Which Communication Skill Is Most Important?


Which communication skill is most important: listening, writing, or speaking? Given the nearly non-stop use of email and social media in every aspect of your life you might respond immediately with “written communications.” Given a few more moments to think about it, you might choose “spoken communications” over writing. You spend a lot of time engaged in conversations on your mobile or face-to-face. But in both cases you’re off the mark. While writing and speaking effectively are important skills to employ daily in your life, they aren’t the most important when it comes to communicating. That spot is reserved for listening.

The importance of listening is likely something you’ve heard before. If it wasn’t our parents scolding us for not listening, then it was Epictetus’ famous quote reminding us, “Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak.” Numerous studies have highlighted the importance of communication in the average persons life, pointing out that most people spend up to 80 percent of their waking hours involved in some method of communication. This is further broken down to about 25 percent writing and reading, 30 percent speaking, and 45 percent listening. Not surprisingly, numerous studies also show that we are horrible listeners.  Not good.

The reasons for our poor grasp of the most important communication skill is that it’s hard.  Not accounting for the fact that we think faster than someone else can speak, we have the added challenges of multi-tasking, calling the subject matter “boring”, or listening only for facts versus the entire content or ‘reading’ the speakers body language.  Overcoming this challenge is difficult, in fact it’s a task I still work on continuously.  I find that without mental preparation before a scheduled meeting or telephone call, or the conscious thought to concentrate on what I’m hearing, it’s nearly impossible for me to leave an engagement with tangibles.  My guess is that you often face the same situation.

Building a capability and capacity to truly listen is an art and it’s essential if you have aspirations of success. The quality of our relationships, ability for solving problems; for generating business; for overcoming difficulties; or for initiating new opportunities all require high fidelity listening skills. Add to this any communications that’s cross-cultural and the need for Herculean listening skills is amplified. Those who have mastered the art of listening:

Get to the root cause of problems faster.  They understand that listening to a client, boss, colleague is the way to truly identify a problem. Once the problem is clearly identified, then the process of developing solutions can begin.

Understand that it’s a compliment to whomever they’re with.  No one ever complements another for talking over them. We know we’ve been in a conversation with someone who has mastered the art of listening because we leave the conversation with a feeling of being appreciated. An accomplished listener does that: she appreciates what the other person has to say; even if she doesn’t agree with it.

Don’t anticipate what they will hear nor allow preconceived notions.  Listening involves capturing another human’s ideas, thoughts, or logic. You can’t do this effectively if you enter an engagement with ideas established of what you’ll hear. How many times have you formed opinions before a conversation, only to leave the conversation either confused or upended by the results? If you have, it’s because you wrote the script in your mind before the discussion and the script you wrote was wrong.

Communication skills are absolutely essential to our existence and they are the foundation for our success. If your skills are lacking, begin first by focusing on your listening skills. Strengthen these and you’ll be in a very solid position.

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”  –Abraham Lincoln


Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP, is a leader, civil engineer, and author. He’s an accomplished professional specializing in A/E/C work internationally and author of The Engineer Leader, a recognized blog on leadership and life success for engineers and professionals. 


This article was originally published on Engineering.com and is republished in its entirety with permission. For more stories like this, visit Engineering.com.


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