A Little Lesson on Listening

On the jenniferkammeyer.com blog we have explored many aspects of effective listening and now I invite you to watch a short 4-minute video called A Little Lesson on Listening.

Levers for Listening Engagement

We all desire connection, have innate curiosity, and feel gratitude. We can leverage these three human qualities to improve our listening skills and increase engagement.


Our innate desire for connection with others is a lever we can pull to increase our listening engagement. Thinking of how our fellow conversationalists might have similar interests or values is a means for finding out how we are connected. Sometimes the connection is strong and sometimes not so much, but with engagement we can discover just what it is.


Our thirst for knowledge and desire to learn new things is a lever for listening engagement. We don’t know what we don’t know and by listening we will likely learn a new fact or a new perspective.


We may never pass this way again, so having gratitude for those in front of us and what they are sharing is an excellent lever for listening engagement. When we are feeling that what others are saying is valuable, we are engaged. Appreciating that the other person is sharing their thoughts, experiences, and opinions will make it easier for us to stay entirely focused on what they are saying.

Leveraging human desire for connectedness, our natural inquisitiveness, and gratitude for the privilege of listening to someone, we can improve our skills of listening engagement, the emotional state of dedication and interest. This emotional engagement will be visible through our nonverbal and verbal behavior, and it will require the cognitive elements of attention and comprehension

Listening well allows us to connect in new ways, increasing our understanding and helping us solve the challenging problems of our time. Plus, it feels good to be really heard and that is a gift we can give our coworkers, our family members, and our friends.

Attention for Listening

That wonderful feeling of being seen and respected when somebody is listening attentively is a source of positive energy. It is a gift being shared. We can give this gift by developing our attention-directing skills in listening.

Listening is the process of concentrating on someone speaking and it includes affective, cognitive, and behavioral components. Attention falls within the cognitive component.

Attention is placing our care and focus on something, in this case the person who is talking. Attention requires our mind, body, and emotions to be simultaneously attuned to the same thing. We can experiment with the energy attention creates with this “Where attention goes, energy flows” practice.

The Essential Skills for Being Human article in the New York Times (possible paywall) eloquently states, “The issue is that we lack practical knowledge about how to give one another the attention we crave.” Here are five practical ideas of how to focus our attention on the speaker.

  1. Set our intention to hear every word and to really understand the meaning behind the words.
  2. Use our eyes, facial expressions, and body language to be engaged.
  3. Verbally demonstrate we are listening with little words of encouragement.
  4. Ask open-ended questions to gather details and to learn more about the speaker’s views.
  5. Keep the emphasis on the speaker by resisting the urge to add our own experiences, opinions, or solutions.

As we give the speaker our attention, we can expect our mind to occasionally wander — that is a natural process of being human. External distractions in the environment and internal distractions, such as our thoughts, might catch our attention. When our attention is pulled elsewhere, we simply practice bringing attention back to the speaker over and over again. Noting the speaker’s facial expressions as they talk is one way to help bring our attention back.

By showing persistent curiosity, we direct the energy of attention to others. In doing so we give the gift of feeling valued. In doing so we reap the rewards of listening including the sense of human connection and expanding our perspective of the world.

The Sounds of Good Listening

We may think of listening as a silent activity, but good listening includes a surprising number of verbal responses. It is helpful to think of listening as distinct components so we can analyze our own listening skills and recognize good listening in others. Listening, the process of paying full attention to someone speaking, includes three elements, each with two components: the affective element with the components of empathy and engagement, the cognitive element with the components of attention and comprehension, and the behavioral element with the nonverbal and verbal components.

Homing in on the verbal component of listening behavior, there are the small sounds/words we utter, the phrases we state, and the questions we ask. Usually, these verbalizations occur in some combination. Always, the purpose of the verbal component of listening is to encourage the speaker to continue or to clarify/confirm understanding for the listener. Even though the listener is verbalizing, this component of listening focuses on the speaker. The “litmus” test of effectiveness is if the verbal behavior keeps the speaker talking. Here are examples of little words, helpful phrases, and curious questions that my communication coaching clients have found effective.

