How to Improve Your Listening Skills Using Your Communication Styles

Are you known for critical listening, selective listening, appreciative listening or empathetic listening? Learn how to improve your listening skills.

Are there times when you feel like nobody is listening to what you’re saying? Or perhaps you may be guilty of this yourself, often zoning out or thinking about something else during a conversation? That’s because most people are engaged in passive listening, meaning that we do not give the speaker our full attention.

Listening is an important skill when it comes to the communication process. However, due to social conditioning and bad habits, we’ll need to fine-tune our ability to use our auditory cortex to develop good listening skills.

Active listening is about giving your full, undivided attention to the speaker. It is about being in tune with the speaker’s verbal and nonverbal communications and expressing your interest in the conversation.

In SoundWave, we believe that how you talk affects how you listen. When you understand what you are listening for, only then you would be able to change your habitual way of listening. Before we can work to improve your listening skills, let’s explore a little more on how we talk.


Understanding Your Communication Style Through The Nine Voices

Improving your communication skills and understanding the various communication styles your peers and superiors use can help you to develop better interpersonal skills. This, in turn, can build trust with others in your work environment.

According to SoundWave, the way that we talk can be divided into three different verbal styles of communication—asking, suggesting and telling.

Let’s provide a scenario: You are talking to a friend who has had a bad day at work. They mentioned that their manager had ignored their ideas at work, but seemed more receptive to the same ideas when their colleague suggested them. How would you respond?

asking for answers

Asking for Answers

Asking is about the brilliance of curiosity. It seeks to know, to want to understand, and to communicate the drive for an explanation.

When we ask, we either: Inquire for Engagement, Probe for Insights, or Diagnose for Solutions.

1. Inquire for Engagement

This style of ‘asking’ is exploratory in nature, seeking to expand the conversation and moving into different areas in order to look at more information. The overarching goal of this verbal communication style is to engage with the other party and move into other topics. It explores the context of the given ideas or issues, perhaps even inviting opinions and explanation from another person before rushing into answers. When done well, it might even implore others to think differently about their issues and engage in critical thinking!

If you are inquiring, you should be listening critically for gaps of information that expand the context, or other relevant topics or ideas that you can move into. Is there anything else that you think you need to know about the situation? Or any topic that you can move into that allows you to expand the conversation?

In the scenario above, an example of an ‘inquire’ response would be, “What were the ideas that you proposed?”

2. Probe for Insights

Imagine a shovel, digging deeper and deeper into the earth, until it strikes treasure. That is the purpose of the probe voice. It zeroes in on one part of the conversation and drills into it, until answers are given! This verbal communication style wants insights, and is relentless in pursuit of it. Following hunches and clues in the conversation, it often invites others to think deeply and go beyond their beliefs or understanding. When done well, it brings about great reflection.

If you are probing, you should be listening critically for information that is unclear, that may seem like there is more than meets the eye, or that could have an alternative point of view! Is there something that you think needs more focus on, that could possibly shine the light on the issue for you?

In the scenario above, an example of a ‘probe’ response would be, “Why do you think your manager didn’t register what you said?”

3. Diagnose for Solutions

The diagnose voice has one purpose—problem solving. It takes a scientific mindset towards problems, questioning and examining at all angles until the underlying issue surfaces. In this way, it is the focussed use of the probe and inquire methodology put together! This verbal communication style seeks to uncover the root cause, and when done well, can make people feel enlightened and empowered as problem solvers.

If you are diagnosing, you should be listening critically for information that could point to the nature of the problem, finding possible causes that may or may not be eliminated through further questioning. What are some pain points that you see, and how do you go about digging deeper to find the cause of them? Use selective attention to discern if there is a deeper meaning to what is being said.

In the scenario above, an example of a ‘diagnose response would be, “What was the difference between the way you said it and the way your colleague said it?”

suggesting for guidance


Suggesting for Guidance

Suggesting is about the brilliance of impression. It seeks to persuade, to describe, to recommend the best way forward. It communicates desired experiences. As a result, you are problem solving when dealing with issues or differences in opinion.

When we suggest, we either: Articulate for Influence, Advise for Credibility, or Advocate for Impact.

