Have you ever wondered why we have one mouth but two ears? According to the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, this is so we can listen twice as much as we speak. Let’s be honest though…do we always listen when someone is speaking to us? How effortless or demanding is it to listen? It is rather challenging to tune out all external ‘noises’ as well as any internal thoughts and judgements.

In a world full of stimulation through technology, listening has become far more challenging. We might very well be ‘hearing’, but it takes dexterity and focus to truly listen. Throughout our lifetime, so much time is spent mastering the technical career skills, but very little time is dedicated to enhancing crucial interpersonal skills, such as listening. And this is evident in the workplace where the elementary communication skills are lacking.

But listening is not all the same; it comes in a few different levels including:


This type of listening happens when you are ‘pretending to listen.’ You might be nodding and agreeing but you are not following or understanding the other person. Your thoughts are in a completely different place. The speaker might be telling you about their next work project and you are thinking about the movie you watched yesterday!


This is a common level of listening where although you are listening, you are also thinking about what you would like to say in response. Most of our daily conversations involve conversational listening where you are engaged and you split your time listening, thinking and talking.


This form of listening requires you to use more effort in listening and processing information. Listeners also speak less as they are actively seeking to understand the speaker’s message by recording facts and staying focused. During active listening, one clarifies through the use of questions, repeating and paraphrasing. Coaches regularly use active listening, ensuring they are focusing on the client.


This final category of listening requires a high level of skill and practice, which is also exercised by coaches. During deep listening, you are completely immersed in the speaker’s world. You get a true sense of who they are, what they are saying and also what they are ‘not’ saying. This requires a listener’s mind to be quiet and still such that total awareness is on the speaker.

On any given day, you might find yourself shifting from one level of listening to another which is absolutely normal. Like any other skill, listening requires effort, tenacity and practice. Here are a few useful tips for improvement:  

Pay attention. Give the speaker your undivided attention and let distracting thoughts go. Focus on being present.

Do not think about what to say while you are also listening. Your brain goes four times faster than a speaker’s voice, which would risk leaving the speaker behind. Trust that you will know how to respond when the speaker is done.

Learn the power of silence. Pauses can be very powerful so do not rush to fill any silence. You will get more information from what comes after the silence than the follow up question you were struggling with in your head.

Reflect back. Practice summarizing what the speaker said to ensure your understanding is correct.

Stay engaged. Ask questions to clarify, regularly indicate to the speaker that you are listening to them; this could include nodding or using short words to confirm you are in agreement.

Defer judgement. Personal assumptions and filters can distort what you hear. Listen to learn, instead of to judge.

As you consciously exercise your art of listening, celebrate the little improvements. Do not be discouraged if various distractions get in the way sometimes. After all, we were blessed with two ears and only one mouth as listening also requires double the effort!