Professional Practice Skills

PPS-9: Group Skill: Listening

(Adapted from MPS 37, Don Woods 2003)


Pre-class assignment

  1. Read sections What is It?, Why Do It?, New Concepts, How to  Do It, and Learning Objectives
  2. Establish your Baseline on this skill on the Listener Feedback Form.
  3. Be able to describe these aspects of listening Attending, Following, and Responding to Check Comprehension


What is It?

Listening is hearing, interpreting, and responding to another person’s oral communication.  In this unit, we concentrate on interpersonal listening, especially with respect to working with others.


Other important areas of listening that use similar skills include

  • Listening for learning as you might do in a lecture
  • Listening empathetically as you might do to a friend with a problem


New Concepts

Attending, Following, Responding to Check Comprehension


Why Do It?

There are two aspects of “why” for listening.  First, listening is useful for efficient group work and second, listening is a courteous act.  Fortunately, the aspects don’t conflict, and the same skills are applicable.


When you are negotiating with others to develop consensus or achieve win-win situations, you need to know what other people are looking for.  The best way to learn that is by listening to them.  Since most people like to be listened to, your efforts will make the negotiation smoother.


Good listening is generally interpreted as an act of caring by the speaker.  Therefore, improving listening skills can enhance your personal as well as your professional life.


How to Do It

The skills of listening are not difficult, but must start with an attitude shift.  Many of us think that we can sell or convince another person by what we say (that clever pick-up line, the bulletproof argument, or the killer closing spiel).  Unfortunately, we have forgotten the first principle of communication.  Communication is about the other person.  The beginning of any communication is consideration of the audience.  In oral communication, your potential audience is right in front of you, and listening is your opportunity to learn about them.


Since listening is about the other person, we must consider how they perceive what we do.  We will divide listening into three forms of evidence Attending, Following, and Responding to Check Comprehension.


Most of us have trouble paying attention.  This is logical, since your brain is trucking along at about 600 words per minute, while most speakers plod at about 150 words per minute.  Concentrating on the tasks listed below will help keep that extra capacity involved while the tasks themselves provide evidence of listening to the speaker.



To give evidence that you are paying attention, you should


Put away Distracters – Close books, turn off phone, close laptop (pencil and paper are ok if you need to take notes).  You may have said “Keep talking, I can listen to you and check my e-mail”.  Even if this is true, it won’t be perceived as listening.

Face the Speaker – Your face and body should be turned toward the speaker.  Sit upright or lean forward slightly with “open” body language. Maintain a comfortable proximity and avoid distracting fidgeting. (For an opposite example, consider the stereotypical withdrawn teenager curled in a chair with arms crossed and face away from the speaker)

Make Eye Contact – Eyes should be directed toward the person without staring.  In a group meeting you will probably also be looking at others to gage reactions, or at your paper to make notes, but your eyes should primarily be on the speaker or the speaker’s visual aids.


Note that personal space, eye contact, and body language can vary significantly by culture.  Again, consider the other person and find out the cultural norms.



Now that the speaker knows we are paying attention, we need to provide evidence that we are following what they say through verbal and nonverbal cues.


Small Encouragers – Use words or short phrases that indicate you are still following and encourage the speaker to continue.  Depending on the setting, these can include – Tell me more, uh huh, no!, she didn’t, wow, ok. No shit?  Verbal encouragers are more appropriate in pairs or informal settings than in large business meetings.

Clarifying Questions – You can ask infrequent questions about facts both to give evidence of following and to help stay on track.  Examples include What happened then?  Was it Bob or Jane who picked up the part?  Frequent or demanding questions can turn evidence of listening into evidence of an interrogation.  If you find yourself standing over them with a bright light asking Is it safe?” as in Marathon Man), you should probably back off.

Attentive Silence – Often a simple head nod, smile, or expectant look is sufficient.  This quiet approach is preferred in large committee meetings.  It can also be less threatening than a lot of questions.



Responding to Check Comprehension

Here the listener paraphrases or summarizes what the speaker was saying.  This step is often the transition between listening and speaking, and gives you the opportunity to either build on their ideas, or contrast with their ideas.  In group meetings and negotiations, these summaries help define positions and issues.


This step also aids in comprehension and learning.  If you are able to summarize the speaker’s ideas, you are more likely to understand them and remember them later.  This is important if you are listening to your boss giving you instruction or to a lecture.


Include Content and Feelings – The paraphrase should reflect both the substance and the emotion.  If the speaker was upset, recognition of that fact is also perceived as listening.

Maintain Speaker’s Intent - It’s about the other person.  When you restate the speaker’s position, use their words, don’t add ideas, and don’t subtract ideas. (Part of this is respect, and part is self defense.  If you get the summary wrong, you may have to listen to all those arguments again.)

