When people come to me for English training it’s almost always because they want to speak English more fluently. Usually they say something like “I understand most of what people say, the problem is answering.” They want to increase their vocabulary, be able to find the right words faster and gain confidence in speaking the foreign language. So it seems logical to focus on speaking skills. But – in lessons and in real-life – it’s really important not to neglect listening skills either.

Focus on listening

Especially in a foreign language it can seem like a good idea, to use the time while the other person is speaking to prepare your response in your head. And doing that may indeed save you a few seconds looking for the right words when your turn comes. But it’s more likely to be counterproductive. If you haven’t listened to the other person, you may end up repeating what he or she has already said, talking at cross purposes or going off at a tangent – and that’s anything but efficient. So while the other person is speaking, try to just listen. Try not to let your mind wander. Try not to jump to conclusions (i.e. don’t think “Oh, he’s working up to that point now”, but wait and see what he actually says).

I know it’s not easy. If making a few notes helps you to focus your thoughts or remember the points you want to comment on later, go ahead and make notes. If this seems to unsettle the speaker, explain: “Just jotting down a few points here, I’m still listening.” Look up and make eye contact, too, from time to time.

Take an active role

On the other hand, if you’re listening carefully you may have an immediate question about the contents. Whether you can interrupt the speaker to ask your question depends on the type of meeting, of course. In the right context doing so can clarify the situation – for yourself and perhaps for others, too. Maybe you’re familiar with a word, but need to know what this word means for the speaker. What does she/he mean by …? Or if your English skills are stronger than the speaker’s you may have the impression that he or she is using a word incorrectly – e.g. a false friend – and this is causing confusion.  

In such cases, for yourself and for other members of the meeting, it’s best to get clarification, either by asking for an explanation or by saying what you understand and seeking confirmation. Perhaps you think it would be helpful if the speaker could provide more detailed information or a specific example. Asking for this not only helps to increase clarity for everyone listening, it also sends out an encouraging signal to the speaker – it shows that you’re really engaged.

I’ve collected a few useful phrases for asking questions to make sure you’ve understood. 

Refer to what others said

All your attentive listening really pays off when it’s your turn to speak. Because you can explicitly refer to what the other speakers said. How many meetings have you been to where one person after the other delivers a monologue? These monologues may have a topic in common, but they aren’t connected to each other in any other way. Now you have a chance to do it differently. Phrases like these will be useful for introducing your comments:

  • As Jack already said …
  • Sue suggested …, but I think we’d be better off …
  • I’m with Lucy on this, because …
  • Having listened to you all, the consensus seems to be … I’d agree, but we mustn’t forget to …
  • I found what Louise said about … really interesting. I hadn’t thought of it like that before.

Linking your contribution to what has been said by others not only shows colleagues that you’re really interested in their opinions. It also sorts and structures what has been said so far and in this way can make meetings much more efficient.

By following the three steps outlined above I hope you will be able to improve your own listening behaviour and maybe even change the listening culture in meetings you attend.

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. – Epictetus

Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too.