Listening Time: The Complete Guide to Understanding Spoken Business English

Listening becoming a lost art in the business world today.

We are forgetting how to truly listen to each other.

What do you think? Do you agree?

In this Forbes “HBS Working Knowledge” column, Professor Jim Heskett reviews the research done by several business book authors who all seem to agree that business managers may indeed have lost the ability to listen.

Listening is hard enough in everyday life. It requires our focus and attention. In the world of global business today, Business English language learners face the additional challenge of communicating in a language that isn’t their native language.

Don’t worry, though.

I’ve picked out some great business audio resources you can use to sharpen your listening skills. But first, here are some useful tips for getting the most out of your listening activities.

Before Listening: How to Prepare to Listen in Any Business Situation

a. Take Notes at Seminars and Courses

Most of us pick up reading skills more quickly than listening skills.

After all, when you’re reading, you can progress as slowly as you want. You can take time to pause (stop) and think about what you’re reading. In English classes, they often focus on teaching you reading more than anything else. So, your reading skills are probably already better than your listening skills.

Why not make use of your reading ability to assist your listening at business events such as seminars, workshops or training courses?

Here’s what you can do.

Get a copy of any handouts that are distributed (given out) at business events. If possible, read through them before the event starts. You might also want to do research online before the event to learn more about possible topics. Having this background information will prepare you to understand better and more quickly as you listen.

Feel free to write on the handouts you have. Note down any vocabulary that’s new to you or that you don’t understand. When you have time, work on these notes and keep them handy to use as a quick reference.

b. Watch the Speaker’s Face

Imagine talking to someone, but they’re looking somewhere else or clearly thinking about something else. They’re not paying enough attention to you! How much do you think they’ll understand or remember?

This is where active listening comes in. Active listening means that you’re really paying close attention to what’s being said, and you’re really trying to understand everything.

Listening alone isn’t enough. Take note of the speaker’s facial expressions and body language as well. Do they look happy, excited, sad, uncomfortable or angry? Use these non-verbal clues to help you build a better picture of what the speaker is saying and what they really mean. For instance, if the speaker is smiling and talking very fast, you can tell they’re excited and want to share some good news.

If you stand or sit facing the speaker, you’ll be able to focus better on what they’re saying. Clear your mind and focus. Make eye contact with the speaker, and respond with brief comments, questions and facial expressions that show you understand.

c. Learn Some Related Business Vocabulary

Read related business articles ahead of any meeting or event. For example, if you’ll be attending a seminar on biotechnology, get yourself familiar with the business language used in this field. This way, you’ll instantly recognize a word when you hear it and you’ll understand what it means.

Another way to prepare yourself is by listening to business English podcasts. These are made by native English speakers and discuss all kinds of great business topics, using natural language. Listening to these is an excellent way to sharpen your listening as well as spoken communication skills.

I have found six of the best audio resources online to get you started. However, before we get to those, here are a few tips on how to make the most (get the most value out) of your listening practice.

While Listening: How to Make the Most of Your Listening Practice

a. Pay Attention to New Business Language Usage

During your listening practice, pay attention to business English vocabulary that may be new to you or that you don’t understand.

Even if you’ve heard these words before, you may still learn new ways to use them in different business situations. If you’re not completely sure what the speaker is saying, listen carefully to the speaker’s pronunciation. Here are a few things to remember:

  • In English, words aren’t always pronounced the same way that they’re spelled.
  • English is a time-stressed language. Certain syllables in a word, and certain words in a sentence, are stressed (emphasized) and often sound louder and longer. In the word information, for instance, the stress is on the third syllable, so it sounds like in-for-MA-tion with the MA sound being the strongest and loudest.
  • Intonation is another thing to listen for. Note where the speaker’s pitch (voice) rises and falls depending on emotion, emphasis, etc. When asking a question, for instance, the pitch usually rises at the end.

b. Listen for Keywords and Main Ideas

Don’t try to understand 100% of what you hear.

If you stop to figure out the meaning of every word, you won’t be able to hear and understand the rest of the message as the person continues speaking. Listen for keywords and main ideas instead.