Maintain Civil Discourse – If the speaker is getting inflammatory, your summary should acknowledge the emotion, but maintain focus on the ideas.  Similarly, you should avoid the temptation for sarcasm, or to twist the speakers words to create a straw man. 


Examples: (Which response is a Response to Check Comprehension?)

Harvey: “The company has told us to cut 20% of our operating budget without any thought to how this will affect profitability.  I don’t know what they were thinking.  Maybe I should sell my stock. “

Latisha’s response: “You are upset because you believe the proposed 20% cut in operating budget will affect profitability.”

Homer’s response:  There’s probably some fat in the budget that we can cut.”

Harvey:  We really need to ramp up our research into fuel cells.  These internal combustion engines are dinosaurs, and we need to get on the bandwagon or get left behind!”

Latisha’s response:  You see a trend away from internal combustion engines and toward fuel cells, and strongly believe that more research should be directed to fuel cells.

Homer’s response: “Let me get this right – You think that a solid established technology like the IC engine is going away because some left wing nuts think hydrogen is the answer to the world’s problems?”



Learning Objectives

1.      Be able to define the terms listed in New Concepts

2.      Demonstrate behaviors that are perceived as listening including

a.      Attending

b.      Following

c.      Responding to Check Comprehension



In-Class Exercise

Exercise 1 (beginning of class)

  1. As an Individual

·         List 3 behaviors that you find annoying when you are trying to talk with someone.  (For example my brother would bounce a basketball when Dad was trying to explain something to him. It drove Dad crazy.)

·         List 2 behaviors that you think indicate good listening.

  1. Assemble in groups of 3 or 4.

·         Each person reads their 5 behaviors.

·         The listeners try to exhibit what they believe to be good listening behaviors.


Exercise 2 (after discussion of the topic Following)

As part of a small group, consider the example and list of questions.  Identify each question as a good or poor example of a clarifying question.


Example: Your coworker is describing a situation in the laboratory.  He says  “I was updating some records at the desk when the engine just stopped.  I heard a screeching noise and a loud bang, and looked up.  The control console was lit up with red lights and the engine had stopped.


_        Was the screech before or after the bang?

_        Why weren’t you at the console?

_        How many hours were on the engine?

_        Don’t you think that the bang is more likely a thrown rod than a bearing?

_        What makes you think it was the bearing?

_        Did you see any red lights on before the failure?


Exercise 3 (end of lecture)

This is Listening practice with feedback.

  1. Form into pairs with a Talker and a Listener (the taller of the pair is the Talker).
  2. The Talker will have 30 seconds to describe and support their opinion of either

·         Corporal punishment (spanking) as discipline for children. or

·         The best team or athlete in the sport of the Talker’s choice

  1. While the Talker talks, the Listener practices the techniques of Attending and Following
  2. At the end of the 30 second time, the Listener paraphrases/summarizes the Talkers ideas using the techniques of Responding to Check Comprehension
  3. Talker assesses listener on the Listener Feedback Form (short version)
  4. Switch roles and repeat steps 2-5


Listener Feedback Form (short version)


Listener _______________________            Talker__________________ 



(less successful)




Good Start


Getting There


Almost There






(more successful)

Does other stuff while listening






Puts away distractions

Facing away, “closed” body language






Facing, open body language

No eye contact or stared






Eye contact w/ soft focus

Talk instead of listen or withdrew, changed subject






Encouraging words, or attentive silence

Skipped paraphrase







summarize w/ content and feelings

Paraphrase was mostly listener “spin”






Summary is true and complete view of speaker’s ideas

Listener Feedback Form (long version)


Listener _______________________                  


1.       At the outset of this unit, place a “B” in each category to indicate your self assessment of your initial, or baseline skill level.

2.       At the end of the unit place an “A” in each category to indicate your self assessment of your skill level after practicing the skill.  Be prepared to provide documentation for your assessment.



(less successful)


(shows few expert behaviors)



Good Start

(some expert behavior)


Getting There

(many   expert behaviors)


Almost There

(mostly expert behavior)



(shows all expert behavior)




(more successful)

Does other stuff while listening






Puts away distractions

Facing away, “closed” body language






Facing, body open and inclined

No eye contact or stared






Eye contact w/ soft focus

Withdrew, changed subject






Encouraging words, phrases

Skip questions or interrogate






Infrequent clarifying questions

Talk instead of listen






Attentive silence, nods, smiles

Skipped paraphrase






Paraphrase/summarize w/ content and feelings

Paraphrase was mostly listener “spin”






Summary is true and complete view of speaker’s ideas

Paraphrase inflamed situation






Paraphrase maintained civil discourse



Reflection of the Listener

What did I learn from this?




Which of the skills do I do pretty well?  (List Evidence)




Which skills could use some work? (List Evidence)