Listen Up! Part I: Learning the Manly Skill of Paying Attention

by A Manly Guest Contributor on May 2, 2012 · 24 comments

in A Man's Life, Dating, Fatherhood, Friendship, Marriage, On Etiquette, Relationships & Family

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Tony Valdes.

As part of earning my bachelor’s degree in rhetoric and communications I elected to take SPC 3350, a college course titled “Listening,” taught by the forebodingly named Dr. Paine.  I’ll admit that I was skeptical when I sat down on the first day of class.  After all, is listening really something we have to learn to do?  According to Dr. Paine, yes, listening is a learned skill.  He made a distinction that has never left me: there is a significant difference between hearing and listening, and under no circumstances can those two words be considered synonymous.  Hearing is a biological function, and like breathing or blinking it happens whether you are consciously telling yourself to do it or not.  Listening, on the other hand, is a mental process.  It requires thought, effort, and practice.  As Dr. Paine described it, “Listening is the process of receiving, attending to, and assigning meaning to aural and visual stimuli.”

And learning to do it well can make all the difference for a man.

Let’s compare it to something we’re more likely to notice. We’ve all had that moment where, after turning through several pages of a novel, we suddenly realize we haven’t the faintest idea of what we just supposedly read.  We saw the words on the pages, but we didn’t actually take the time to process them mentally.  In other words, there is a difference between seeing and reading.  Seeing happens as long as your eyes are open.  It is a passive biological process.  But reading requires you to exert some brainpower.  It is an active process of making meaning.

When it comes to listening, we have a tendency to look at the words but never really “read” what our family, friends, and co-workers are saying.  But poor listening habits can be overcome.  As we press on towards becoming better men, the stereotype of the tuned-out male does not need to apply to us.

In this first installment of a three-part series, we’ll look at the overlooked emphasis of listening within our daily interactions, the three available levels of listening, and the benefits that are to be had by developing this skill at its highest level.

Listening in Perspective

You might be surprised how much we are required to listen in the course of an average day.  Yet, unlike many of the other essential skills in our lives that we have learned through some combination of schooling and experience, very little time has been devoted to training us as listeners.  The irony is that listening is the most frequently used and invaluable skill we could possibly have for our personal and professional lives.

Let’s put it in perspective with some of the emphasized aspects of communication.  Most of us probably received a minimum of twelve years of instruction on how to write well, yet it is a skill that is only used in approximately 9% of the average person’s daily communication.  Reading often receives between six and eight years of formal instruction, yet it only accounts for 16% of our communication.  Speaking receives a paltry one year of attention, perhaps two years if we’re lucky, and it is only 30% of our communication.  Listening, however, often receives less than a half-year of formal training, yet it makes up 45% of our daily communication.

It would seem that the myth of hearing and listening being equal has deeply permeated our culture.  Those statistics aren’t meant to rob the other aspects of our communication of their importance, but rather to highlight a grave oversight in our education that, with a little effort, can be improved and yield tremendous and immediate results for us.

Levels of Listening

There are three levels of listening we have to choose from during any given interaction.  Defining each level is the first step in understanding how to improve our habits.

Level 1: Hearing Words

This is the level that many of us default to under the misconception that we are listening.  It often puts us in the uncomfortable position of misunderstanding a message, jumping to conclusions, or simply not being able to recall the message within moments of it being said.  Sometimes we are vaguely aware that we are to blame, yet other times we try to pass the blame on to the speaker, claiming that he or she was not interesting or engaging.  The most alarming thing about this level of listening is that we are emotionally and mentally detached from the speaker.  We may be able to get away with this most of the time, but when the speaker is a loved one, our poor listening is communicating–whether we intend it to or not–that we place minimal value on that person.

Level 2: Listening in Spurts

During those times when we are aware to some degree that we are listening poorly, or we are in a situation where we know that concentration on the message is important, we may be able to tune in temporarily, but with so little formal training in listening the task can be difficult, resulting in “spurts” of listening.  Another major contributor to this level is our tendency to search for the next opportunity to jump in and speak rather than actually attending to the message of the other person.  That, on top of many other obstacles that we will address in the second part of this series, can cause listening in spurts.

Level 3: Empathetic Listening

This is the ideal.  We are able to set aside internal and external distractions so as to listen without judgment or interruption.  We are emotionally and mentally invested and provide verbal and nonverbal feedback to the speaker.  Empathetic communication is like a partnership, and both individuals must play their role.  There is much focus in our culture on the speaker’s role and how to fulfill that role in an interesting, engaging, effective, and efficient way; however, I would argue that when we are in the role of the listener, we should consider it our job to invest 51% of the effort in the interaction.  In other words, the listener should be the one doing the heavy lifting.

