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Learning to listen


Active listening

The four main forms of communication are listening, speaking, reading and writing. These are in the order in which we learn them as children. They are also in the order in which we tend to use them; research suggests on average: listening 45%, speaking 30%, reading 16% and writing 9%. However, the amount of time spent on teaching them in school is in reverse order. In other words we spend most time learning to write, then learning to read, then learning to speak and least time of all on how to listen. As a mentor it is particularly important to become an active listener, which, as the term implies, is the opposite of passively listening.


Blocks to listening

There are a number of reasons why we may not normally be an active listener:



Our speed of thought is much quicker than our talking speed, and we listen some four to six times faster than a person can talk. Because of this we often let our minds wander as we listen to someone talking. As a trainer you must stay ‘tuned in’ to what the participant is saying.



What we hear or understand is largely shaped by our own experiences. Instead of really listening to what someone tells us, we have a tendency to hear what our minds tell us they have said. We have preconceived ideas of what people mean when they speak. This is called a ‘mental set’. Therefore at times we only hear what we want to hear.



This is an extension of the previous point. Our beliefs, attitudes and opinions cause us to listen selectively to people. If they have different views from our own we tend not to listen selectively to people. If they have different views from our own we tend not to listen to them. In addition, our degree of attention is affected by such things as the speakers ‘class’, accent, style of dress, mannerisms, and the like.



There may be too much noise or distraction in the room. If possible, find an appropriate place to work with the participants. However, you may not have complete freedom of choice, particularly if you are using IT in a learning resource centre.


Developing your listening skills

As a trainer you should try to improve your listening skills, no matter how good you consider them to be. Try to adopt the following advice:


Physical approach

Be relaxed

Keep reasonably still

Face the speaker

Look interested

Maintain eye contact


Mental approach

Keep an open mind


Don’t interrupt

Listen to tone as well as content

Ask questions on any areas of difficulty or confusion


Awareness of non-verbal communication

A listener’s understanding and judgement of the message being communicated come from:

Words 7%

Inflection and tone 38%

Body movement and facial characteristics 55%


Surprisingly, most of the meaning is conveyed by non-verbal means. Therefore you should pay particular attention to both your own and the participants’ non-verbal behaviour.


Eye contact

Research shows that during the average European conversation:

The listener looks at the speaker for: 75% of the time

The speaker looks at the listener for: 40% of the time

Both look each other in the eye for: 30% of the time

The length of each mutual glance is only 1.5 seconds


Too much eye contact can be interpreted as staring and can be threatening. Too little suggests that you are bored and not interested.


Demonstrating that you are paying attention

These skills can be summarised in the acronym SOLER:

S Face the other person squarely (or obliquely to suit your style)

O Adopt an Open posture

L Remember to Lean slightly toward the other person

E Maintain good Eye contact

R Try to be relatively Relaxed or natural



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