Little Words

The pitch and volume of these utterances can vary depending on the intent of the listener. For example, a higher pitch at the end connotes a question and louder volume adds emphasis.

  • Uh huh
  • Really
  • Wow
  • Got it
  • Interesting
  • Hmm
  • Huh
  • OK

Helpful Phrases

Longer phrases encourage the speaker to provide more detail or to clarify/confirm some element of their communication. The purpose of rephrasing what was heard is not to prove the listener is good at memorizing, but to give the speaker a chance to clarify their message based on feedback.

  • Thank you for sharing.
  • I appreciate your perspective.
  • I appreciate the information.
  • It is clear you have researched this topic.
  • So, what you are saying is <rephrase what your heard>
  • What I heard was <rephrase what your heard>
  • It seems as though <phrase what was inferred but not directly stated>

Curious Questions

Open-ended questions allow the speaker to continue the conversation in the direction they see most fit. On the other hand, specific questions serve the needs of the listener to clarify or expand upon points of interest – this is a good conversation technique, but not a listening technique. Curious and open-ended questions are designed to encourage the sharing of more information that the speaker deems relevant.

  • Can you tell me more?
  • What else have you discovered?
  • What else might be possible?
  • What else could we explore?
  • What have we yet to consider?


Here are some effective combinations of the sounds, phrases, and questions.

  • Got it. <Rephrase idea>. Did I hear that correctly?
  • Thank you for sharing. Can you tell me more?
  • What I heard was <rephrase idea>.   My initial reaction is <emotion-not thought>. What I would like to know more about it is <element you are most curious about>.
  • Hmm. It seems like you may be feeling/thinking/considering <state what is inferred but not spoken>. Might that be the case?

Uttering small sounds and words, stating helpful phrases, and asking curious, open-ended questions comprise the verbal behavior of listening that supports the speaker in sharing information they seek to convey. I encourage you to try out the examples above and send me other examples that have worked well for you. Keep listening – it makes communication better and it makes life more interesting!

Honing Listening with Random Sounds

Practicing the art of listening when we are not engaged in conversation is like practicing a musical instrument before a performance – it makes us better. We can think of it as training our ears and our attention. There are many opportunities in everyday life to do this and I will highlight three of my favorites: birds in nature, voices in an airport, and the sounds of home.

Birds in Nature

Whenever we are lucky enough to be in nature, we have the opportunity to tune into a multitude of sounds, including birds. We can listen to the general sounds of all bird noises in contrast to other sounds we might be hearing in nature, such as wind in the trees. Once we are hearing the birds above other noises, we can listen specifically to the different types of bird sounds we are hearing. We can also switch between the different bird sounds, focusing on one type at a time and then moving on to another type for a bit. For bird enthusiasts out there, try to avoid slipping into the cognitive exercise of identifying the bird types. The point is improving our listening ear, not our memory.

Voices in an Airport

Training our ears to hear different types of voices can easily be done in an airport or any mode of public transportation. We start by noticing the voices around us, preferably with eyes in a downward gaze so we are not looking at people. We can notice different qualities of voice, such as pitch (high vs. low) and cadence (fast vs. slow). If our attention starts to go to the meaning of the words, we can draw it back to just the voice qualities. We can also switch between different voices to practice homing in on one sound and then switching to a different voice to practice controlling our attention.

Sounds of Home

Wherever we live, there are noises about us that we mostly do not hear because our attention is elsewhere. Pausing what we are doing and turning our listening to the sounds of home can be a surprisingly entertaining practice because we hear things we don’t usually hear in our everyday environment. It can be loud or quiet and we can still practice noticing the various sounds. For this practice, I recommend giving a simple label to the sounds we hear as they randomly arise – fan, car passing, refrigerator, dog barking, roommate on phone, water running, etc. We can also notice the quality of the sound, but we want to avoid cognitively engaging by thinking about what is behind the sound, such as, “I wonder who my roommate is talking to now.” The listening practice is about focusing on the sound, not the meaning.

