Learning to Listen the hardest soft skill

One of the most important keys to becoming a good learner is the ability to listen (or do I mean hear?).

Many consider themselves to be good listeners, although what they may consider being ‘a good listener’ is sometimes questionable and listening still remains one of the hardest of all the soft skills.

As we have seen in some other posts, it is vitally important to be able to hear – one of the basics of good listening is being able to hear in the first place, but they are not the same thing.

A person with perfectly good hearing may be a terrible listener – but rarely is the opposite true due to the need to be able to hear – a binary process, with the latter being dependent on the former.

It is important to see the distinction between hearing, which is a passive process and listening, which is a conscious and active process, which includes a certain ‘motivation’, need or desire to make sense of what our ears hear.

Hearing defects or shortfalls can cause diverse problems with learning, often directly related to listening but also to attention spans and memory retention – especially in learning foreign languages. Problems related to hearing can also affect balance, dexterity and other motor skills.

Skeletal morphology also affects hearing – we hear our own voices through a mixture of hearing and bone vibration in the skull – if you have ever noticed how your voice sounds different when recorded, this is one of the reasons.

Loud, sudden noises can cause us to jump with surprise – this is because we have felt the noise through shock-waves vibrating through our bodies before the noise has reached our ears – if only by a matter of micro seconds.

Good listeners are able to filter out ‘parasitic sounds’ and concentrate on the essential – poor listeners are bombarded with such a range and amount of sound waves that they are unable to filter out and discriminate from what is important and what is not – the result is a hubbub of sounds much like one could experience in a noisy room.

Some listeners, especially in language learning, cannot even hear the high and low ranges used in some languages – in fact the range patterns in some language start and end before some languages begin.

The result is that people often say they don’t ‘understand’, when in fact they have no chance of understanding something that they cannot even hear.

French tonal range starts and ends before English begins, whereas, Russian goes well over half-way into the tonal range of English – these are the usual sounds that occur in the language.

Learning to Listen the hardest soft skill

Of course, we can train our ears, working them-out and training to hear and subsequently, listen, but it is a sorry fact that few learners carry this out.

I must add that this is a very complex thing to achieve and requires a sustained effort over long periods due to the complexity of sounds – have you ever come across a really effective text-to-speech application?

Try asking SIRI a question … especially in a language that is not your mother tongue.

Yes, they are getting better, I’ll give you that.

Even the most complex computers are still challenged by the huge amount of information stored in sound, including :

Sound length






People are quite willing to accept that they have a dominant hand – which they prefer to write or to use tools with – a dominant foot, ever heard of ‘goofy-foot’ in surfing? They can even recognise that they may have a dominant eye – look how they look through a telescope, a camera or a microscope…

However, few will be aware that they have a dominant ear, which has a huge influence on learning, hearing and finally listening.

A dominant right ear, which is connected to the left hemisphere of the brain gives an advantage for language learning and language processing, so theoretically, providing an advantage in the ability to hear, listen and understand language – whether it be our own native language or a foreign language.

A dominant left ear, which is connected to the right-side of the brain, where there is no language processing faculty, will slow down hearing, listening and thus understanding as the information is carried back over to the left hemisphere, which results in late reception of information and incomplete “bytes” of information being received.

Right-footed football players can learn to be left footed, right handers can learn to write with their left hand and even become ambidextrous – and the good news is that we can also train our ears to become right-ear-dominant.

If you have ever listened to a presentation given by a speaker with a low, monotonous voice, you may recognise the fact that low frequency sounds have a tendency to bore and send us to sleep.

It is very difficult to speak with energy and dynamism using a low-frequency tone – usually the most inspiring speakers use a good mix of low and high frequency sounds which stimulate the brain and prevent us nodding-off in front of such a speaker.

So how can we learn to listen?

One of the most crucial aspects of good listening, and this is just an image, is to be able to open the ears to incoming sounds and filter out that which is indistinct.

Now this requires an ability to accept that, that which is lost is of no interest, when our instincts tell us that we should be concentrated on the act of listening – but we are not there yet!

If we concentrate on listening, the stress of the act, and even the anxiety can effectively close-off the senses, resulting in a form of filtration that does little more than throw the baby out with the bathwater – but, this is a learnt skill.

We have, largely, learnt to do this in our native languages and then forget all of these good instincts when listening to a foreign language.

Good listeners are able to filter out the dross and concentrate on the important things such as what is being conveyed on an emotional and sensory level by a speaker.

If we go back to image, think of a camera focusing-in on a subject that renders most of the scene still visible, but not completely in focus – this is how a good listener is able to focus their hearing, which results in a heightened ability to listen.

Good listeners can, by consequence, hear subtleties, in all senses of the term in what is being said – those who we could call, bad listeners, are unable to do this – the whole scene is sharply in focus, which results in a surplus of information that is overwhelming and they then tune-out and lose concentration.

It may be a contradiction, but in order to be able to get things into focus, we need to be able to relax and ‘open our senses’ to be able to take control of our filters – ever thought about your receptive capacities in times of stress?

Stress cuts down our ability to hear, which obviously affects our listening, which may in turn be a stress trigger in itself – the dog chasing its tail?

Some problems, including concentration, hearing and dyslexia have been successfully treated using sound therapies such as the Tomatis system, where, speaking simply speaking, high and low frequencies are transmitted at timed intervals to alternate ears – although it is much more complicated and involved than just that.

Others swear by listening to Mozart’s music, which allegedly uses the entire audible sound spectrum to help, whilst others swear by listening to Gregorian chants, where the beat is in synchronisation with the average human heartbeat at rest to train the ear.

Whatever works for you is obviously good – but it is clear that good listening and good hearing entails much more than just cocking an ear and getting closer to the sound source and is, undoubtedly, perhaps the hardest of the soft skills.

A long and complex process of training and self-managed learning is required to help train the ear, conversely, the activities and training exercises are very simple to apply – the hardest aspect is the frequency and thus, the durability of the effects of training – then again, rarely do we get a free lunch …

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