1. Articulate for Influence

Did you know that you can hold influence simply through the power of descriptive storytelling? That is the subtle genius of the articulate voice. This style of suggestion seeks to narrate the world around you, letting people know about the world through your lens in the way you explain, summarise, illuminate and validate ideas. It weaves strands of information together into a rich tapestry that captures the attention and imagination, while bridging different people together and creating involvement.

If you are articulating, you should be listening critically to understand information, picking out the key bits in order to summarise or describe what you have heard effectively. What do you hear? How do you view the entire situation from your perspective?

In the scenario above, an example of an ‘articulate’ response would be, “It sounds really frustrating that your boss just ignored you and not your colleague, even though it was your idea in the first place.”

2. Advise for Credibility

Sharing is caring—and that is the basis of the advise voice. This verbal communication style is in fact, a gift—when we advise, we present people with answers in order to help them out and move things along based on your previous experience. When done well, it makes people feel informed and supported, while creating a reputation for yourself as someone who is experience and a credible source of expertise!

If you are advising, you should use critical listening for information that points to the nature of the problem, which helps to ensure that your advice comes from an informed point of view, instead of inadvertently moving to a position of advocacy. What is the dilemma that you see? What kind of position is the other party in?

In the scenario above, an example of an ‘advise’ response would be, “In my opinion, you’ve got two options. One is to speak to your boss privately and let them know what had happened. The second option is for you to just let it go.”

3. Advocate for Impact

Known as the verbal communication style of persuasion and impact, the advocate voice offers the quality of conviction in its tone and words. It seeks to powerfully motivate others, driving your own agenda and moving people towards your position. When done well, people may feel moved, motivated and excited to take a stand—either for or against you.

If you are advocating, you should be a critical listener for information that shows you areas of agreement or disagreement between both of you. Is there something that you think they need to act upon?

In the scenario above, an example of an ‘advocate’ response would be, “What both of them did was completely out of line. You should talk to them and confront them about this!”

telling for direction


Telling for Direction

Telling is about the brilliance of clarity. It seeks to show the way, directly and firmly, and sets the expectation of what people can expect from you.

When we tell, we either: Challenge for Change, Correct for Improvement, or Critique for Judgement.

1. Challenge for Change

Challenge is the voice that seeks to improve critical thinking. The use of this verbal communication style means getting others to consider a different point-of-view, an alternative perspective that is different from how they view and do things now. When done well, people are more alert and driven to reflect on what they may not have considered previously, thus enhancing their critical thinking skills!

If you are challenging, you should be actively listening for information that may be inconsistent or contradictory to what the other person is saying.  Are there assumptions that people are making? Or perhaps even an alternative point of view that has not been considered before?

In the scenario above, an example of a ‘challenge’ response would be, “Have you considered that maybe it wasn’t about who said it to him, but about the timing? You might have approached him at the wrong moment.”

2. Correct for Improvement

The correct voice is about standards. It tells us where the bar is, and what we need to do to get there and avoid falling off. It isn’t about admonishment, it is about improvement—although with this voice, there can be a thin line between the two. This verbal communication strategy seeks to establish discipline and expectations, and when done well, can make people feel clearer and informed about the course they should take.

If you are correcting, you should use selective listening for information that falls short of the usual procedures or protocols. What is going on that has resulted in a less-than-desirable result?

In the scenario above, an example of a ‘correct’ response would be, “The right way for you to have done this would have been to speak to your manager privately, so that he would have been more open to listening to you.”

3. Critique for Judgement

The critique voice is our verbal ‘pros and cons’ list. It dissects, taking an idea, situation or practice and takes it apart. The evaluative nature of the critique voice means that it signals both identified risk and identified opportunity. This verbal communication strategy seeks out the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats from what is presented, and draws them all out equally and impartially. When done well, it can leave people feeling enlightened and reflective to be able to create alternative courses of action!

If you are critiquing, you should use selective listening for information and sift them according to the advantages and the disadvantages of a scenario. What are the flaws and opportunities that you see in the situation?

