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The Lost Art of Listening: 7 Ways to Improve Your Retention, Rapport, and Relationships

By Maxwell Leadership | February 7, 2023
The Lost Art of Listening: 7 Ways to Improve Your Retention, Rapport, and Relationships

This blog post has been adapted from Dr. John C. Maxwell’s personal growth and significance guidebook, Becoming a Person of Influence. In it, Dr. Maxwell outlines the 10 pillars of influence, including nurturing others, having faith in them, and understanding them. You can pick up a copy here.

“Fresh from Purdue University’s engineering school, I started out in the corporate environment at McDonnell-Douglas where they had about 40,000 employees. But it didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t going to be there for my whole career. So I started to pursue other business opportunities, and when I found the right one, I began trying to recruit others to join me.

“Back then my strategy was to meet people in the huge employee cafeteria. After waiting in line to get my lunch, I’d look for a seat next to a sharp-looking guy who was sitting by himself, and I’d strike up a conversation with him. The first chance I got, I’d bombard him with information and try to persuade him with impressive facts and irrefutable logic. I managed to intimidate a few people with the force of my convictions, but I was unsuccessful in building a productive relationship with anyone.

“I’d been doing this for several months, with very little success, when one day I was just talking with a guy from another department. He was telling me about the frustrations he was having with his boss, and about some problems he was having at home. He just found out his oldest child needed braces, their old clunker of a car was on its last legs, and he wasn’t sure how he was doing to make it.

“I really felt for the guy, and I wanted to get to know him better. Then suddenly, I realized that I could help him out. He was feeling powerless on the job, and he had money problems – two things that could be helped by being in business for himself. So I started to tell him about my business and explain how it might solve some of his problems. And to my shock he was actually very interested.

“That day it hit me: What an idiot I’ve been! I can’t succeed with others by dumping information on them. If I want to help them or have a positive impact on people, I need to learn how to listen to them!”

Listening To Others Communicates Value

Jim’s story, while compelling, is not unique – in our haste to be heard and make an impact, so often we end up forgetting that listening is one of the most communicative acts we can undertake.

If you employ these steps to improve your listening skills, you will communicate care – respect – value – and build a strong bridge between speaker and listener not easily broken.


The whole listening process begins with giving the other person your undivided attention. As you interact with someone, don’t catch up on other work, shuffle papers, do the dishes, or watch television. Set aside the time to focus only on the other person. And if you don’t have the time at that moment, then schedule it as soon as you can.


Most people react badly to being interrupted. It makes them feel disrespected. And according to Robert L. Montgomery, author of Listening Made Easy, “It’s just as rude to step on people’s ideas as it is to step on their toes.”

People who tend to interrupt others generally do so for one of these reasons:

  • They don’t place enough value on what the other person has to say.
  • They want to impress others by showing how smart or intuitive they are.
  • They’re too excited by the conversation to let the other person finish talking.

If you are in the habit of interrupting other people, examine your motives and determine to make a change. Give people the time they need to express themselves. And don’t feel that one of you has to be speaking all the time. Periods of silence give you a chance to reflect on what’s been said so that you can respond appropriately.


Have you ever noticed how quickly most people forget the things they hear? Studies at institutions such as Michigan State, Ohio State, Florida State, and the University of Minnesota indicate that most people can recall only 50% of what they hear immediately after hearing it. And as time passes, their ability to remember continues to drop. By the next day, their retention is usually down to about 25%.

One way to combat that tendency is to make your goal understanding rather than just remembering facts. Lawyer, lecturer, and author Herb Cohen emphasized, “Effective listening requires more than hearing the words transmitted. It demands that you find meaning and understanding in what is being said. After all, meanings are not in words, but in people.”

To increase your understanding of others as you listen, follow these guidelines offered by Eric Allenbaugh:

  1. Listen with a head-heart connection.
  2. Listen with the intent of understanding.
  3. Listen for the message and the message behind the message.
  4. Listen for both content and feelings.
  5. Listen with your eyes – your hearing will be improved.
  6. Listen for others’ interest, not just their position.
  7. Listen for what they are saying and not saying.
  8. Listen with empathy and acceptance.
  9. Listen for the areas where they are afraid and hurt.
  10. Listen as you would like to be listened to.

As you learn to put yourself in the other person’s place, your ability to understand will increase. And the greater your ability to understand, the better listener you will become.


The ability to discern another person’s need at the moment is part of becoming an effective listener. People talk for so many different reasons: to receive comfort, to vent, to persuade, to inform, to be understood, or to relieve nervousness. Often people talk to you for reasons that don’t match your expectations.

A lot of men and women find themselves in conflict because they occasionally communicate at cross-purposes. They neglect to determine the need of the other person at the moment of interaction. Men usually want to fix any problems they discuss; their need is resolution. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to tell about a problem simply to share it; they often neither request nor desire solutions. Anytime you can determine the current need of the people you’re communicating with, you can put whatever they say into the appropriate context. And you will be better able to understand them.


Most people carry around emotional baggage that causes them to react to certain people or situations. Anytime that you become highly emotional when listening to another person, check your emotions – especially if your reaction seems to be stronger than the situation warrants. You don’t want to make an unsuspecting person the recipient of your venting. Besides, even if your reactions are not due to an event from your past, you should always allow others to finish explaining their points of view, ideas, or convictions before offering your own.


Have you ever begun listening to another person tell a story and started to respond to it before he or she was finished? Just about everyone has. But the truth is that you can’t jump to conclusions and be a good listener at the same time. As you talk to others, wait to hear the whole story before you respond. If you don’t, you may miss the most important thing they intend to say.


Experts agree that listening is most effective when it’s active. John H. Melchinger suggests, “Comment on what you hear, and individualize your comments. For example, you can say, ‘Cheryl, that’s obviously very important to you.’ It will help keep you on track as a listener. Bet beyond, ‘That’s interesting.’ If you train yourself to comment meaningfully, the speaker will know you are listening and may offer further information.”

A technique for active listening is to sum up what the other person says at major intervals. As the speaker finishes one subject, paraphrase his or her main points or ideas before going on to the next one, and verify that you have gotten the right message. Doing that reassures the person and helps you stay focused on what he or she is trying to communicate.

Looking for other ways to improve your communication?

Leadership expert Dr. John Maxwell has been writing, speaking, and teaching internationally for more than 40 years – and for the first time ever, he has condensed his lifetime of insight into one communication facilitation handbook. Your communication skills impact your personal relationships, your professional results, and your overall influence. If you’d like to take each of these to the next level, preorder The 16 Undeniable Laws of Communication today.

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