Savvy Student”s Study Skills: Listening

| TBS Staff

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The Savvy Student's Guide to Study Skills—Chapter Three

It's What We Do Least

We already talked about listening as it relates to speaking. Since you really shouldn't start talking until someone else is finished speaking, it's important to listen at least long enough to make sure you are not interrupting someone else. In a perfect world, you'd actually listen to what the person has to say, but making sure you aren't talking over them would at least be a good start.

Trouble is, we don't even do that. Taking our cues from some very well-scripted television shows, we think we know exactly how long someone's going to speak and jump right in with what we think is our well-timed response—except they aren't finished, or what we're saying has nothing to do with what they were talking about. Then there are the times when listening takes a back seat to —something else we're doing, or something else we want to do. And then, there's the time where we may be paying attention, but listening is just hard (and if you don't click any other link in this book, this is the one to watch.)

Combined with the way many public speakers interact, it's easy to understand why we aren't the best listeners we can be. But we need to be good listeners if we're going to be good students, good friends, and good family members. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump don't spend a lot of time together; you see your English teacher every day. It might be a smart idea to listen to what they have to say.

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Some basic statistics about listening help us understand why it's harder to do than speaking. If the data is right, the average person speaks about 125 to 175 words per minute, but we're capable of listening to about 450 words per minute. That means listening is kind of like running laps on a track with someone who runs a 9 minute mile, while you're running a 6 minute mile. You start out in the same place, and you'll meet up a couple of times, but the difference in your natural paces is going to keep you far apart from each other most of the time.

What's the key? Focus.. School, sports, work, social time, family life, and down time all seem to require us to do more than one thing at once. Multitasking can have its benefits (though not as many as you might think), but when it comes to listening, it's usually best to just listen. If you're listening in class, it's important to focus on what the teacher has to say, so you'll learn more and be safe. If you're listening socially, you want to show the person who's speaking that you care about what they're saying. Some people think listening is hard because it involves putting others ahead of yourself. But if listening leads to the other person being understood, you'll get better grades, be a better friend, and learn more about yourself. That's a win for everyone.

Dump the Distractions

The best way to make sure you're getting everything you can from what someone's saying is to try and make their words the only thing you can possibly pay attention to. Turn off the TV, because it makes noise; turn off your computer, because it makes your brain look at the screen (and listening is about using both your brain and your ears); bury your phone in a pocket or a bag so that it will be impossible for you to dig it out and check it without really looking like you just aren't interested in what the other person is saying. If you're in a noisy place, go over to a wall or a corner to talk, where the acoustics will help more sound bounce into your ear. If you're driving, give some thought to talking later if you're in heavy traffic. Good driving requires you to multitask, and as much as you want to be a good friend by being a good listener, you first have to be a good friend by being a safe driver. (And I assume you've already had the discussion about not talking on the phone while driving).

With the physical distractions taken care of, it's time to take care of the mental ones. You may not have a phone or a gaming control in your hands, but if you're thinking about your phone or your next video adventure, you're not going to do the speaker much good as a listener.

Listening is much easier to do if you know what goes into a good speech, whether that speech is a formal presentation or informal conversation. If you know the structure of a good speech, you can keep your brain engaged by listening for the following elements:


The way someone says something is just as important as the words themselves. Tone will let you know if the person is happy, confused, curious about something, or concerned. Knowing that puts you in a better position to understand what they're talking about.


Some speakers will begin by telling you what's on their mind (if you can't figure out what's going on here in the first 30 seconds, think twice about dating for a while), but most friends will just jump in and start by presenting a fact or something that's happened to them. Since your brain is dying to jump ahead, let it, and try to figure out where their story is heading. Once you have an idea, go back to pure listening to check your guess, and adjust your answer if you need to. This keeps your brain engaged in the discussion.