In the scenario above, an example of a ‘critique’ response would be, “On one hand I can see why you’re angry at your manager but on the other hand it could have been that your colleague shared the idea in a more clearer way.”

active listening

Know Your Listening Style

Now that you are aware of the different variations of communication styles, it’s time to start figuring out how to become a better critical listener. It’s essential to learn the different types of listening styles and find out the style that you fall under so that both can work hand-in-hand to improve your listening skills. Ultimately, you’ll need to understand all the types of listening styles. Depending on the situation, you may need to call upon different types of listening. For example, you may need to be more empathetic when someone is feeling frustrated, but when you’re learning, you may need to use the informational listening style.

The 9 types of listening styles include:

  • Discriminative listening
  • Comprehensive listening
  • Informational listening
  • Critical listening
  • Biased/Selective listening
  • Sympathetic listening
  • Therapeutic/Empathetic listening
  • Appreciative listening

Let’s discuss the meaning and example use cases of these types of listening methods.

Discriminative Listening

Discriminative listening means that a person keeps their auditory attention on sounds and tones to distinguish meaning and intentions.

Using your auditory cortex, you can pick up on verbal cues that indicate the speaker’s emotions that they are trying to express. A critical listener can hear the emotional variation in the other person’s voice and thus distinguish the emotions they are going through.

Discriminative listening can be applied at any time. For example, you might surrounded by people who speak another language at the airport. Without understanding what the other person is saying, you can easily distinguish the mood based on the tone, body language, and mannerisms. Thus, you can gain some level of comprehension by using a form of auditory attention.

Since most communication between speakers is nonverbal, you can improve your critical listening skills by paying attention to nonverbal cues like tone and body language. You can easily detect irritation, enthusiasm, or boredom when you focus on the other person’s body positioning, where their eyes are looking at, and the inflection in their voice. As a good critical listener, you’ll be able to make inferences about the real message they are delivering.

Comprehensive listening

Comprehensive listening is where a person interprets the ideas and words of the speaker. This requires critical thinking, since the listener has to understand the vocabulary and language of the message. Pay attention and listen to the words being spoken to identify the the speaker’s main ideas. Examples of comprehensive listening are watching the news, getting directions from someone, listening to a presentation, or taking notes during a meeting.

You can practice comprehensive listening in various ways:

  • Listen to others and ask follow-up questions without interrupting
  • Maintain consistent eye contact with the speaker
  • Practice effective communication skills such as restating or paraphrasing when responding

Informational Listening

When you’re listening to something, you’ll utilize informational listening skills to understand and retain information. This form of listening requires the auditory cortex to interpret the information, which develops your critical thinking skills. Some examples include personal and professional training, listening to something like an audiobook, self-paced learning at home, and coaching.

You can improve your selective attention and ability to listen and learn new information. Firstly, you might want to refrain from judgment of the information you’re taking in, which requires an open mind. Only listening to what you want to hear defeats the purpose of the exercise. Having preconceived notions when listening to something can cause you to miss out on key points. Since learning new information isn’t easy, ask questions to clarify a point and develop a stronger understanding of the topic. Asking questions also improves your critical thinking skills, so that you can draw your own conclusions.

critical listening


Critical Listening

Critical listening takes place when you are trying to analyze and judge complex information. A critical listener employing this type of listening may determine whether the speaker is trustworthy. For example, if there’s an upcoming election, they would assess key points that each candidate has proposed and evaluate which message makes the most sense. The key is that you aren’t making judgments. Instead, you are simply evaluating their ideas and employing critical listening skills to assess their trustworthiness.

To improve your critical listening skills, practice listening and seeing how much information you can retain. Sometimes it takes the auditory cortex a few minutes to evaluate any complex information given. If a response is needed immediately,  provide feedback to the speaker. You can summarize the speaker’s main points to show them that you heard and understood their message. After that, use critical thinking to give your opinion on what they had to said. In addition, a critical listener will look to expand their vocabulary. The more words related to the topic you know, the more you’ll be able to understand.

Furthermore, a person who listens critically should be open to new ideas. Sometimes people are so stuck in their ways that they fail to be receptive, especially when it comes to new ideas. When someone else is speaking, use systematic reasoning to see whether the speaker’s message is factual and makes sense. Try to distinguish between opinions and facts. Sometimes the speaker may have assumptions where they root their opinions and state them as fact when they are clearly not.