Don’t worry about the words you don’t understand. Just keep listening for words and expressions that you know or at least recognize. Use these words and the context (the topic in general, or the rest of the sentence) to get the most complete picture that you can. For example, let’s say you hear this:

To avoid impacting the project deadline, we need to expedite development and speed everything up.

Let’s say you only manage to catch (hear and understand) the words in bold. Based on these words, you can understand:

Project deadline, development, speed everything up.

With this, you can guess that the speaker is talking about needing to speed up the work to meet the project deadline.

See? You didn’t need to understand the words avoid impacting (to not affect) and expedite (speed up). You were still able to get the gist (general idea) of the message. Cool, right?

c. Minimize Translating to Your Native Language

As you listen, your brain will often want to translate what you hear into your native language.

I’m not going to tell you not to do that. Translating is a very natural thing to do. We all do it, and that’s okay.

What I would advise you to do, however, is to minimize translating. This means that you should try, as much as possible, to not translate everything.

The reason for this is simple: When you’re mentally translating, you stop listening. This means you may lose the rest of the message. Clearly, it’s not possible to tell someone to stop speaking until you finish mentally (in your brain) translating what they just said.

In general, translating takes too much time. Here are two things you can do to understand more in less time.

  • Instead of trying to understand every single word on its own, try to listen for chunks (groups) of words that go together. In business English, there are many groups of words that, when used together, have a certain meaning. For example, expressions, idioms and phrasal verbs all use certain groups of words together. Use them to help you form a picture in your head in less time.
  • Train yourself to process information in English, not in your native language. It takes effort and practice, of course but it will become easier as you gain confidence. Soon, you’ll be thinking and listening like a native speaker.

A superb tool you can use to get the most out of your listening practice is FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Click here to check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

FluentU Ad

Thanks to FluentU, you will get immersed in the language, which will let your listening skills skyrocket in a natural way. Give it a free try today and listen your way to business fluency!

Listening Time: 6 Audio Resources for Practicing Your Business English Listening Skills

Finally, here we are—we’ve got six of the best series of audio content online to get you off to a great start in your business English listening practice.

1. Improving Your Communication Skills – Listening

This podcast from Business English Pod is packed with useful tips on how to improve your listening skills. It comes with a transcript (the podcast in written form), a quiz and vocabulary task.

2. Business English Audio Comprehension Practice

Test your listening skills with this series of podcasts and listening exercises from the Business English Site website. Challenge yourself with the listening comprehension tests of common business English words that sound similar. Answers are provided at the end.

3. Listen And Learn Business English – Podcasts of Current News

With this site known as Podcasts in English, you can listen to discussions of the most current business news. What’s great is that there’s a diverse (mixed) list of news topics to choose from. Each podcast comes with a transcript, worksheet (with answers) and vocabulary tasks.

4. Business and Work Professional Podcasts

This series of professional podcasts by the British Council targets many different fields of work. You can listen to extracts, speeches and interviews about diverse business topics ranging from biotechnology to viral marketing. At the end of each podcast are tasks, questions and a transcript.

5. BBC Learning English – English at Work

This series of podcasts talks about everyday work scenarios. You’ll hear the language and vocabulary commonly used in many different work situations such as how to handle misunderstandings, job appraisals and work priorities. At the end of each podcast is a summary of the new language introduced as well as a learning challenge.

6. The Business – Podcasts

This series by Macmillan is interesting because the podcasts feature interviews with real-life businesspeople about their working lives in the UK. Each podcast comes with a transcript and a practice worksheet.

After Listening: How to Reinforce Your Listening Practice

a. Listen to Other Podcasts About Similar Business Topics

The podcasts I’ve listed above are just some of the many interesting and educational business audios that you can find online. I hope you’ll find time during your busy work day to use them for improving your listening skills.

b. Keep Up the Listening Practice

Keep up your listening practice with the audio business resources available online.

Whether you’re waiting for a coworker at the cafeteria or on a train ride home, remember that practice makes perfect.

Good luck!

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