Not only are these listening practices a way to pause and enjoy the day, by honing listening skills outside of conversation, we may find that we are better able to control our attention and stay engaged during conversations.

Listen with Body Language

Our body language is an important element of listening. Nonverbal communication, commonly called body language, is over 50% of the message we send to others. Research shows that if our spoken words and body language are out of sync, that people will believe what our body communicates, not what we are saying.

We have all been in situations where somebody says they are listening, but we don’t believe them. This is likely because their bodies are not demonstrating listening even though their ears are hearing what we say. We can avoid doing this inattentive listening with others by using our bodies to demonstrate engagement.

In the listening framework we are using to explore the full skill set of listening in 2023, body language falls in the Behavioral category, which addresses how we act as part of the listening process.   


Listening with Body Language

Demonstrating listening is mostly done with our head and face, but the upper part of our body can also participate. Here is a break down what we tend to do naturally when we listen. Knowing these elements, we can be intentional in our efforts to demonstrate active listening.

  • Head – tilt for engagement, nod for agreement, shake for disagreement, throw back for disbelief, drop down for disappointment
  • Eyebrows – raise for something positive, lower for negative
  • Mouth – smile to indicate agreement or enjoyment, purse lips for concern, frown for sympathy
  • Upper body – lean in for intense interest, lean back for receptiveness
  • Hands – bring together for enthusiasm, palms up for disbelief

All of these elements happen in conjunction with one another depending on the expression. A reaction to somebody telling us their boss just called them out for something minor in a meeting could be: nodding with a furrowed brow and pursed lips, then throwing our head back and bringing open palms up in disbelief.

Practice: Listen with Body Language

This month when we listen to people tell stories about their day, we can notice how our bodies are demonstrating listening and intentionally adjust.

  1. Notice what we naturally do with our head, face, upper body, and hands when we listen
  2. Experiment with intentionally using one part of our body to demonstrate we are listening
  3. Note how it feels and note the other person’s reaction

The sense we get that somebody is listening to us comes from the nonverbal communication message they send with their body. So, we can intentionally use body language that demonstrates listening to others and give people that wonderful sense of being heard.

Curiosity for Empathetic Listening

Listening with curiosity allows us to be empathetic and focus more on others than ourselves. Recently while getting yelled at, the thought crossed my mind, “I wonder what is going on for this person that they are raising their voice?” In this moment, I was practicing empathetic listening and was able to focus on curiosity instead of my own self-interest. I did not take it personally. Granted, this is not always the case, but it is a worthwhile intention to practice empathetic listening. When we listen empathetically, we demonstrate caring and encourage others to share, which gives them a sense of being worthy and gives us more valuable information.

Defining Empathetic Listening

It is helpful to define empathy, especially because it is a bit loaded in today’s vernacular. According to Psychology Today, empathy is “the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another.” Empathy is different than sympathy, which is a concern for someone else, and different than compassion, which is an altruistic desire to act on a person’s behalf. The common analogy for empathy is the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes.

As a frame of reference from our listening process framework, empathy falls within the Affective category, which addresses the emotional element of listening.

Empathetic listening is the skill of switching our listening lens from our own perspective to another person’s perspective. It is challenging for three key reasons: we are self-centered beings evolutionarily inclined to take care of our needs first, we live among many distracting stimuli, and we rarely stay in the present moment. Empathetic listening falls squarely in the listening challenge of our evolutionary self-centered tendencies as humans. When we listen, we tend to think about how what is being said affects us, and we tend to assume the person speaking is thinking about us. But in reality, most of the time all of us are thinking about ourselves. The antidote to the challenge of empathetic listening is curiosity.

Curiosity, or the desire to know more, is what allows us to shift our perspective from our own to another’s. Sometimes we are naturally curious and find what someone is saying interesting; in these cases, empathetic listening is easy. This tends to be when we care about the other person and they are speaking of something that expands an area of knowledge that already entices us. The good news is that we can use this experience to identify our own actions of empathetic listening and apply them to other situations, even difficult situations when empathetic listening may not come naturally.

