Before Anyone Can Learn Anything, They Have to Learn to Listen

Before anyone can learn anything, they have to learn to listen.

It’s seems obvious, right? Strictly speaking, if you’re bad at listening, you’re bad at learning. Learning involves first hearing information and then deciphering it, so naturally, listening precedes learning.

In fact, one study showed that college students spend 54 percent of their time listening, and only 16 percent speaking and 17 percent reading. Given that students go to college for the express purpose of learning, it’s clear that listening is an important part of the learning process.

We’ll help you turn your employees into better learners by unpacking some of what we know about listening.

Listening Is an Active Process

Most people can hear pretty well. Doctors conduct tests to measure how well we can hear, and there are devices to help improve it for those with impaired hearing.

Hearing is passive – we can hear without thinking about it. It’s not a skill, so we don’t worry about training content that teaches hearing.

Listening, however, is a different story. Listening is the active process of finding meaning in sound, whether it’s environmental, musical, or a spoken message. As an active process, listening is not automatic – learners must make themselves listen. If listening is about creating meaning from what you hear, consider how context impacts the meaning that learners extract from training content.

Building the right environment for learners will help you influence the meaning they create from what they hear.

There are Listening Styles

There’s a fair amount of research that suggests learning styles aren’t real, but there’s also strong research that suggests listening styles are real. There are four types of listening styles, and most people have a primary style they use most often.

  • People-oriented style – This style emphasizes concern for other people’s emotions and interests. This is most likely your sales department’s primary listening style. These learners want to be engaged with their training and understand how their roles involve interacting with other people.
  • Action-oriented style – This style emphasizes organization and precision. These learners can be managers, technical professionals, and data specialists. These learners want clear, concise training with little fluff and strong content. They love microlearning!
  • Content-oriented style – This style emphasizes intellectual challenges. This learner wants comprehensive training content that encourages them to think of solutions. They may work in software or marketing.
  • Time-oriented style – This style emphasizes efficiency. Many times, leadership and C-level executives fall into this category. They want information explained efficiently, and they want instant access to content. These learners are ideal candidates for elective microlearning.

Listening Can Be Learned

Just because someone looks like they’re listening doesn’t mean they really are listening. And just because someone is listening doesn’t mean they’re listening effectively. Generally, humans grossly overate their listening skills. In one study, published by ­the Journal of Business Communication, 94% of managers surveyed rated their listening skills as “good” or “very good.” Their employees told a different story. All of them rated their managers’ listening skills as weak.

That’s pretty telling, isn’t it? Even though listening is a crucial skill, most people don’t even know if they’re good at it or not! There are tons of reasons people can be poor listeners, and, as G.I. Joe once famously said, “knowing is half the battle!”

Here are some common things that get in the way of us being better listeners.


People are getting interrupted all the time. In fact, the average employee gets interrupted every eleven minutes! It can be nearly impossible to listen when you know the next interruption may be right around the corner.


You’ve done it, we’ve done it, everyone has, at some point, “pseudo-listened.” Pseudo-listening is when you use feedback behaviors such as making eye contact, nodding along, giving verbal cues like “yeah!” to make it seem like you’re paying attention, when in fact your mind is elsewhere.

You may be in a meeting where a manager is taking their time getting to the point, and you start focusing on some other tasks you need to complete. Now you’re pseudo-listening, and you’re probably missing crucial information. You can imagine how easily this happens during training.

Information Overload

Information is easily available now more than ever, but that comes with a drawback – information overload.

Information overload is when you’re so overwhelmed by the amount of information you’re required to take in, that you just stop listening. With a lot of training content, learners run a huge risk of suffering from information overload. And when they hear too much information, they’re listening to less and less as it keeps coming at them nonstop.

To combat this phenomenon, consider adapting your content to short, microlearning bursts that prevent information overload.

By understanding what is stopping your employees from listening effectively, you can provide them with the best tools to help them first to hear, then to listen, and ultimately to learn! The science behind listening is one of the reasons that microlearning is incredible as a training deliver method. It overcomes many of the barriers we have to effective listening, while also catering to multiple listening styles.

Learn more about training that aligns with listening styles and the needs of modern learners in The Complete Guide to On-demand Employee Training!

Training & Development Industry Researcher | Derek researches, discusses, and writes about the impacts of employee learning on organizations and individuals. He regularly interviews L&D and HR professionals, sharing their insight on trends and best practices that help organizations create stronger training programs, and help to grow their employees and their business.