The Big Picture

You shouldn't spend all of your listening time thinking about how you're going to respond, since that cuts into your pure listening time. Still, you're going to want to be prepared with a response once they're finished, and their tone will likely give you a hint that they're almost done. At this point, think about what you might need to remember for future conversations, put together a key phrase to build your response on, then—and this is really important—wait until they stop talking, count to 1, then begin to speak. If you succeed in having a moment of quiet between what they said and you're response, that person will cherish you as a dear friend for the rest of their life.

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Academic Listening


When it comes to distractions, listening in a classroom or lecture hall is a little easier than listening in most social situations. A good teacher will control the learning environment to make sure you can focus on the lone speaker (especially if that speaker is them), and while some classrooms may have some side conversations, blocking them out is pretty easy to do.

Since teachers are trained to be good speakers, listening to what they have to say can be easy, but that might also bring its challenges. Teachers design lectures so that students can take good notes, much like we discussed in the chapter on Writing. Knowing that format, as well as the format for effective public speaking, listening to a well-prepared lecture should be smooth sailing. Most teachers will start the class by announcing their main topic (“Today we're going to talk about the noble gases”), followed by the points they will use to support the main topic (“We'll talk about how they were discovered, what they have in common, and how they're used in business and medicine”), and the role this information will play in future class sessions (“This information will be on Thursday's quiz, and we'll work with some of these gases in Friday's lab”).

Not every teacher will make their lectures this clear, but your ability to write good papers and present strong speeches will help you make sense out of most of the lecture approaches you're going to run across. In fact, many teachers are so eager to make sure their students understand what they're saying, some will put an outline of their remarks on the board at the start of class, or provide a copy of the outline to each student. This certainly can be helpful, but it also offers a challenge. If the teacher has basically provided you with a set of notes, how do you keep your brain engaged while they're saying what's already written down right in front of you?

The answer is simple—take your own set of notes anyway. Listening and note taking engage parts of the brain reading doesn't, and many students actually learn an idea better simply by writing it down. We'll talk more about learning styles later. For now, it's important to find a way to be actively engaged in listening when you're confined to a classroom chair.

Class Discussions

Usually, the biggest challenge with class discussions is trying to stay on topic. That's pretty easy to do when the entire class is having a conversation, and the teacher is guiding the process. But once the class breaks into small groups and is asked to address three questions the teacher wrote on the board, it can be a miracle if any group gets to the second question.

It's possible to support the success of your small group by doing three things as a listener. First, volunteer to be the group note taker and spokesperson. This is a job almost no one wants to do, but knowing you'll be speaking in front of the rest of the class is a great incentive to listen better.

Second, you'll want to respond positively to a comment from someone else in the group that addresses the question you're discussing. You might not agree with their opinion, but if you begin your response (and responding is a big part of active listening) by summarizing or thanking them for what they have to say, that supports the goal of the group—answering the assigned questions.

Third, you don't want to respond to a comment that takes you away from the question you're discussing. Known as “bird walking”, students want to turn the conversation to a topic they either like more, or understand better. It can be hard not to respond to someone in a small group discussion, but if time is short and the task needs to be done, it's best to let silence try and guide the conversation back to the goal, and talk later with the person about why you didn't respond.

Whether in large or small class discussions, keep the one second rule in mind, where your response to another's comment comes only after a second of quiet. That isn't always possible, but you want to avoid things getting out of hand.

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Social Listening

Outside the classroom, most people find it much easier to listen. Since there isn't a quiz or a grade involved, hearing someone's news about their college acceptances, the fight with their parents, or the job interview they just landed is just easier to do, since there's less to remember—all you have to do it listen.

But that isn't always the case. You might think you'll never see someone again you're just meeting for the first time, but what happens if that person ends up sitting next to you in a class in college? Good friends certainly hope you'll remember what you talked about the last time you were together, and parents? Well, we all know how much they want you to listen.

If you think it's easier to engage in social listening, try this experiment. Watch this video, and don't go to the next paragraph until it's done.

OK—now, answer these questions:

Now, go back to the same video, and check your answers.

If you're like most people, you now know the answers to all three of the questions—but it isn't because you watched the video twice. Most people would hear the answers to these questions, and remember them, only after watching the video once, as long as they knew what questions were going to be asked ahead of time.

