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When people speak, we may hear the words coming out of their mouths but we may not really be listening to what is being said. You may think your acting skills are great but people can tell quickly that your ears are working but your mind is not engaged. Listening skills are an important part of public speaking. Listening is an important part of communication. Indeed, the art of listening is a skill. How good is your listening skill? There is no doubt that much of what we learn everyday is a result of listening. You can see why this is an essential skill for public speaking success. Listening thus involves:

  • Hearing
  • Understanding
  • Judging

Definition of Hearing

There is a world of difference between hearing and listening. A hearing specialist may, through therapy and devices, enable sounds to become more audible to the human ear. But these kinds of actions have no influence on a person’s listening ability. Hearing is a physical process. Listening is a cognitive and emotional engagement. Hearing is simply the act of perceiving sounds with the ear. If you are not hearing-impaired, hearing simply happens. You can hear someone speak without listening to the words. Hearing defines only the physical measurement of the sound waves that are transmitted to the ear and into the brain where they are processed into audible information. Hearing occurs with or without your consent. Indeed, hearing is such a passive quality that it occurs even while you sleep. When you merely hear someone’s words but are not listening to what is being said, it can lead to misunderstandings, missed opportunities and resentment.

What is Listening?

Listening goes far beyond your natural hearing process. It means paying attention to the words that are being spoken with the intention of understanding the other person. Your personal perceptions and prejudices can affect the quality of your listening skills. For example, if you feel you are better off (financially, intellectually, socially) than the person you are listening to, you may dismiss much of what s/he is saying because of your perceived superiority. Everyone wants to be heard and understood, but at one time or another, most people don’t listen and fail to understand the meaning of another person’s words. It’s a fundamental human need to have your feelings acknowledged, whether or not someone agrees with you. ‘Honest to goodness’ listening creates an intimate connection and makes you feel cared about.

In any speech event, it has been observed that there are generally four basic levels of hearing and listening, according to Toast Masters.org. Check the category you often fall into when involved in different conversations. A non-listener is totally preoccupied with his personal thoughts and though s/he hears words, s/he is not listening to what is being said. Passive listeners hear the words but do not fully absorb or understand them. Listeners pay attention to the speaker but grasp only some part of the intended message. Active listeners are completely focused on the speaker and understand the meaning of the words without distortion. Listening is the most frequently used communication skill, but many of us are poor listeners. We lose interest, we concentrate on the speaker’s appearance instead of his/her words and our thoughts tend to drift simply because we can think faster than people speak.

However, discipline and active engagement in the conversation can significantly improve your listening skills. Sharpen your listening skill by doing the following:


Pay attention to your speaker. Make eye contact with him/her and let him/her know you are listening by nodding or agreeing. However, even if you are making eye contact and nodding, it is still quite easy for your mind to wander. Concentrate on the speaker’s words and anticipate his/her next statement. Ask yourself why s/he would say that or why s/he did not say what you were expecting. Watch his/her body language for a better clue of his/her true feelings.

Remove Distractions

Close any books and remove any work from your desk when listening to a lecture. Do not use your computer to take notes during a lecture or meeting, as it is too easy to distract yourself with email or other work. Ask others around you to cease conversation, or ask your speaker to move to a quieter environment if possible.


When listening at a lecture or group meeting, summarise what the speaker has just said. This will not only strengthen your understanding of the subject, but will also improve your memory of the lecture and keep you from getting distracted by outside stimuli.

Take Notes

If you have questions or comments that need to be addressed, simply make a note of them and bring them up when appropriate. Taking notes will also improve your listening skills as it physically forces you to listen.

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