The 5 Fundamentals of Effective Listening

listeningThink of the best boss you’ve ever had. What was it about that person that made him or her your best boss? Did you trust them? Probably. Did they care about you? Very likely. Was he or she a great listener? Almost certainly.

Listening is one of the most underrated and unappreciated leadership skills. Many leaders don’t put any intentional effort into how they listen to their people. They just assume “it happens.” I mean, come on, right? You have ears…the other person talks…you listen…then reply with what you want to say because usually that’s more important than what the other person has to say anyway, right? Wrong.

Being an effective listener is one of the quickest ways to build trust with your people. People trust leaders who take the time to hear their ideas and empathize with their concerns. It’s also one of the best opportunities to learn what’s going on in your business and influence the activities of your team members. You can’t know what’s happening on the front lines unless you ask questions and listen to the responses.

Becoming a good listener doesn’t happen by accident. It takes time and effort to listen effectively, and in order to become a great listener, you have to practice the five fundamentals of listening.

The Five Fundamentals of Effective Listening

1. Attending to Nonverbal Behaviors – Your nonverbal behaviors tell the speaker you are either interested and comprehending what is being said or you are disinterested and would rather be somewhere else. Are you smiling and nodding in understanding or are you yawning, scowling, or staring the person down? Is your body position leaning in to the conversation to show you are engaged or are you leaning back with your arms folded indicating you’re feeling defensive? Your body language should communicate “Go ahead, I care, I’m listening.”

2. Asking Questions – The best leaders ask questions – lots of them. But not all questions are created equal and different types of questions serve different purposes. Open-ended questions encourage the speaker to share more information and go deeper in the conversation. Clarifying questions help you understand the full context of what is being shared whereas prompting questions encourage the speaker to reflect deeper on their own thoughts. Close-ended questions allow you to limit the conversation or find out specific information and leading questions allow you to bring the conversation to a close.

3. Reflecting Feelings – Reflecting feelings is the skill of capturing the speaker’s feelings and restating them in nonjudgmental terms. It demonstrates to the speaker that you are aware of the emotion behind the content of what is being shared. Using phrases such as “It sounds like you’re really _______” (frustrated, angry, sad, etc.) or “I can sense your _______ (apprehension, anxiety, pride, etc.)” indicates you are empathizing with the speaker which allows him/her to trust you more and share more information.

4. Paraphrasing – Paraphrasing demonstrates that you heard and understand what was being shared. The basics of paraphrasing include restating key words or phrases, following the speaker’s sequence, listening to understand, and showing empathy. You don’t want to robotically repeat what the speaker said verbatim, twist the speaker’s words, or prejudge the situation.

5. Summarizing – Summarizing is the skill of being able to concisely recap what the speaker said over a longer period of time. The exact words aren’t as important as capturing the key ideas, feelings, or action items that were shared. It can help to take notes, summarize periodically throughout the conversation, and to follow the order and sequence of information shared by the speaker. Don’t act like a parrot and repeat the exact words shared or add your own conclusions to the summary.

These five fundamentals may seem like no-brainers, but the truth is that most leaders don’t do them very well, or even at all. Just like a professional athlete continuously practices the fundamentals of his/her sport, leaders should continually practice these fundamentals of listening.

37 Comments on “The 5 Fundamentals of Effective Listening

  1. I enjoyed this article. Personally, I only use paraphrasing if I am not sure that I understood the other person correctly. The reason is, that they could easily feel their intellect being insulted (at least that is what I tend to feel if somebody does this too often). Nobody can fake body language for longer than a few seconds so it is worth watching it to find out if our speech is boring or annoying to the other person. The bosses I liked the most were the competent ones. Competent in the field we were working together. Competence prevents people from being difficult since they have nothing to hide or to fake. Have a wonderful week.

    • Hi Brigitte! Paraphrasing is a great technique to make sure you understand what was communicated and it’s honoring to the speaker because they can see you were truly listening and comprehending what they said.

      Have a great week!


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  3. I completely agree, attending to the non-verbal behaviours is so important in our communications and an aspect that can easily be overlooked and undervalued. Understanding these behaviours when we communicate with people of different cultures, often requires another skill set that we need to be aware of. A great article – thank you.

    • Thanks for your feedback! We should never underestimate how much is communicated via body language.