The Benefits of Becoming a Good Listener

As I have practiced empathetic listening in my own life, the rewards have been immediate.  Here are some of the more noteworthy benefits that resulted from Dr. Paine’s lessons:

Mutual Respect. I teach argumentation in my AP English Language and Composition class, and one of the concepts I cover is the Rogerian Method.  This style of argumentation puts a premium on first listening to your opponent’s views, then confirming that you have accurately understood what has been said prior to expressing your own views.  Theoretically, it is an unspoken appeal to “The Golden Rule”: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  More often than not, when you respect others enough to listen to them and actively demonstrate that you have done so, they will be willing to extend the same respect and courtesy to you in return.  This applies both at work and in your personal life.

Conflict Resolution. In most cases, frustrated people just want to know that somebody listened to their issue, whatever it may be.  Even the most volatile people will be diffused to some degree if they believe you actually internalized what they had to say.  And if they want more than just to air out their grievances, by listening to them you are putting yourself in a position to handle the situation to the best of your ability.

Learning. Listening as you move throughout your daily life is one of the most effective ways to continue learning.  It allows you to pick up on details and opportunities you might otherwise have missed, not to mention setting you up to ask better questions when appropriate.  And the ability to ask good questions is valuable–as I have told my students, sometimes asking the question is more important than knowing the answer.  We’ll be exploring asking good questions in the third part of this series.

Career Success. The most frequent complaint made by Fortune 500 companies is that many employees have poor listening skills.  These corporate heavyweights have learned that good listeners are more open to new ideas, more innovative, and provide better customer service.  Good listening has also been shown to reduce stress and allow for better management of difficult people.  What more could a thriving business want from an employee?  This is especially true when a promotion is in consideration.  As we saw earlier, most careers require 45% of our time to be spent in listening; this jumps to 55% as we move to positions of higher authority further up the career ladder.  And for the final connection between listening and career success: when the 15 richest Americans were asked what advice they would give to an average American aspiring to wealth, one of the responses was to become a good listener.

The Ladies Love It. What more can I say about this one?  Chicks dig a man who knows how to listen.  But remember, listening does not mean that you need to rush in and “fix” whatever she might be telling you.  She wants you to connect with her–not give her a to-do list or rush out of the room to save the day.

That seems like more than enough for us to chew on for today.  In the next part of this series, we’ll look at some practical ways to begin sharpening our listening.

Listen Up! Series
Part I: Learning the Manly Skill of Paying Attention
Part II: 15 Techniques to Improve Our Listening
Part III: Crafting Good Questions and Responses


{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 don May 2, 2012 at 6:56 pm

What’s the most effective way to hone listening skills?

2 Will May 2, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Great article. Can’t wait for number two. I was just thinking earlier today that I need to be a better listener to be a better leader. I originally intended to search “how to be a better listener” but then checked facebook and found this right away. Perfect timing.

3 Magnate Frank May 2, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Great article. Listening is very essential to life. You can sometime pick up some statements that speakers slip in during talks or even conversation in an attempt to influence conversation.

4 Jordan Smith May 2, 2012 at 9:11 pm

He’s got a point in the percentages of how much we use reading, writing, etc for communication but we don’t always use those skills to communicate with each other. We spend that much time reading so that we can learn from the most common medium: the written word. I agree that we could use a listening class a lot more than those ridiculous junior and senior level high school english classes but it almost sounds like he’s arguing they ought to be taught for x percentage of school years because we use it x percentage of our communication.

5 Travis G May 3, 2012 at 1:59 am

Smith, I might consider them fightin words!! I have taught those classes before. Just kidding, but you might be surprised how many students really need those ridiculous classes. I do love this entry even more specifically because of its application for the college composition courses in my future. I like to teach my students to hear those things left unsaid, such as additional meaning lent by words with special connotation. Also great for news and journalism classes. Listening is very important.

6 Darren Allen May 3, 2012 at 5:08 am

Decent article, but there is a way to condense all this advice into an easy to practice essence – which will not only help you attend, but will also improve your love life and diminish the power your stupid chattering mind has over you. Its the lost and ludicrously simple art of feeling the subtle inner-sensation inside the body.

Like chess it is easy to describe – just pull back from the focusing mind and place your attention inside the body – but takes a lifetime of careful observation (for the pre-programmed cues that take you out of it and repetitive thought patterns that fool you) to master.

More advice on my website ( – including a few pieces on de-brainwahsing.

7 Michael May 3, 2012 at 9:53 am

Don, I’m guessing part 2 of the series might address how to improve your listening skills, but we can all start by simply being mindful of how we are listening. Are you paying attention or is your mind trying to remember when you last changed your car’s oil? Am I trying to understand my friend’s point of view or am I looking for an avenue to tell my story? Being mindful is a good first step.