Getting yelled at is a perfect example of a difficult situation. Most of the time when someone raises their voice, we think it is about us. We think that something we did or said made them yell at us, and we want to protect and defend ourselves against this upset. But, if we think back to times in life that we raised our voices, we may notice that there were many factors involved that were way broader than just what sparked the moment of yelling. While it is challenging, having curiosity about the person who is yelling allows for empathetic listening and can help diffuse the situation.

What it Looks Like to Listen with Curiosity

Listening with curiosity will look different for each of us, but there are some common techniques we can apply. This includes setting the intention to listen attentively until the other person has stopped talking; making verbal acknowledgement sounds such as ‘hmm’, ‘ahuh’, ‘ah’; and asking open-ended, non-judgmental questions. Just waiting for a person to completely finish speaking and allowing for a moment of silence can be very impactful. ‘Tell me more’ is a good statement to make after they finish, and it is even better when we can add the subject at the end, such as, ‘Tell me more about your experience on TikTok’, or ‘Tell me more about what is upsetting to you right now’.  Examples of open-ended questions include ‘What was that like for you?’, ‘How did you feel after that?’, ‘What was the best thing about that experience?’, and ‘What was most difficult?’. If we are feeling a desire to act, then ‘What can I do to help?’ is a good question.

Practice: Listen with Empathy

When listening to others, practice wondering what they will say next and wondering more about the topic they are discussing. Imagine the benefit of expanding your knowledge through listening to the person speaking. With this mindset, practice the following actions:

  1. Notice how you listen to someone you like talking about a topic that naturally interests you.
  2. Apply those same actions in situations where you are less fond of the person and may even disagree with what they are saying.
  3. Wait for the person to completely finish speaking and pause for a moment.
  4. Ask open-ended questions, without judgement.
  5. If moved by compassion, avoid giving advice and instead ask ‘How can I help?’

Empathic listening is so beneficial and worth the effort. It is fine and normal that we will not always be able to apply this skill, and still, we can practice. What is wonderful is the unexpected things we may learn about the world and others through our curiosity.

Through the Listening Lens: Same Words, Different Meaning

Just like wearing colored glasses changes how we see things, our listening lens changes how we hear things. We all hear something different through our own particular listening lens. Our listening lens is created by the sum total of all we have learned and experienced in our lives. This lens shapes how we take in the world.

Knowledge of the listening lens, and the discovery of both our own and others’ lens in interactions, gives us vital information to become better communicators. This knowledge can unveil the difference between what we think we are saying and what others are hearing and vice versa. It can help us clear up misunderstandings.

Recalling the listening processes framework from The Year of Better Listening blog, this skill falls in the Cognitive category of Comprehension. It is the skill of becoming a better listener through comprehending the lens that is influencing interpretations.

Through the Listening Lens

Through what lens am I listening?

We can take a minute before interacting with someone – or even a few seconds during an interaction – to see what is going on inside our own heads about the person or the situation. There may be some expectation about how this interaction will go based on how other interactions like this went in our previous experience. There might be some hidden bias present based on what we have learned. We can notice our listening lens in an interaction and acknowledge that it is not neutral. It is important to acknowledge that our lens is influencing how we perceive and interact with others. With this insight we can adjust our communication. For example, we can adjust our expectation and approach the situation with curiosity about how it will play out this time.

Through what lens are others listening?

We can pick up clues about others’ listening lens based on what they say, their body language, and how they react to us. If we are saying something we intend to be positive, we can notice if the reaction is positive. In particular, when we get a reaction that we do not expect, instead of immediately getting defensive we can pause and think what possible listening lens could have generated such a reaction. For example, if we say ‘that was fast’ with the intention of praise and we get a frown, perhaps the listening lens of the other person is that fast means poor attention to detail.