And that's the challenge with social listening—you probably have no idea what the person is going to say. That means you can't really afford to focus more on the music at the party than the person you're talking to. If anything, you have to be a more active listener at social events than you are in the classroom, since there's less structure and more possible topics.

The best approach to social listening is to follow the steps discussed in the Distraction section. Get rid of as many outer distractions as possible, engage your brain in actively listening for tone, detail, and the big picture, and be ready to respond once you've allowed for some space once they're finished. With a little practice, these steps will come naturally to you, and your friends will greatly value your ability to hear them out.

Don't Always Try to Fix Things

As you practice becoming a good social listener, it's important to keep two things in mind. First, you'll want to know the difference between a conversation where someone is really looking for advice, and a conversation where someone just needs someone to listen.

While there is some research to suggest more women are venters, and more men are fixers, that isn't always the case—anyone can take on either role at any time, and it's important you understand if you're a venter or a fixer, since it affects the way you listen. If someone is talking about a problem to a venter, the venter will assume the speaker is just letting off steam, and isn't really looking for help. On the other hand, a speaker who's sharing the frustrations of the day with a fixer might find themselves having to listen to the best way to handle their English professor, bad pizza, and global warming, since the fixer thinks the speaker wants their problem solved.

A key to figuring out how to respond to someone with a problem is to listen closely for tone and word content. If it sounds like they're telling a sad story, chances are they just want to vent. If that's the case, respond with empathy, show them you understand why they feel that way, and gently guide the conversation forward. If their tone sounds a little more frazzled, or they're using words you're not used to hearing them say that suggest they're really struggling with an issue, it's time to find a quiet, private place and go into full listening mode- they're looking for some advice. Most social situations will feature way more venting than calls for fixing, but be attentive, just in case—and if you see more than a few of these signs of depression, it's time to talk with them about getting some help.

Don't Judge

Social situations can find you in the company of people who may not see the world the way you do. While some of these differences of opinion (like the best rock band ever) can make for some entertaining discussions, other topics are so personal or controversial that what started out as a simple “getting to know you” conversation can end up in the scene-stealing center of the event—and not in a good way.

The most important time to use good listening skills—especially the one second pause and summarizing what the person has said—is when the subject can get emotional, and that's when two people don't see an issue the same way. In social situations, it's often best to let silence be the best response, or use humor to deflect the tension—it is rarely wise to get into a fight over a disagreement about the best pizza topping. In the classroom, or in the world of business, you may find it important to present your opposing viewpoint. If that's the case, do so with respect for the other side—and if possible, do it in a more private space.

It's also important to keep opposing points of view in perspective. Someone else liking The Beatles more than Led Zeppelin isn't likely to ruin any part of your life, or you love of Jimmy Page. You may be surprised to find that's also the case if someone sees things differently than you do about immigration or gun control. We have a lot to learn from each other—and that learning begins by listening rather than judging.

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Body Language

It's important to remember that listening is an activity that's done with more than just your ears, and even more than just your brain. Some studies show that as much as two-thirds of our communicating is done through body language—how we stand, how much be blink, whether we fold our arms, and more.

This is an important point in speaking, but it matters even more in listening, since being a good listener is highly valued by people—that means if your words say you're listening, but your body says otherwise, you could lose the trust of the speaker.

There are some basic body language ground rules for listening that apply just about everywhere:

Turn toward the speaker.

It should be no surprise that people don't think you're listening to them if you aren't directly facing them. That isn't always possible in a classroom where everyone is seated, but it can be possible to turn in your chair to face them more. The same thing applies in social situations where you're seated. If you're standing, it's important to turn completely towards them, unless you're standing in a group, where everyone should be an equal distance from each other. If that doesn't happen as the conversation begins, be sure to adjust the space as the discussion continues.

Use good posture.

Mom and Dad were right—the way you stand and sit makes a difference in your ability to listen. Slouching in your seat in class makes you less attentive than having a straight back, and standing tall aligns both your back and your attention span as you focus on the speaker.

