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COMMUNICATION: The Art of Listening

deb stairs 2v2We probably all think we listen well and yet, the research shows that we only listen 25% of the time.  The rest of the time we may be hearing the words, but not processing the information.  The result:  misunderstood assignments, upset relationships, unclear expectations, even the seeds of distrust.

And yet, listening is one of the most powerful tools we have as leaders and managers.  Listening is how we show respect; it’s the means to understanding the root cause of a problem and the very best way to handle resistance to change.  It’s the magical influence and persuasion tool that we repeatedly neglect to use.  Why?  Because we’re so busy talking.

078f9_listenLet’s look at an example.  As a trainer, I might be teaching the audience of learners the techniques for handling conflict in the workplace.  “Fred” raises his hand to disagree, saying:  “I don’t believe I should have to speak directly to an employee if I have a conflict; I believe my supervisor should handle it.”  It’s very tempting at that point try to convince Fred about why it’s important for him to handle it.  But if we recognize that we aren’t finished listening yet, we switch gears and ask Fred for a few more details by focusing on three specific listening behaviors.

ipod listening step1Step One: Getting control of ourselves.  At this point in our Fred situation, the mind of the trainer is so filled with how to convince Fred to try the new strategy, there’s no room for listening.  So, our first task is to tell ourselves – “not yet” – and clear a mental space in our brain by stowing away our own thoughts and opinions.  Many years ago, I was a news reporter and had to sit through municipal and school board meetings for hours, listening to what everyone was saying and then digesting it into a brief news story.  The process taught me how to put all my focus on the listener, making constant eye contact and paying close attention to the words being used while maintaining a mental state of neutrality.

Try this practice:  Sit in a meeting next week and listen very closely to everyone who speaks, writing out the headline you would give each person’s “story” about what he or she has said.

ipod listening step 2Step Two: Capture the message.  Our primary task at this point is to try to make sense of what the speaker is saying.  So, we begin by paraphrasing Fred to make sure we understand him correctly.  “Fred, it seems to me that you’re saying that accountability for resolving the conflict rests with your supervisor and the other employee, and not yourself.  Is that correct?”  Paraphrasing is truly trying to understand what someone is saying by sharing how you’re hearing it and seeing if you’re correct.  It is not simply repeating what the other person said.  At this point, Fred either agrees or disagrees, perhaps elaborating a bit on his position.  Fred might respond, “Well yes, because otherwise you could get in trouble if you try to handle it yourself and the supervisor disagrees.”  Hmmm.  Fred’s elaboration has changed my thinking.  Originally, I was thinking that Fred was trying to get out of having to take accountability by handling the conflict himself.  Now, I’m thinking that his real concern is that he might handle it and then his supervisor might disagree.  I better ask some additional questions and maybe even fish for what isn’t being said here.  When I’m trying to listen, the best questions begin with “what” and “how” because they are nice, neutral words. “Fred, what experiences have you had with supervisors when you’ve tried to handle conflicts in the past?”  How did they work out?”  Fred replies, “Well, I had one supervisor who took the other guy’s side immediately because he was a favorite, and I had another one who just flat out told us to bring everyone to him and he would decide it all.”  Now, I might try surfacing the feelings that Fred has about this whole situation.  “I bet at this point Fred, you’re feeling a bit anxious about trying a new technique without some clear endorsement that this will be supported by your supervisor.  Is that correct?”  Fred replies with some relief, “You got it.”

Interestingly, in a new book on listening entitled, Just Listen*, the author Mark Goulston reflects on some research done at UCLA that suggests that when people put words to their emotions, they cool down immediately (p. 31).  By suggesting to Fred that he might be feeling anxious, I labeled his emotion for him, and he cooled down.

Try this practice:  During next week, try paraphrasing, asking questions and surfacing feelings as you listen to co-workers or family members.  Above all else, delay sharing your own opinion until you have explored theirs.

ipod listening step3Step Three: Help the listener to be fully understood.  Unless we’re consciously working on our listening, we don’t think about trying to help the listener to be understood.  Our feeling is often, “Hey buddy, you’re not making any sense here.”  We pass judgment and really don’t try to figure out what the speaker is saying.  I want to suggest a different approach:  we are able to listen at 350 words per minute on average while people speak at about 150 words per minute.  What about if we use our mental speed  to our advantage by doing a few additional things:   check on the consistency between the verbal words being said and the non-verbal, body language message, offer non-verbal encouragement ourselves through our facial expressions and gestures, even put ourselves in the listener’s shoes to develop our own empathy with what is being said or felt.

Goulston commented in chapter six of Just Listen about Warren Bennis, saying:  “Deep Listening” is one of the terms most often used to describe Bennis, founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California.  Warren is one of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet, but when you’re with him – I don’t care if you’re the guy parking his car, or the CEO of Google – he is more interested in you.”

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, shares a similar story: “During my first year on the Stanford faculty in 1988, I sought out professor John Gardner for guidance on how I might become a better teacher. Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, founder of Common Cause, and author of the classic text Self-Renewal, stung me with a comment that changed my life.  ‘It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you invest more time being interested.”‘

Isn’t that what listening is all about:  being interested in people – their stories, their experiences, their concerns.  Fred needed me to listen to him, not just be interested in conveying my information in the training.

*Mark Goulston, Just Listen, AMACOM, 2010.
Bonus: Watch Mark Goulston on how he got a CEO’s undivided attention for 20 minutes





  • Good listening requires patience. It is so easy to move on too quickly and assume that you understand what someone is saying. Paraphrasing is quick way to do a check, especially when a misunderstanding could have severe consequences.

    … thanks Deb

  • Thank you for the wonderful information! I’ve heard similar information before, but it’s nice to be reminded about it from time-to-time because it gets lost in busy day-to-day life.

    I am conducting training next week and will use your 3 steps in my training to better understand where my students are coming from and to help them understand the material.

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