This month on the blog, I interviewed a colleague who focuses on listening skills and strategies in her business. Cara Leopold, from Leo Listening, is an English listening skills coach who brings together adventurous expats and intrepid travelers to watch and discuss movies in English so they can understand native speakers, themselves, and the world around them better. In this post, I’ve paraphrased our conversation about how being an effective listener can help everyone succeed during presentations, meetings, and interviews.

Listen to become a better speaker

Q: When people talk about having good communication skills, the focus is typically on speaking. How do you think listening skills or strategies can improve communication?

Surround yourself with good examples

As a listener, rich exposure to words and expressions in context, such as movies, podcasts, and stories, can teach us to speak and write better as well. We pick up more effective ways to express ourselves by listening to those around us. That’s why it’s smart to pay attention to the skilled speakers in our daily lives to notice what they say and how they speak. 

Pay attention

This practice can help you learn new words and phrases that are specific to your industry. You can also pay attention to different styles of speaking, or how to succeed in different speaking tasks. For example, the skills and strategies you need to give a good interview might be different from jumping in during a meeting or presenting to the team.

Study and practice

However, it can be difficult if the speaker talks too fast or we don’t hear correctly. This can lead to mistakes in understanding or in our own speaking. Learning about or paying attention to linking/reduced forms, casual speaking style, and industry-specific language can really help with this. Listen to effective speakers, like the ones who give TED talks, for good examples. Everyone can improve their speaking skills with focused practice.

Listen to participate more in meetings

Q: Zoom meetings present extra challenges for listening because of tech problems and constant online or home distractions. How do you suggest a person stay focused and attentive in a day full of meetings? Also, my ESL clients often struggle to catch everything native speakers say during meetings or presentations. This can make it more difficult for them to join in conversations or speak up when they have ideas to share. Any advice?

Use focus techniques

Turn off notifications and other distractions during meetings if possible. It can also help to do something physical to keep you calm and focused, like a fidget spinner, doodling, finger stretches, etc. Mindfulness techniques can also be useful. If reading helps you follow along, you can add subtitles to your meetings as well. You can even ask to review the minutes once the meeting is finished if you missed something important.

Ask for clarification

Remember that it’s ok to jump in and ask for clarification if needed. This can be a good way to express an opinion or ask an additional question when you want to interject. Communicating is a two-way street, so if the speaker isn’t being clear, don’t feel bad about asking questions. The other listeners might benefit as well and it’s good for the speaker to realize when they are losing the audience.

Don’t blame yourself

Often ESL clients blame themselves when communication breaks down, whether they are the speaker or the listener. But there are plenty of times when native speakers don’t present clearly or stay on topic, and it’s totally ok to speak up if you find them hard to follow. They have a responsibility to communicate well too. If there are a lot of international speakers on your team, you can probably have higher expectations from the native speakers to communicate in a way that everyone can understand. Everyone should be making the effort to explain in a way that the entire team can follow. You can ask them politely to slow down a bit, stay on topic, or simplify with less jargon/idioms/tangents, etc.

Listen to take back your power

Q: A lot of people feel nervous during interviews. How do you think listening skills can make that process easier?

Try rephrasing

If you feel confused or freeze during an interview, one strategy is rephrasing the question. (Ex. So you’re asking about why I left my last company, is that right?) This gives you a little more time to think about your answer and be sure you’re answering the right question. It shows that you were listening and it works better than just asking the speaker to repeat themself. 

Flip the script

You can also take some of the power back from the interviewer by flipping the script. Give an answer they might not expect or ask them a question in return. Remember that many people feel stressed during an interview – even the person asking the questions! If you can make a personal connection and get them to enjoy the process, the words you say won’t make as much of a difference. They’ll remember you for standing out.

Focus on connecting

Have a strategy going in and listen for specific opportunities to control the flow of the interview. Prepare your talking points in advance so that you always have something to say even if it doesn’t exactly answer the question. Remember, it’s not an interrogation, so empower yourself by asking them a question in return. People love to talk about themselves, so if you seem interested and make a connection, that can really work in your favor more than a “perfect” answer. People want a coworker they can get along with!

Final thoughts

Listening effectively can be a real challenge, so I’m here to support creatives as you build this skill. If you have questions about this post or are interested in working with a coach, send me an email. If you’d like to read more tips like these, you can sign up for my newsletter and get a bonus email series about how to tell your portfolio story.

Want to learn more about Cara’s work? You can try out her free guide for listening to fast speech: Understand Movies in English.

She also has a YouTube channel to help you connect in English through movies as you watch, listen, understand, and discuss.