      Take care,


  4. Excellent article and a reminder of a key skill we all need to master!

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  8. Great article. one thing most leaders fail to realize is that ,theyare there because of the people and therefore they should help them overcome any issues they are facing. They might not be able to solve all their problems but just giving a listening ear is enough and encouraging. Make them know – YOU CARE.

  9. Great points, Randy! I’ll add two more fundamentals: validating and empathizing.

    In addition to recognizing feelings, validating signals that you understand the cause of the feelings. And empathy helps to legitimize them and instill deeper alignment.

    Also, I echo your sentiment that “dialogue” can often just be a series of “monologues.” As a group facilitator, one of my primary directives is to foster the former — not always the easiest task. (I recently wrote a post about the “talking stick,” its limitations and a simple tool that might help. Would love your thoughts. )

    • Those are excellent additions Rich. I agree with the importance of validating what’s being communicating and the role empathy has in establishing rapport and understanding.

      Thanks for adding your insights!


  10. It is sad that few organisations teach listening skills as a formal part of development programmes.
    Beyond the well documented body language element is a fundamental and little shared aspect of wider “listening” – that of facial expression. For a true in-depth view of this phenomenon, the finest reach to date is represented by Paul Ekman and Erika L. Rosenberg in their publication “What the Face Reveals” (ISBN 0-19-517963-1).

    • Good point John. Facial expressions can work for or against you when communicating and it’s important to be cognizant of how you “look” to others.


  11. This was an excellent read and I think it should be used in our daily lives for ALL our relationships not just at work.

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  13. I don’t think you need to know / practice these fundamentals to be a good active listener. If you really care, and you are interested in your people, you will want to listen, and these things (esp body language) will happen naturally

    • Thanks for your comments Brian. That may be true for some people are naturally gifted at being good listeners and there are also some folks who aren’t as strong in this skill and need to know the fundamentals.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion.


  14. I think the five points selected make a great deal of sense. I believe he has left out the most important skill of listening well and steer the conversation to achieve the highest good from the session. If we only listen and reflect back without a higher goal in mind – we might not achieve what we are here to do as teachers. Listening on eight levels is a minimum I would suggest incorporating into your existing format – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual realities as expressed or shaped through economics of our day, the ethics of our day, the energy component both human and other, and the health aspects of each of the interrogations in order to draw a full picture of what was exchanged – some even use mind maps for the purpose of encouraging different forms of listening – skills not taught as a matter of the general education process. duality does that. – so all listening must move outside duality so that we more fully understand each other. this is the kind of educational thinking that the homeplanet virtual university will be using – and your five points are a great starting point.

  15. In resisting the urge to ‘half listen’ by thinking of a response at the same time someone is speaking, I have always found it reassuring to remember that the speed of thinking is so much faster than the speed of speaking. We have adequate time to absorb and evaluate what’s being said before formulating a response.

  16. Thanks for the article. Some enlightened organisations teach ‘listening’ skills. It starts by being present – being with (your step 1), with appreciation and in our experience ‘powerful listening’ can transform the speaker. Being truly heard is not only healing but it unlocks a deeper ‘intelligence’, an intelligence directed by intuition/gut. Thanks for your contribution.

  17. I realize that you look at this topic pragmatically and from a managerial point of view. The truth, however, is that “genuine listening” is a forgotten art that few people practice nowadays and fewer people know how to teach. It starts with the ability to reach the state of calm-open-curious, first statically and then dynamically. In that state, a person is much more open to his own conflicting thoughts, feelings, and internal voices. As we pay more attention to voices inside and resolve deep conflicts, we become more receptive to difficult voices from outside.

  18. As school children we are taught to read,speak and write.but are not taught to learn to listen which I feel is a more important aspect especially of leadership.Why doesn’t the curriculum include this ? I enjoyed reading this article.Thanks and regards

  19. I feel that a faculty feels that if you are a good reader or speaker you are automatically a good listener. !!

  20. A very good article on one of the most important quality required of a person leading a team, to which little attention is paid or even paid importance. The fundamentals of listening even though simple in nature require special attention till they get ingrained as a habit as the returns of this habit pave way for success of the team in achieving designated goals.

  21. Agree totally. As I lead my team, I am learning everyday, to listen to understand more and not always to listen to question.

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