How can I become a better listener?

by Sam on April 1, 2009


Analysis: There are two causes for celebration just because you have chosen to read this email. First, you’ve challenged the #1 nemesis of personal improvement, denial, and are open to strengthening a critical leadership skill. Second, it appears that you agree with the three words that ended the preceding sentence, and believe that effective listening is at the root of effective leadership. Hurray!!

Just in case I wasn’t correct about the second reason, here’s a review of why great listeners tend to be great influencers (leaders). Check out A. through G. below, but trust me—we could use up the entire alphabet for a complete explanation of the power of listening.

  1. Your ear keeps your foot out of your mouth. Leaders can’t afford to sound stupid. Fully listen to and absorb questions, assertions, and emotions before you speak and you’ll limit your diet of leather.
  2. You separate needs from wants. Others will often express a desire by saying, “I need…” When you respond with “How will it help to have that?” and then listen, their comeback is likely to state their true need as opposed to the want that they first blurted out. Why is this distinction important? If you satisfy a want, only rarely will the real underlying need also be met.
  3. You learn what drives others. In their conversations with you, people will tell you most of what you need to know in order to figure out what makes them tick. As you listen non-judgmentally they’ll often share their vision, values, beliefs, opinions, desires, dreams, moods, aspirations, politics (watch out!), pain, and world view.
  4. You grow in knowledge. You can’t learn anything new when you’re talking. The knowledge you gain with your ears is power.
  5. You defuse anger in others. When you verbally engage angry people, you might escalate to the level of their emotion and sometimes even beyond. Not good! When instead you lend an ear those who are irate, you allow them to vent, to decompress to your calmer level of emotion, and you open the way to mutual problem solving.
  6. You tell others they’re important to you. Consider how you’d feel if upon entering someone’s office that person turns to an assistant and says, “Please hold my calls and protect us from interruptions.” And what if when the door is closed that person looks at you and says, “What can I do to help you?” And what if the conversation ends with you having spoken over 70% of the time? How have you just been made to feel?
  7. You allow others to grow in intimacy with you. Don’t be thrown by the “i” word. Here’s what intimacy means in a professional relationship-building context. The more people share matters of great importance to them with you—see for example the string of personal qualities at the end of B, above—the closer they feel toward you. It’s almost as though they just made a valuable deposit in your vault (mind and heart) and now feel the need to protect it. The level of cooperation and service you’re likely to receive will grow.

Answer: You’ll win the benefits expressed above once you become adept at keeping people talking. Apply the four or five ideas below that you believe will work best for you in order to gain that result when you listen.

  1. Show an “open face.” Communication expert and coach Arch Lustberg demonstrates that lifting your eyebrows will elevate your tone of voice. (Try it!) Raised eyebrows yield an even greater communication benefit. They subconsciously signal to others that you’re unconditionally open to their speech.
  2. Fashion a half smile. Your combination of an open face and a bit of a smile is dynamite encouragement for others to keep talking.
  3. Look into the eyes of the speaker. This shows that you really do care about what’s being said and says, “Tell me more.”
  4. Be less apt to interrupt with opinions, objections, solutions, or any other judgment calls. When you butt in the speaker eventually concludes, “What’s the use?” and clams up. Offer your ideas only when the other person’s point has been made. You might even ask permission before you break in.
  5. Discipline yourself to stay focused. You have been blessed with a listening capacity of about 480 words per minute; yet, most speaking occurs at only about 120 words per minute. Your excess listening power (360 wpm) is a barrier to understanding and retention as it tempts your mind to drift. When the resulting inattention causes your eyes wander or glaze over, the speaker becomes discouraged.
  6. Don’t be doing anything else. If you fiddle with something or are sitting at your computer quietly pushing the keys while participating in a telephone conversation, your tone of voice drops and reveals your disconnect from the speaker.
  7. Share a task between you. The best dialogues often occur between two people focused on a common undertaking. That can be anything from driving in a car to stuffing envelopes. This advisory may at first appear to conflict with #6 above, but it doesn’t. In this case, the activity that you’re both engaged in stimulates the conversation.
  8. Paraphrase occasionally. You’ll tell the speaker you’re listening and you’ll tease out more information with, “Let me make sure I’m following; are you saying that…?”
  9. Empathize. Often people will bring their frustrations, failures, and fiascos to you. It can be very tempting to give advice, but only rarely will that advice be helpful. What is almost always helpful is to allow people to figure things out for themselves. A statement like, “That must be rough” or “You’ve got some challenges there” will encourage the other person to keep talking and thereby draw closer to self help—the best kind.
  10. Morph exclamation points into question marks. This requires some explanation. When a speaker makes a strong statement such as, “…and I’m frustrated by that!” dead silence typically follows. Keep the conversation moving by repeating the last few words of the proclamation followed by a question mark rather than the period or exclamation point that originally ended it. In the example above try, “Frustrated by that?” Invariably the speaker will regain momentum by saying something like “You bet! I…”
  11. Withhold “I,” “me” or “my” from the first sentences of your responses. Imagine that someone tells you, “I’ve had a rough day today.” Where would you go with that statement? Lousy listeners stop others in their tracks with, “I’m having a rough day myself.” Great listeners keep the person talking with “Tell me about it.”
  12. Pick someone to give a good listening-to. Most of us have said, “I’m going to give so-and-so a good talking to.” Few of us have ever said, “I’m going to give so-and-so a good listening-to.” Review A. through G. at the top of this page for the payoff from following this advice.

Final Thought: You may have already concluded that for the most part listening is not a communication skill, as some claim. No, it’s primarily an attitude! If you want to do it badly enough and will vow to improve your oral comprehension of others, you’ll make it happen. Great listening does not come naturally, nor does it need be learned—it is willed.


Big people monopolize the listening. Small people monopolize the talking.

~David Schwartz


Each answer marked with an A is the subject of a soon-to-appear Ask in the form of a solution tool.  Feel free to contact Sam now to learn how that tool might be applied to your team.

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