts as more credible than an inference based on one fact and more speculation. Asking a question like “What led you to think this?” is an excellent way to get the information needed to evaluate the strength of inference.

Distinguishing among facts and inferences and evaluating the credibility of supporting material are critical-listening skills that also require good informational-listening skills. Speakers may cite published or publicly available sources to support their messages in more formal speaking situations. When speakers verbally cite their sources, you can use the source’s credibility to help evaluate the credibility of the speaker’s message. For example, a national newspaper would likely be more credible on a major national event than a tabloid magazine or an anonymous blog. In regular interactions, people also have sources for their information but are not as likely to note them within their message. Questions like “Where did you hear that?” or “How do you know that?” can help get the information needed for critical evaluations. You can look to future chapters to learn more about persuasive strategies and how to evaluate the strength of arguments.

Discovering your biases can help you recognize when they interfere with your ability to process a message fully. Unfortunately, most people are not asked to reflect critically on their identities and perspectives unless they are in post-secondary settings. Even those who were once critically reflective in post-secondary or elsewhere may no longer be so. Biases are also challenging to discover because we do not see them as biases; we see them as normal or “the way things are.” Asking yourself, “What led you to think this?” and “How do you know that?” can be a good start toward acknowledging your biases.

Last, to be a better critical listener, think beyond the message. An excellent critical listener asks what is being said and what is not being said. In whose interests are these claims being made? Whose voices or ideas are included and excluded? These questions consider that speakers intentionally and unintentionally slant, edit, or twist messages to make them fit particular perspectives or for personal gain. Also, ask yourself questions like “What are the speaker’s goals?” You can also rephrase that question and direct it toward the speaker, asking them, “What is your goal in this interaction?” When nearing an evaluation or conclusion, pause and ask yourself what influenced you.  Also, check your emotional involvement to know how it may influence your evaluation. Also, be aware that how likable, attractive, or friendly you think a person is may also lead you to evaluate his or her messages.

Becoming a Better Empathetic Listener

Empathy is considered an essential component of the therapeutic relationship. This involves feeling with them rather than for them. In understanding the purpose and goals of the therapeutic relationship, an empathetic approach facilitates a nuanced understanding of your clients’ lived experiences. It thus can help guide your plan of care.


  • Why do you think empathy is more effective than sympathy?
  • Why does sympathy “not work”?

As you will recall from section 5.1, empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, appreciating, and connecting with the experiences, circumstances, and feelings of others. It involves using strategies to share understanding and connect with another person. While sympathy is commiserating with someone else’s feelings or struggles so that whatever affects one person will affect the other. It involves a shared mental state instead of developing an understanding.
Developing empathy is a skill that will allow you to consider another person’s perspectives, experiences, and feelings, or their struggles and challenges. Empathy helps you equip yourself with strategies to effectively communicate this understanding of people around you. One of the key elements of empathy is the link between considering what one person is going through and reflecting on that coming from a place of understanding. You do not need to be an expert communicator to use empathy, but this does not come without challenges, as you will find out next.

Watch the following short video explaining the difference between sympathy and empathy and how it works on a personal level. Before you watch, think about a time when you needed support and understanding from another person. Can you remember what they said? What effect did that have?

Watch: Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care

As you watch the following video, reflect on the often invisible needs of those around us and the difference we can make by creating caring human connections.

Video Transcript (see Appendix B 5.5.3)

Compassion and empathy must also be distinguished conceptually. Like empathy, compassion is evoked by the experiences and suffering of others; however, a compassionate response typically involves action or commitment to not turn away. When healthcare professionals demonstrate compassion, they enter a client’s suffering and commit to doing something about it. In other words, empathy gives rise to the response of compassion (Cooper, 2001). Importantly, empathy and compassion must be expressed without judgment and require setting aside perceptions of what it might be like for you. As such, it takes relational skills to feel with others yet maintain the objective approach necessary for alleviating the suffering of those you care for.

A prominent scholar of empathetic listening describes it this way: “Empathetic listening is to be respectful of the dignity of others. Empathetic listening is a caring, a love of the wisdom to be found in others, whoever they may be” (Bruneau, 1993).  This quote conveys that empathetic listening is more philosophical than the other types of listening. We must be open to subjectivity and engage in it because we genuinely see it as worthwhile.

