9 Ways to Improve Your Listening Skills

Have you ever caught yourself completely zoned out during a work meeting or while watching a presentation? The last 10 or 20 minutes a blank space in your mind? We’ve all been there. And, no, I’m not just saying that. Studies show each of us spends about 13 percent of our time zoning out. It’s true that mind wandering has its benefits. In fact, scientists consider it a crucial mental state—one that allows us to think deeply about big-picture things. But in certain settings, like the workplace, a focused mind and good listening skills can serve all of us well.

Illustrated ear with colored speech bubbles to the right


At Ink Factory, being a good listener is critical to our work and success. Active listening is the first—and arguably, most important—step in the graphic recording process. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to filter out key information, synthesize this information, or draw it. Over the years, we’ve honed our listening skills, which are essential for creating effective visual notes. So, whether you’re headed to an inspiring conference, a work meeting or networking event, here are our favorite tips, tricks and mental games that you can put into practice today to improve your listening skills.

Alison working on a large living mural

1. Stop thinking about what you’ll say next.

Many of us spend the majority of a conversation thinking about our response. When we do this, we don’t really hear what the other person is saying. We’re wrapped up in our own perspective and miss their point of view. To shift your focus, try repeating back at least some of what you’ve heard. Do this before sharing your own thoughts or solutions. This will make the other person feel heard, and when you do speak, they’ll trust your response more.


Dusty drawing visual notes with panel of speakers on stage behind her

2. Don’t fill the silence.

Do awkward silences make you cringe? Avoid filling them with fluff. Instead, use them to listen for deeper layers of meaning—to “hear” what has not been said outright. In psychology, this idea is called the third ear.” Developing a so-called third ear helps us appreciate what’s driving other people, enabling us to respond more appropriately and make better decisions.

Two artists working on a large mural on whiteboard 

3. Beware of assumptions.

We all make assumptions when we listen. But doing this primes our brain to only accept information that agrees with our assumptions. This means we may miss a lot of what is said. Avoid making unchecked assumptions by maintaining an objective view and not filling in gaps with your own interpretations. Try this two-minute listening test to see how well you actively listen. (The results will likely surprise you!)


An artist working on a large living mural for LPL Financial

4. Ask questions with complicated answers.

Asking thoughtful questions during a conversation makes the other person feel comfortable and heard. But some questions are better than others. For example, questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” (such as, “Does this product have a power-saver mode?) won’t carry the conversation forward nearly as much as questions that require more complicated answers (like, “What problems will this product solve?).

Lindsay standing and Dusty kneeling working on large living mural

5.Don’t interrupt.

Seems obvious, but most of us are guilty of interrupting more than we think. It’s because we’re all thinking about what we’ll say next (see tip No. 1), rather than listening. To avoid interrupting, focus on what questions you have or clarifications you need. Lead with phrases like “It sounds like what you’re saying is…” or “If I’m hearing you correctly…”, then repeat back an idea to ensure you interpreted it correctly.

An artist drawing on stage next to two speakers during Dawn or Doom

6. Slow the conversation down.

Listening is tough for humans because we can think a lot faster than we can talk. We speak about 125 words per minute, but a neuron can fire about 200 times a second. The trick is to occupy your brain while you listen. Try looking for nonverbal cues, tap into your “third ear” (see tip No. 2) to decipher underlying messages, or think about questions you want to ask.

An artist drawing on a digital tablet projected over an audience

7. Take notes as you listen.

This sounds easy enough, right? To take notes, you must actively listen and pull out key information. The trick is finding a note-taking technique that works for you. Visual notes are a powerful tool proven to increase comprehension and memory. But if a graphic recorder isn’t present (or you don’t trust your drawing skills), try a different technique. For example, when Larry Bossidy was CEO of Honeywell, he was known for drawing a vertical line down the page of his notebook. He then wrote general notes to the left, while jotting down the most valuable details on the right.

Ryan silhouette drawing on white LED board for Zebra

8. Take five.

Being a good listener takes energy, focus and patience. If you’re tired, distracted or stressed, find a better time talk or meet. In workplace settings, keep in mind time of day when planning a meeting, especially if the discussion will be difficult or complex. Scheduling it right before lunch or at the end of the day may make it difficult for you and attendees to focus and listen.

Two artists work on a large living mural side by side

9. Be honest with yourself.

How would you rate your listening skills? Think about your response, then ask others to rate how well you listen. Do the answers match? More often than not we can all stand to improve our listening skills. Fortunately, listening is a learnable skill. Start by assessing your weaknesses using the above tips as a guide. Do you tend to interrupt, make assumptions, talk too much? Once you know this, you can begin training your mind to slow down, ask questions and focus on what is being said (and, perhaps, not said).


Participants work on different surfaces during a workshop in studio


Want to hone your listening skills further? Our visual note-taking workshops will teach you how to listen and process ideas in an entirely new way, improving how you work and live. Get in touch and we’ll talk about how best to design a custom workshop for you and your team.