Great Listeners Don’t Do What You Think They Do

No more fake laughs and confused nods

“Frankly, I had never thought of listening as an important subject by itself. But now that I am aware of it, I think that perhaps 80% of my work depends on my listening to someone, or on someone else listening to me.”

“I’ve been thinking back about things that have gone wrong over the past couple of years, and I suddenly realized that many of the troubles have resulted from someone not hearing something, or getting it in a distorted way.”

“It’s interesting to me that we have considered so many facets of communication in the company, but have inadvertently overlooked listening. I’ve about decided that it’s the most important link in the company’s communications, and it’s obviously also the weakest one.”

In the September 1957 issue of HBR, Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens describe the comments of executives of a major manufacturing plant in Chicago. They were surveyed about the role of listening in their company and were given a short training afterward.

1957 is a long time back. But humans have known the importance of listening for centuries.

It’s a timeless skill that is known to bring greater success and satisfaction in every area of your life.

But we still suck at it.

The problem of not listening has been around forever. People have always been involved in what they have to say, not what others have to share.

Why does it seem that listening is getting harder every day?

Thanks to our technology and our fast-paced, restless world. Now more than ever, people have become stressed and distracted. The urge to check your messages, calls, email, and notifications, is at an all-time high.

The art of listening has been boiled down to tips and tricks. Nod your head, smile, remember the person’s name, let them know you’re listening repeat their words back to them, etc.

But, as Celeste Headlee points out, the only solution is to be genuinely interested and present in the moment. No need for fake laughs or pretentious tricks.

Have you ever nodded even when you didn’t hear what the other person just said (“Yeah, true true”)?

I’ve been there too.

While these cheap tricks can save your ass, they will not make you a better listener. The best conversations are those where you speak the least. The key to being heard more is to shut up.

Here are the practical points that I learned after consuming and implementing much of what has been written on this subject:

Be prepared

Write down 10 questions that you can ask a person before any conversation. You don’t have to do it forever but it is important to get you out of the habit of speaking all the time.

All your life, you’ve been conditioned to cut off people — to speak and not to listen often. It takes a little practice to break that loop.

Asking questions is a skill and you need to practice. Initially, like anything else, it is going to be hard. It’s hard to think about what’s going on in other people’s lives because we’re too focused on our own. But once the habit of asking questions is ingrained, then you won’t need to make this list.

Headlee says thinking of questions before-hand is crap. But I think it’s a good way to tilt your focus in the right direction. You need dramatic steps to break the habit of not listening.

Mind open, Mouth Closed

If your mouth is open you’re not learning — Buddha

Every person is an expert in something you don’t know about. Always lead with that.

You’re doing interesting things. You are successful and you have a lot going on. I get that. But it doesn’t mean that you’re Mr. Know-it-all.

Just because a person is not a marketer, doesn’t mean that he cannot give you a unique insight into marketing.

Knowledge is available everywhere for the ears not unclouded by ego.

Writers are the best example. They’re always looking for material in their life. They speak to the person whole-heartedly because they know there’s something waiting to be uncovered — some idea that can be turned into a story.

Create a mental model of the words that you hear

Creating a mental picture gives your mind an object of focus. If you’ve meditated before, you know how easily the mind can get distracted unless given an anchor to focus on — the breath for example

Likewise, we need anchors in conversations to keep our minds busy.

By creating a mental image of what the person is saying you introduce another important element of good listening — empathy. You’re able to gauge what the speaker felt in a particular situation. And then you can ask open-ended questions — ‘What did it feel like?’, ‘What happened after that?’, ‘How did he react?’, etc.

This helps them to dig deeper into their own selves and give information that would otherwise be lost.

M. Scott Pec said, “Since true listening involves a setting aside of the self, it also temporarily involves a total acceptance of the others. Sensing this acceptance, the speaker will feel less and less vulnerable, and more and more inclined to open up the inner recesses of his or her mind to the listener. As this happens, the speaker and listener begin to appreciate each other more and more, and the dance of love is begun again.”

Resist the urge to solve their problem

Here’s an eye-opener that I learned the hard way: People don’t need your ideas unless they ask for it.

They want to just get it out. They’re not looking for a solution — they can figure it out themselves once they empty their emotional baggage on you.

Even if you give the solution to them, they’re not likely to implement it. Worse yet you’ll be perceived as someone who cut them off while they’re trying to explain their situation.

Don’t be a hero. Let your thoughts flow through your mind. Don’t cling to them.

The conversation is not about you, it’s about them.

Don’t be a statue

Show that you’re listening. Well, if you’re really listening you wouldn’t have to care about this point.

But even then, make sure to let them know you’re listening. You might be so absorbed in their words that you forget to react.

If you’re bored or distracted, make sure to bring your attention back onto them so they know you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say.

Your Job Is To Uplift The Speaker

The job of every man on this planet is to uplift others, not push them down.

Often during conversations, we compete with the other person. Someone narrates a funny experience and you rush to add a funnier one. It’s the fight of the ego.

Ditch the ego. The conversation is not a competition, it’s cooperation. The best conversationalists build the self-esteem of the speaker so that he leaves feeling better than when he started talking.

Make them feel supported and safe so they can finally open up to you. Don’t be a debater, be a listener.

Be comfortable with silence

Be silent or let thy words be worth more than silence― Pythagoras

It’s a sad reality that one of the most beautiful things in the world is uncomfortable for so many. The awkward pauses and silences have their place in every conversation if you let them. Don’t rush to fill it with useless information.

If you speak with the intention to avoid silence, your words aren’t worth to be heard.

Take this time to check yours as well as the speaker’s expression and body language. Is one of you slouching? Is your expression weird? Are they looking at their watch repeatedly? Are you maintaining eye contact?

It’s easy to pick up these cues when you’re silent.


Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know — Lao Tzu

The more you listen, the more you learn. And the more you learn the less you want to speak. It seems counterintuitive until you see for yourself.

By taking only one of the tips above and mastering it, you’ll be well on your way to improve your conversations.

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Written on June 18, 2020