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7 Ways to Improve your Active Listening Skills



Most of us think we’re good listeners. But are we really? What does it mean to be an active listener in an art discussion, guided tour or educational programme in the museum? 

Listening is one of the most important skills in our toolbox. But few of us know how to really listen. It’s just not something we’re taught.

It requires both time and practise to develop effective listening skills. And it’s a challenge – when we’re listening our minds naturally tend to wander and our concentration can come and go..

Listening is an essential skill for us – without active listening, discussions remain on the surface level without truly engaging all the participants.

Today’s episode will help you to work on your listening skills. I’ll first explore the 4 different levels of listening, before I share 7 tips with you to improve your active listening skills and help you to choose the right level of listening for when you’re communicating with others.

Share this one widely – listening is one of the keys to a better society!



I’ve been thinking about this all week as I’ve been writing about facilitation all week in my book. I’ve been trying to ascertain just how important listening is to being a VTM facilitator and what that looks like in practice. 

Listening and questioning are two skills that are closely linked. And both require time and practise to develop effective skills. 

Interestingly, people with strong questioning skills are often seen as good listeners – because they spend time carefully formulating questions that draw information out from others.

Listening is an essential skill for a VTM Facilitator – without active listening, discussions remain on the surface level without truly engaging all the participants.

This is something that I’ve been actively working on all year too since I started my coaching certification. One of my goals was to focus on actively improving my listening skills. And I can honestly say that it’s been really hard work. The level of listening required to be a good coach is tough. It requires a great deal of mental effort, concentration and focus – you are focusing on someone else entirely and putting yourself to one side. 

It’s worth exploring the different levels of listening before I share some tips with you to improve your listening skills and thinking about choosing the right level of listening for when we’re communicating with others.


It’s good to think about the levels of listening as a scale from one end to another. Cosmetic or contrived listening is at one end of the scale. This is the lowest level of listening. 

Cosmetic listening is pretend or superficial listening – you might be acting like you’re listening for example, nodding or making appropriate noises or words, but in reality you are only half-listening. You hear the words but you’re not making any effort to understand them.

You’re making a show of listening, but you’re not really. 

You might be able to fool the other person that you’re listening when you’re not, but you’re bound to be caught out now and again when the other person asks you a question and you need to ask them to repeat it.

This level of listening wouldn’t work that well in a museum programme based on discussion, but it may work in a traditional guided tour – how many of the audience in a lecture-based tour are actually listening after 10 mins or just pretending they’re listening.

It might also be useful if you needed to just let someone talk and sound off about a subject. 


Moving on, conversational listening is probably the most common type of listening that we use. Here we are focusing on what the person is saying and maybe also our thoughts too, maybe we’re thinking about what we might say next.

There is a back and forth to this type of listening with each party switching roles between speaker and listener.

Conversational listening is a natural, everyday type of listening which takes place without much thought in our normal casual conversations. It’s what we do most of the time.

You might use this at the beginning of your programme or session to connect with group members. Or when you’re walking between stops. 

It’s perfectly fine for these every day type conversations, but because you are also concentrating hard on what you’re saying, a higher level of listening is required for leading discussions about art, objects and ideas. 


In the next level, active listening, we are actively focusing on what the person is saying and attuned to the words being spoken. It requires a conscious effort – mentally taking note of information, reflecting back what is being said and demonstrating that you are listening with appropriate sounds and noises. In addition you are ensuring that you have not only heard but have understood too – and this is by asking clarifying questions, restating information, reflecting back ideas and summarising key ideas. The main aim in active listening is to gather information and facts and to build a bigger picture of thoughts and ideas.


The last level of listening is deep listening. This is the highest level of listening where you are completely focused and attuned to what the speaker is saying. This is listening in an empathetic way, noticing not just what is being said but the way it is said, collecting clues from non-verbal signals. This type of listening is in complete service of the other person. 

If you’re leading engaging and interactive discussions in the museum, you will frequently be engaged in active listening. You may also use deep listening (depending on the type of programme you are facilitating) and conversational listening as discussed. 


So how can we improve our listening skills? Here are 7 ways. 

  1. Focus on what the person is saying – try not to get distracted by other thoughts or follow up questions. If you notice your mind wandering, bring it gently back to what the person is saying. Concentrate fully. 
  2. Listen to the words, the context and tone – the specific words and phrases that are chosen by the speaker are just as important as the overarching themes that are being said. Likewise, the way something is said is also interesting – what does their vocal tone convey to you?
  3. Pay attention to their body language cues  – being aware of any verbal and non-verbal clues that the participant is sharing. Watch, notice and observe. 
  4. Demonstrate genuine interest in what the person is saying. This can be demonstrated using both verbal and non-verbal signals. These can be a simple as nodding, smiling, using eye contact and making encouraging noises like ‘mmm hmm’ or ‘yes’.  These signals tell the person speaking that you’re listening and will put them at ease to continue and share freely. 
  5. Don’t interrupt – be patient when a participant is speaking and allow them to finish. Interrupting signals that you don’t value what someone is saying. Wait for a pause.
  6. Listen with an open mind – limit judgements or negative comments as this will compromise your ability to listen. Listening is usually full of assessments and judgements (this is known as ‘distressed listening’ in The Art of Facilitation by Dale Hunter P79). Instead, aim for distress-free listening, that is listening with an open mind eager to hear another person’s perspective. 
  7. Practice – Become aware of how you listen. Listen to podcasts or audio and see how much information you remember. Have conversations and write down everything you heard, understood and acknowledged afterwards. Think about a conversation that you had today.  Were you really listening to the other person? Were you fully engaged in the conversation, or was your mind on other things at the same time? Becoming more aware of your listening skills is the first step to improving them.  

So, I’m going to leave you with that thought – practice listening to people. Be  more aware of how you’re listening – this is the first step to developing your listening. 


And don’t forget my FREE new Facebook group The Slow Looking Club created especially for podcast listeners. It’s a place for conversation and discussion about engaging with art, objects and life slowly. I’ll share resources, ideas and tips for anyone interested in looking at art – whether it’s for your personal enjoyment or your practice as a cultural educator. And we’ll have regular slow looking moments together too!