Maintain eye contact—most of the time.

Studies show that listeners and speakers who maintain eye contact are perceived to be smarter, and therefore more attentive, than those who don't maintain eye contact. This doesn't mean you should stare at a person or never look away—that can get a little creepy.

It's also important to know that eye contact has a different affect in different cultures. While most Western countries value eye contact. Many Asian countries consider eye contact rude, or an attempt to intimidate someone. That's certainly the last thing you want to do as a listener, and a speaker doesn't have to be Asian to be offended by eye contact. Keep this in mind as you get to know what makes the speaker comfortable.

There are other elements of body language most Americans take to be signs of a disinterested listener. Studies are actually mixed on the effect these have on listening, but as a rule, it's best to avoid:

Crossing your arms.

This is a really confusing gesture. Most likely, if a listener crosses their arms quickly, it really can mean you've said something they don't like. This is almost an involuntary reaction to what you've said—it's like they can't control it.

On the other hand, a slower crossing of the arms could mean they are actually evaluating the worth of a point you just made. It's like your body is saying “Wow, let me think about that.” When someone is crossing their arms, watch for the tempo—and try to get them to uncross their arms before you make your next point, since an open stance suggest they're receptive to a new idea.


Similar to crossing your arms, people push air out of their lungs at an amazing rate when someone says something that really bothers them or worries them. This is especially true if you're listening to someone who's looking for advice. As a rule, the worst thing you can do is be surprised or dismayed at something you say—and a sigh suggest you're feeling one of those two emotions.

On the other hand, a smaller sigh could also be an involuntary attempt on your part to consider what the speaker means in a larger context. If that's the case, you almost can't help but sigh just a little—but that's a good thing. Be sure to explain that to the speaker right away. You don't want them thinking you disagree with them, when in fact they've given you something to think about that's really pretty great.

The skill of listening with your ears and your brain means you've set everything else aside to give the person your undivided attention. You want the way you present your body to do the same thing. If you can do that, you'll be communicating a message of interest and receptivity to the speaker.

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When You Just Can't Listen

The number of activities and events people fill their lives with is greater than ever before. That certainly makes a good listener more rare—and therefore more valuable. At the same time, it sometimes makes it more difficult to be a good listener. Can you really give your best friend your undivided attention at lunch if you're studying for a major test? Is it possible to pay attention to your boss's instructions if a customer wants something done right now?

Some situations really make it impossible to be a good listener. When those come up, try these approaches:

Check your priorities.

You might want to study for the big test at lunch, but if the big test is tomorrow, could you study later and listen to your best friend instead? You shouldn't always have to rearrange your priorities, but if something big comes up that requires your attention, there might be another way to get everything done.

See if a little time will do.

Bosses sometimes just need to give you a key piece of information, and sometimes they need to have a serious conversation with you. “I have a customer waiting” creates a timeframe for your boss, and allows them to decide how to shape your priorities. “I'm studying for the Algebra test” does the same thing for a friend—but in this case, you'll want to follow up by…

Scheduling a time to talk later.

If your boss needs more than a minute, they'll likely say “OK, come see me once you're free” but it's unlikely your friend will respond the same way, especially if what they have to say is important. If it's clear your friend needs more than just a minute, ask “Can we get together at 2?” This shows you want to hear what they have to say—and if they agree to talking later, do not miss that appointment.

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Keeping Your Listening Skills Sharp

It somehow seems easier to pay attention to things when they're new. We're more likely to pay attention to a teacher the first day of class, because we need to get information on everything from grading to reading assignments. Meeting someone for the first time is naturally exciting, so we pay more attention in our efforts to get to know them. We want to learn most when something is new, and that's when we listen most.

If that's the case, the key to effective listening is to always approach situations as if we were listening to them for the first time. That isn't always easy to do—in fact, there seem to be plenty of reasons to do just the opposite. But finding the reason to listen, and practicing our listening skills every day, is the best way to be open to new possibilities and to understand more about ourselves—and that can only lead to a better life for us and others.

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