Combining active and empathetic listening leads to active–empathetic listening. During active-empathetic listening, a listener becomes actively and emotionally involved in an interaction so that it is conscious and perceived by the speaker (Bodie, 2011, p. 278). To be a better empathetic listener, we need to suspend or at least attempt to suppress our judgment of the other person or their message so we can fully attend to both. Paraphrasing is integral to empathetic listening because it helps us put the other person’s words into our frame of experience without making it about us. In addition, speaking someone else’s words in our way can help evoke within us the feeling that the other person felt while saying them (Bodie, 2011, p. 278). Active-empathetic listening is more than echoing back verbal messages. We can also engage in mirroring, which refers to a listener’s replication of the nonverbal signals of a speaker (Bruneau, 1993, p. 194). Health professionals, for example, are often taught to adopt a posture and tone similar to their clients to build rapport and project empathy.

Paraphrasing and questioning are valuable techniques for empathetic listening because they allow us to respond to a speaker without taking “the floor,” or the attention, away for long. Specifically, questions that ask for elaboration act as “verbal door openers,” inviting someone to speak more and validating their speech through active listening cues can help a person feel listened to (Hargie, 2011). Paraphrasing and asking questions is also helpful when we feel tempted to share our stories and experiences rather than maintain our listening role. These questions are not intended to solicit more information so that we can guide or direct the speaker toward a specific course of action. Although it is easier for us to slip into an advisory mode, saying things like “Well, if I were you, I would … ”, we must resist the temptation to give unsolicited advice.

Empathetic listening can be worthwhile, but it also brings challenges. In terms of costs, empathetic listening can use up time and effort. Since this type of listening can not be contained within a proscribed time frame, it may be challenging for time-oriented listeners (Bruneau, 1993, p. 194). Empathetic listening can also test our endurance, as its orientation toward and focus on supporting the other requires the processing and integrating a lot of verbal and nonverbal information. Because of this potential strain, you must know your limits as an empathetic listener. While listening can be therapeutic, it is not appropriate for people without training and preparation to try to serve as a therapist. Some people have chronic issues requiring professional listening for evaluation, diagnosis, and therapy. Lending an ear is different from diagnosing and treating. If you have a friend exhibiting signs of a more serious issue that needs attention, listen to the extent that you feel comfortable. Then, be prepared to provide referrals to other resources who have had the training to help. To face these challenges, good empathetic listeners typically have a generally positive self-concept and self-esteem, are nonverbally sensitive and expressive, and are comfortable with embracing another person’s subjectivity and refraining from too much analytic thought.

Becoming a Better Contextual Listener

Active, critical, and empathetic listening skills can be helpful in various contexts. Understanding the role that listening plays in professional, relational, cultural, and gendered contexts can help us more competently apply these skills. Whether listening to or evaluating messages from a supervisor, parent, or intercultural conversational partner, we have much to gain or lose based on our ability to apply listening skills and knowledge in various contexts.

Listening in Relational Contexts

Listening is central to establishing and maintaining relationships (Nelson-Jones, 2006, pp. 37–38). Without some listening competence, we would be unable to self-disclose, which is essential for establishing relationships. Newly acquainted people get to know each other through increasingly personal and reciprocal disclosures of personal information. To reciprocate a conversational partner’s disclosure, we must process it through listening. Once relationships are formed, listening to others provides a psychological reward through the simple act of recognition that helps maintain our relationships. Listening to our relational partners, we are taking an interest in their lives and are willing to put our own needs and concerns aside for a moment to attend to them. Listening is also closely tied to conflict, as a lack of listening often plays a significant role in creating conflict, while effective listening helps us resolve it. Being listened to in return is part of the give-and-take of any interpersonal relationship.

Listening and Culture

Some cultures place more importance on listening than other cultures. In general, collectivistic cultures tend to value listening more than individualistic cultures that are more speaker oriented. The value placed on verbal and nonverbal meaning varies by culture and influences how we communicate and listen. A low-context communication style is one in which much of the meaning generated within an interaction comes from verbal communication rather than nonverbal or contextual cues. Conversely, much of the meaning generated by a high-context communication style comes from nonverbal and contextual cues (Lustig & Koester, 2006). For example, Canadians of European descent generally use a low-context communication style, while people in East Asian and Latin American cultures use a high-context communication style.

Contextual communication styles affect listening in many ways. Cultures with a high-context orientation generally use less verbal communication and value silence as a form of communication, which requires listeners to pay close attention to nonverbal signals and consider contextual influences on a message. Cultures with a low-context orientation must use more verbal communication and provide explicit details since listeners are not expected to derive meaning from the context. Note that people from low-context cultures may feel frustrated by the ambiguity of speakers from high-context cultures. In contrast, speakers from high-context cultures may feel overwhelmed or even insulted by the level of detail used by low-context communicators. Cultures with a low-context communication style also tend to have a monochronic orientation toward time, while high-context cultures have a polychronic time orientation, which also affects listening.