We can also use the technique of asking open-ended questions such as ‘what does that bring up for you?’ to better understand others’ interpretation of what was said. By actively listening without judgment, we may be able to better understand how to bridge the gap between our intention and their interpretation of what we said.

Practice: Listening Lens Awareness

Last month, we practiced with paying attention and keeping our focus on the person(s) with whom we are interacting. This month, we build on that skill by focusing on the listening lens at play in an interaction. We cognitively acknowledge our own lens and how it is influencing the interaction, and we seek clues about the listening lens of others. Let’s practice this during times of misunderstandings this month.

  1. Notice that there has been a difference in interpretation of meaning
  2. Acknowledge our own listening lens at play in the moment
  3. Gather clues about others’ listening lens at play
  4. Ask open-ended questions to clarify meaning

Our lives today include interactions with people from many different cultures with vastly different life experiences. While we may have a more similar listening lens to those with shared backgrounds, we severely limit ourselves if we can only listen to people with a similar lens. Seeking to see things from others’ perspective and really thinking through the lens of the listener helps us comprehend possible interpretations, making us better communicators.

2023: The Year of Better Listening

What they are hearing?, I ponder when I see a rabbit darting down a country road with ears perked and pivoting. The visual reminds me of active listening, a skill many of us are still perfecting. In this year of the Water Rabbit, when we can expect calm and reflection, I will focus my research and writing on the communication skill of listening.

The Value of Listening

We intuitively know—and research shows—that good listening has benefits. We feel better when we feel heard and we demonstrate we care by listening to others. Listening improves relationships and makes speakers feel at ease. Listening well gives us information that helps us understand others, making us better problem solvers.

The Challenge of Listening

While important, being a good listener is not easy. Three factors make it challenging. First, we are self-centered beings by nature, and by this I mean that we evolutionarily take care of our needs first for survival. Second, there are many stimuli to distract us, from the obvious such as our smart phones to the not-so-obvious like our perceptions of the person speaking. Third, we tend to think about the past and future much more than we stay in the present moment.  

Take this scenario, for example: An important person in our lives starts to tell us about a problem they encountered and we immediately start to think of ways we can fix the issue. We nod our head and say, ‘mmhmm’ and then wait for the earliest opportunity to share the brilliant solution we just generated. Likely this scenario sounds familiar. I spend my life in the realm of effective communication, and it is very familiar to me! And this is a better scenario than an important person in our lives starts to tell us about a problem and our phone buzzes so we look down and see a funny text and smile. But either scenario can leave the other person feeling unheard.

Self-centered, distracted, and not in the moment. These are the enemies of good listening. The friends of good listening? Intention and practice. The tactics can be learned, and with intention and practice our habits can shift.

What Does it Mean to Listen?

The academic definition of listening is “a multidimensional construct that includes affective processes (e.g., exhibiting empathy and engagement), cognitive processes (e.g., attention and comprehension), and behavioral processes (e.g., nodding and asking questions).” (Flynn, et al, 2022). In everyday terms it is paying attention and showing that we are paying attention.

In 2023 I am focusing on the intention and practice of listening. I invite you to join me on this journey, where every month I will present a different aspect of listening and offer up a practice. The first practice is in the category of cognitive processes and it is the act of paying attention.

Practice: Paying Attention

Paying attention means that the mind, body, and emotions are all focused on one thing–in this case, the speaker. That means our thoughts are on that person, that our bodies are still with eyes on the speaker, and that we are emotionally trying to connect to how they feel in the moment. This can be done in person, on video, or over the phone.

Practice Steps:

  1. Pick one person you will pay full attention to when they speak or you can pick one situation that occurs regularly, such as a team meeting.
  2. Before conversing with that person or entering into the situation, remind yourself of your intention: “I intend to pay full attention, bringing my focus back to the speaker when it strays.”
  3. After the conversation or the situation, check in with yourself and note how well you met your intention.

I encourage us all to practice and see what happens. May 2023 be the year we learn to listen better.