In many cases, critical listening can require selective attention. Selective attention is the process of focusing on one thing at a time. In a world where there are lots of unimportant details and a constant barrage of sensory information, learning how to block out the noise is an essential skill. When practicing these listening techniques, it’s important to give your selective attention to the speaker.

Biased/Selective Listening

Biased or selective listening occurs when a person only listens to partial information. This isn’t an effective listening strategy and will cause a distortion of facts because the listener isn’t fully engaged.

We often only listen to what we want to hear rather than taking the time to appreciate the whole story. If you’re at an interview, you may only focus on the salary that the potential job offers without listening to the specific details of the job. An entertainment news channel may take exciting sound bites from an interview to draw attention rather than giving the audience a full story. Thus, the news channel is using a form of biased or selective listening.

Here are some common signs of selective listening:

  • Skimming – Selective listening happens when you are deciding when to retain and when to ignore some information
  • Multitasking – If you’re doing something else at the same time, you are engaging in selective hearing. For example, you may be watching TV while listening to someone.
  • Summarizing – Developing a general impression instead of listening to the details or facts
  • Prioritizing – Focusing on high priority information

Selective hearing is not the best way to build rapport with others. People may not feel good if they sense that you aren’t engaged and seem to be drifting away. Learning when to use selective hearing can help improve your relationships. Focus on not making a premature judgement on the information or only looking for information that you want to hear. Instead, give the speaker your undivided attention.

If you’re someone with selective hearing, practicing active listening techniques may help. You can write down what you’ve heard after listening to the speaker. If you’re listening to an audio recording, you can write down everything you remember. After that re-listen to the recording to see what you’ve missed. People are usually unaware of selective listening.

Out of all the types of listening methods, selective listening is perhaps the only one you should avoid doing.

Here are some practical tips to reducing your selective listening:

  • Remove distractions and avoid noisy environments. This allows you to focus on one thing at a time.
  • If you’re listening to something like an audio recording, you can turn up the volume, so that it’s easier to tune into the information that you need to hear.
  • Ask follow-up questions to the speaker afterwards or summarize key takeaways to ensure that you’ve understood their message.

With that being said, there are times where selective listening may be useful. For example, if there are multiple conversations or sounds going off at once, you’ll need to use selective attention. At a party, there may be dozens of conversations going on at the same time. In the scenario, you’ll use selective attention to only listen to the conversation that you’re having. Thus, selection attention filters out the noises that are relevant to you at that particular moment.

Sympathetic Listening

Sympathetic listening is when you’re driven by emotion. Instead of paying attention to the words, you focus on nonverbal cues of the conversation, such as emotions and feelings. Sympathetic listening is most commonly used to establish a deep connection and build strong relationships with others.

For example, if you notice a colleague who is frustrated at work, create a safe space for them to communicate and be sympathetic. You may learn that the person feels like they lack recognition at work from their peers or bosses. By using sympathetic listening and paying attention to their emotions, the speaker will feel heard and validated when you are taking the time to pay attention to their feelings.

When it comes to sympathetic listening, there are various active listening techniques you can adopt to improve your skills. It’s important to show acknowledgement by nodding or injecting phrases such as “uh-huh.” When you listen to others, you can encourage the speaker to continue the conversation by adding summary responses to demonstrate that you understand them. You can also draw from your previous experience to relate to the other person. For example, if the speaker is feeling disappointed, you might not have had the exact same previous experience but you can relate to the emotions they are feeling.

Be mindful of what the speaker doesn’t say as well. Paying attention to other person’s body language like shifting away from you, keeping their head down, or not making eye contact. Refrain from adding your input unless the speaker asks since that may inhibit further communication.


empathetic listening


Therapeutic/Empathetic listening

Therapeutic or empathetic listening is when you try to look at things from the point of view of another person. Rather than simply focusing on what the other person is saying, you may relate to their previous experience.

Empathetic listening isn’t the same as sympathetic listening. With sympathetic listening, your goal is to provide support, but you don’t have to put yourself in the speaker’s shoes.