Cultures that favour a structured and commodified orientation toward time are said to be monochronic, while cultures that favour a more flexible orientation are polychronic. Monochronic cultures such as Canada value time and action-oriented listening styles, especially in professional contexts, because time is a scarce commodity and must be managed (McCornack, 2007). This is evidenced by leaders in businesses and organizations who often request “executive summaries” that only focus on the most relevant information and who use statements like “Get to the point.” Polychronic cultures value people and content-oriented listening styles, which makes sense when we consider that polychronic cultures tend to be more collectivistic and use a high-context communication style. In collectivistic cultures, indirect communication is preferred, whereas direct communication threatens the other person’s “face” (desired public image). For example, flatly turning down a business offer would be too direct, so a person might reply with a “maybe” instead of a “no.” The person proposing, however, could draw on contextual clues that they implicitly learned through socialization to interpret the “maybe” as a “no.”

Key Takeaways

  • Improving listening competence begins at the receiving stage by preparing yourself to listen and distinguishing between intentional messages and noise; at the interpreting stage by identifying main points and supporting points and considering multiple contexts; at the recalling stage by creating memories using multiple senses and repeating, rephrasing, and reorganizing messages to fit cognitive preferences; at the evaluating stage by separating facts from inferences and assessing the credibility of the speaker’s message; and at the responding stage by asking appropriate questions, offering paraphrased messages, and adapting your response to the speaker and the situation.
  • Active listening pairs outwardly visible positive listening behaviours with positive cognitive listening practices. It is characterized by mentally preparing yourself to listen, focusing on concentration, using appropriate verbal and nonverbal back-channel cues to signal attentiveness, and engaging in strategies such as note-taking and mentally reorganizing information to help recall.
  • To apply critical-listening skills in multiple contexts, we must be able to distinguish between facts and inferences, evaluate a speaker’s supporting evidence, discover our own biases, and think beyond the message.
  • To practice empathetic listening skills, we must be able to support others’ subjective experiences; temporarily set aside our own needs to focus on the other person; encourage elaboration through active listening and questioning; avoid the temptation to tell our own stories or give advice; effectively mirror the nonverbal communication of others; and acknowledge our limits as empathetic listeners.
  • Different listening strategies may need to be applied in different listening contexts.

    • Listening is considered a necessary skill in professional contexts, but most people do not receive explicit instruction. Members of an organization should consciously create a listening environment that promotes and rewards competent listening behaviours.
    • In relational contexts, listening plays a central role in initiating relationships, as listening is required for mutual self-disclosure and maintaining relationships. Listening to our relational partners provides a psychological reward in the form of recognition. When people aren’t or don’t feel listened to, they may experience feelings of isolation or loneliness that can negatively affect their lives.
    • In cultural contexts, high- or low-context communication styles, monochronic or polychronic orientations toward time, and individualistic or collectivistic cultural values affect listening preferences and behaviours.


  1. Watch the following video (5 ways to listen better) and reflect on what you learned and how you can apply this to your professional practice area.

Watch: 5 Ways to Listen Better

Video Transcript (see Appendix B 5.5.4)


Bodie, G. D. (2011). The active-empathetic listening scale (AELS): Conceptualization and evidence of validity within the interpersonal domain. Communication Quarterly, 59(3), 277–295. https://doi.org/10.1080/01463373.2011.583495

Bruneau, T. (1993). Empathy and listening. In A. D. Wolvin & C. G. Coakley (Eds.), Perspectives on listening. Alex Publishing.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. Routledge.

Hayakawa, S. I., & Hayakawa, A. R. (1990). Language in thought and action (5th ed.). Harcourt Brace.

Lustig, M. W., & Koester, J. (2006).  Intercultural competence: Interpersonal communication across cultures (5th ed.). Pearson.

McCornack, S. (2007). Reflect and relate: An introduction to interpersonal communication. Bedford/St Martin’s.

Nelson-Jones, R. (2006). Human relationship skills (4th ed.). Routledge.

Nichols, M. P. (1995). The lost art of listening. Guilford Press.

Ridge, A. (1993). A perspective of listening skills. In A. D. Wolvin & C. G. Coakley (Eds.), Perspectives on listening. Alex Publishing.

Image Attributions

Figure 5.5.1. In Communication in the real world. https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/

Media Attributions

Insight Out Studio. (2021, July 22). The Big Bang Theory active listening [Video]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fzs5zWrgRjU

MindToolsVideos. (2015, June 12). Improve your listening skills with active listening [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2z9mdX1j4A

Cleveland Clinic. (2013, February 27). Empathy: The human connection to patient care. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDDWvj_q-o8

Treasure, J. (2011, July 29). 5 ways to listen better [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSohjlYQI2A&t=3s

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:

University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. (2013). Communication in the real world [Adapted]. https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/

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Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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