How to be metacognitive about listening.

Before the talking begins, skilled listeners…

  • go into a listening session with a sense of what they want to get out of it
  • set a goal for their listening
  • generate predictions about what the speaker will say
  • mentally review what they already know about the subject
  • form an intention to “listen out for” what’s important or relevant

While actively listening, skilled listeners…

  • maintain their focus
  • if their attention wanders, they bring it back to the words being spoken
  • don’t allow themselves to be thrown off by confusing or unfamiliar details
  • take note of what they don’t understand and make inferences about what those things might mean, based on other clues available to them: their previous knowledge of the subject, the context of the talk, the identity of the speaker, and so on
  • “listen for gist,” and don’t get caught up in fine-grained analysis
  • evaluate what they’re hearing and their own understanding of it
  • check their inferences to see if they’re correct
  • identify the questions they still have so they can pursue the answers later

Paul, A. M. (2011, Dec. 07). The Power of Smart Listening: Skilled listeners use specific strategies to get the most out of what they hear. Time Ideas. Retrieved from

How do I listen?

There are two types of listening experiences, serious and casual. Serious is when I’m interviewing someone for a newspaper article and the quality of the piece depends on the details that I take away from our Q & A session. I bring my tools to any such listening session; my recording device, my notepad, my post-it of questions. All the metacognitive listening tools in the world aren’t going to save me if I go to an interview bringing only my ears with me. Just like an ancient someone once feared that writing things down would destroy our ability to memorize, modern recording tech ensures that I remain an active listener because I don’t have to focus on remembering everything during a serious listening session. My loyal iPod will repeat all the details for me later.

Casual listening is a different story. If you run into me in the middle of the day in the middle of the week and you tell me something, chances are, two minutes after we part, I’ve got a totally unrelated train of thought going and your little tidbit has been tucked away. The probability of it resurfacing dwindles by the minute.

So yeah, not so good with spontaneous listening, but if we happen to arrange a meeting; you can bet I’ll be prepared.


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