The 5 Laws of Listening


If your listening is effortless, you’re doing it wrong.

You probably take listening for granted. To many, it doesn’t even seem like a skill—it’s something that just happens without even trying: Noises come out of a mouth in recognizable patterns and splash into your ears. But letting words wash over you isn’t active listening. That’s just hearing.

“Active listening” is so called because it takes WORK. Action! It doesn’t come naturally, because you’re more interested in yourself than others. It doesn’t happen passively, because it requires participation. And it’s not easy, or more people would do it.

Listening is an investment of time, energy, and attention, and yet really, it is a gift you give yourself. When you listen, you reap the benefits:

  • First, you gain information, insight, and clarity. Every time you listen, you learn. Yeah, you might only learn that your coworker has a concerning obsession for off-brand Skittles… But who knows? Maybe that info will come in handy one day.
  • Second, you save time. It seems backwards because listening feels soooo time consuming, but how many miscommunications, mistakes, arguments, wrong turns, delayed projects, etc., etc., etc. in your life could have been avoided if one person (maybe you?) had listened better?
  • As a bonus, you gain appeal. People like you more. In an age when many individuals give more attention to screens than living things, paying someone the honor of your undivided attention is a huge, chonky deposit in your relationship account. It’s pure gold.

There are many, many, many tips out there on how to listen actively (which frankly, I know you could use because we ALL can), but they boil down to five main keys:


1) Be present.

You can’t take action here and now if your brain is elsewhere. Minimize distractions (in other words, put the phone down!). Clear your head and quiet your body. Nothing says, “I’d rather do literally anything else than listen to you” like fidgeting.

And yes, ALL of these actions, though simple, are hard. They don’t come easily or naturally. That’s why it takes effort to listen—and why it means so much when people do.


2) Adopt a suitable mindset.

If you approach conversations focused on yourself, even when you’re “listening” you’ll likely miss the message. Your conversation partner could catapult their needs, intentions, feedback, or feelings straight at your face and they’d just bounce off. In her book, Listen Like You Mean It, Ximena Vengoechea suggests three listening mindsets to cultivate:

  • Empathy—Recognize the other person’s perspective and keep yourself out of it.
  • Humility—Reserve judgment and respect the other person’s experience.
  • Curiosity—Even if it takes effort, find something that interests you about what the other person is saying.

With these mindsets, you can gain information, save time by getting to the heart of the matter, and build rapport. Without them, your results may vary.


3) Pay attention.

When you’re present and focused on the other person, you can pick up on cues and reactions, especially nonverbal ones. For example:

  • Tone of voice. Sharp and edgy? There may be tension. Monotone? Possible boredom. An increase in pace, pitch, or volume shows the person is engaged and interested. Voice tone can give you hints about where the other person is coming from.
  • Face and body signals. For instance, a furrowed brow or blank stare could be a sign of confusion. Picking nails, pen-tapping, and other fiddly motions might display impatience or disinterest. Leaning away, crossing arms, and sighing can mean frustration. What else is the person saying besides words?
  • And speaking of words… Word choice. How people frame their message can be telling. Are they stalling? Beating around the bush? Do they use phrases like, “the main point,” or “ultimately,” or “like I said before” to indicate that a concept is important? Take note of verbiage.

Don’t focus so much on these signs that you’re stuck in your head. Avoid building a whole mythology about what the other person is thinking. Simply pay attention—you’ll notice clues that you can follow-up on for more information. Like magic, communication goes so much smoother!


4) Show that you’re listening.

It’s not enough to actually listen. You have to prove it.

If your sole goal is the receipt of information, you’re missing out on two huge benefits. It’s by demonstrating that you are listening that you save time and increase likeability. If the other person doesn’t know (or believe, because you’re glued to your computer screen) that you are listening, they will keep sending the message on repeat (wasted time) until they give up in discouragement (relationship damage). It’s frustrating for them and you. Show that you’re listening so the other person feels heard. And so you can move on!


  • Turn your body to face the person speaking. This signals that you’re giving them your attention. (Exception—in emotionally charged conversations, give space. Read more here and here.)
  • Use open body language. Uncross your arms. Remove barriers. Adopt an approachable posture. Send the message that you are willing to receive.
  • Make some eye contact. Don’t stare, but do make sure your eyes meet from time to time. Now the person knows you truly are present. (Again, read about the exception for difficult conversations here.)
  • Give nonverbal feedback. Nod, be appropriately expressive with your face (this isn’t a time for your “resting” face), and make sounds (like “mm-hmm”) that show the words are getting through.


5) Seek to understand.

Communication is the exchange of information between people. If the intended message isn’t received, communication didn’t actually happen. To avoid this fairly common calamity, check to make sure what you got matches what was sent.

Some experts recommend repeating the message back verbatim. By using the same language, especially colloquialisms, you supposedly build rapport. But while this definitely confirms that you heard the words, it may not mean you got the underlying message. Plus, you’re now a parrot. Instead, I suggest you reflect back in your own words. This shows you were listening and considering, and it almost always leads to greater clarification.

Also, ask open-ended questions to further the discussion and dig deeper. Use your old friends Who, What, When, Where, and How… but be careful of Why. That one can come across as judgmental.


Communication is like a partner dance. It requires two people and both have to be paying attention and actively engaged or it devolves into an awkward, bumpy, potentially painful and embarrassing tangled mess. But with attention and effort (along with some skill and practice), it’s a super fun and joyful way to connect and build relationships.

Want to gather information, save time, and increase your likeability? Listen. Listen with your whole brain and your whole body. It just might change your life.


Change your communication, change your life.

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