8 Theresa May 3, 2012 at 10:57 am

Dear Author, I’m a homeschooling Mom of a seven year old boy and a five year old boy and a preschool girl. Is there any specific advice you might have on how I can start training my young one to be good listeners? (“fun activities” that will develop their listening skills?) I think if I can teach them to pay better attention in their listening, it will help them not get in trouble as often! LOL

9 Batton Lash May 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Thanks for a great article. The protocol– and common courtesy– in conversations in our current culture have left a lot to be desired. I also notice that more and more people interrupt the person speaking (whether they are part of the conversation or not) without the slightest clue that they are being rude. And a lot of times with subjects totally off-topic! Has it always been like this or is it a generational thing?

10 Carlos Mora May 3, 2012 at 4:51 pm

I can’t wait for part 2

11 Skweekah May 3, 2012 at 11:01 pm

“We’ve all had that moment where, after turning through several pages of a novel, we suddenly realize we haven’t the faintest idea of what we just supposedly read.” That part was hilarious. You hit the nail right on the head. This doesnt only happen when reading or listening. It also happens when driving and walking. At times Im like “I cant remember a single thing when I walked from A to B this morning.” I’ll start to actively pay more attention, and to be in the moment!!!

12 Thomas May 4, 2012 at 8:52 am

Awesome, awesome article.
This really helped me to put into perspective and better understand some of my listening flaws.

I agree wholeheartedly about the mutual respect part with the speaker and is an essential part of the communication process!

13 Adrianne May 4, 2012 at 1:10 pm

This is a valuable article, especially for a narcissistic listener such as me. May I also add that a benefit of learning to be a good listener is being able to build great friendships :) that aren’t as self-centered as our natures would have us be.

14 Don E. Chute May 4, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Great Post…I have always felt this way as my parents taught me the difference between hearing and listening.

I have tried to pass it to my children, now 23/21. I’m more like a light switch, I can turn it on or off with a flick.

Can’t wait to read and comprehend more.


15 Sean Taitt May 6, 2012 at 5:37 pm

This is so true. As a therapist, listening is a majority of the battle. Don asked how to hone in on listening, the best way is to let the speaker finish, process your thought, then continue…

16 Logan May 6, 2012 at 10:19 pm

Awesome article, I’m very excited to read the next segment. I always strive to be a better listener, rather than just waiting for my chance to talk. The benefits are amazing!

17 J Vann May 6, 2012 at 11:51 pm

Great article, many people don’t listen these days. Listening can make you smarter, make life easier and help you to recall important events when you need them. Looking foward to part II.

18 Iain Goodart May 7, 2012 at 7:05 am

Great article. I am excited to hear the rest in the series. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day. He talks and talks and labours his point and when it comes to my turn to say something he talks right over what I am saying. When I asked him he said he does it to ‘help me understand his perspective’ instead of listening. I see this happening in schools too.

19 Tony May 7, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Theresa: Bravo for wanting to teach your children to listen well while they are still young! Because I teach high school sophomores and seniors I am accustomed to translating concepts into activities for students much older than your children. However, “practice makes perfect” is a solid concept no matter what the age of the learner. So here’s what I would suggest (although I confess there are probably others who would be much more qualified to suggest activities for children your age). While they might be a bit young for some of the more cognititve-heavy aspects of good listening habits, they are definiately at an age where they can practice focusing on a message and summarizing it. To make it fun, choose something they enjoy – cartoons, movies, books – and have them listen to the whole story without interupting to talk or play with something. When it’s over, have them explain it back to you. Ask them questions to help them hone it on the important details rather than relating back the story in its entirety. That allows them to practice the habit of not interupting and checking for understanding by summarizing. As they get older, you can get more involved with the body language and the response portions of listening. Hope that helps!

20 Sean Connolly May 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Where can I learn more about the “Rogerian Method”? I had heard of the techniques described above, but not called by that name.

21 Derrick May 13, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Don, the best way to hone your listening skills is to constantly apply them. Apply what you’ve learned, check your performance and then adjust accordingly so you are constantly getting better.

22 John May 20, 2012 at 3:41 am

Great article! I like the benefits you listed and how you broke them down. I’ve found in my life at some point they all came up. Now I try to be an active listener because when I talk I expect the same in return. Going to read Part II.

23 Mike October 9, 2012 at 8:41 pm

A very comprehensive guide to listening, a skill that most of us know we need to improve on. But it can smooth out edges of a relationship for sure

24 Lisa January 15, 2013 at 11:42 am

Great article! My husband is one of teh best listeners I have ever met, which means that people naturally gravitate toward him. One caveat though : “…listening does not mean that you need to rush in and “fix” whatever she might be telling you.”
Well… it might. I am a fixer, and if I am complaining about something it means I haven’t been able to find a solution on my own. I would suggest asking your partner nicely which it is that day!

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