If your superior has told you that the upcoming company outing is cancelled, you can use empathetic listening to relate to how your boss is feeling. Maybe you’ve learned that your boss was feeling pressure from higher-ups due to cost-cutting measures, which can help you understand why your boss has made their decision.

You can improve on this empathetic listening skill by imagining or visualizing the previous experience and emotions the speaker is going through. This allows you to have a better understanding of what they are going through.

With empathetic listening, you can build respect and trust with others. Other people may feel comfortable coming to you without any fear of punishment or judgment. Furthermore, empathetic listening is a key component to developing emotional intelligence. It allows you to recognize emotions in others and learn to communicate them properly.

Here are some tips to practice and improve your ability to listen empathetically:

  • Be present while the speaker is talking. This means minimising distractions and not planning any responses ahead of time. Focus closely on their message, tone, and body language to fully grasp their emotions.
  • Be nonjudgmental and let go of your opinions.
  • Show that you are listening carefully and intently. You can nod in agreement or paraphrase their message. However, don’t just tell them what they want to hear but give them honest feedback. Ask follow-up questions to gain clarity.
  • Encourage them to speak rather than interrupt them.

Appreciative listening

Appreciative listening is when you focus on information that you particularly like or appreciate. This is different from selective hearing. It focuses on the feelings and thoughts of another person rather than judging the material.

You can incorporate appreciation into critical listening as well. In a conversation, the goal of appreciative listening is to make another person feel valued and create a safe space for them to interact with you. This is done through eye contact, being present in the conversation, having an open mind to what the other person is saying, and fully accepting their ideas. For example, if they explain their idea, you can make affirmative statements like “that’s helpful information” or “tell me more.”

To help you understand what appreciative listening is, think of the example of when you’re listening to good music. You are actively listening and appreciating parts of the song that you enjoy. The beauty of appreciative listening is that the meaning and sounds we pick out will differ from person to person. That’s because human perception plays a huge role in this.

Here are three factors that affect appreciative listening.

Previous experience: A past experience such as a memory can be triggered as a result of the topic that the other person is speaking to you about. For example, if a person is sharing their positive experience with you, you may also feel the same feelings of joy that you felt with a similar experience.

Perception: Each person has their own interpretation of what people say. Two people might interpret the same sentence very differently and perceive different emotions.

Presentation: In music terms, presentation affects a person’s ability to appreciate a particular message or sound. For example, listening to your favorite band in a live concert is different than listening to them on the radio. Similarly, you might perceive talking to someone face-to-face differently compared to talking to someone on the phone.

Rapport listening

Effective listening skills allow you to build a strong connection with other people. Rapport listening involves listening for shared interests or a mutual understanding of a topic. By developing rapport listening, you can level up your critical listening skills in many ways and build better rapport with the people around you.

When you’re meeting new people whether it be through a personal or professional setting, make a point to remember people’s names. You can also recall a shared previous experience or previous interests that the other person has mentioned. For example, if you remember that a person loves a specific band, you can bring up their next concert.

Rapport listening is all about identifying commonalities such as interests, previous experience, or ideologies by listening critically. It requires closely paying attention to pick up their likes and dislikes. In addition, you can establish a common ground with another person by asking follow-up questions or open-ended questions.



By knowing the types of listening styles along with communication styles, you can have a better understanding of how others may be affected by the way you speak. In turn, this may also allow you to consciously tune the way you listen, especially according to the intended outcome of the conversation.

Once you identify your communication style, you’ll need to practice all types of listening styles. Every style is unique, and you can improve your critical listening skills to be a better communicator and engager.

Critical listening develops strong relationships and although it may not come naturally at first, having communication skills is invaluable in any personal and professional setting. Critical listening also improves productivity in the workplace because you’ll have the ability to interpret the meaning behind the communication with your boss and other co-workers quickly. This prevents the misunderstanding and frustration that may occur with repeated back-and-forth communication.

If you’re interested in understanding more about your communication and listening styles, and the parallels between how you think you talk and how you are heard, then the SoundWave 360 assessment can help. It uses data-driven insights from team members and leaders to understand how well they listen to one another and how they are perceived by others with their voices. An accredited SoundWave practitioner can then work with you to develop an action plan to foster better collaboration at the workplace.


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