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Are You Really Listening?

I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening. –Larry King

Regardless of your long term or short term goals, working to improve your listening skills will help you reach them. Your job probably requires it, you spouse begs for it, your children crave it, and your friends love you because of it. Listening is an art that is in short supply. If you’ve ever been interrupted, you know what I’m talking about.
I’ve arranged L-I-S-T-E-N into an acrostic to help you remember. You can apply these in a variety of situations whether it’s listening to your children, listening in a business meeting, listening in a classroom, listening to your family members at the dinner table, listening to someone who’s networking, or listening to a sermon in church. I believe that if you can develop a passion for listening to others, they will see you as wise, caring, and understanding. You’ll make a stronger connection and improve your communication with them. Having someone truly listen is, I believe, a deep-seated need we all crave. Meeting this need in others will catapult your standing in the eyes of others.

When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen. –Ernest Hemingway

Lay the groundwork

Intentionally create an environment that makes it easy to focus on what someone else is saying. Remove distractions (current and potential) by:

  • Turning off your cell phone, the television, or other electronic distractions.
  • Closing your office door.
  • Moving to a quiet area, away from customers or machinery, if you’re on a busy shop floor.
  • Taking a walk outside with the person.
  • Moving closer so you can adequately hear them (just don’t invade their personal space).

The whole idea is to minimize the possibility of interruption.

Commit to yourself ahead of time to yourself to listen to the entire message without responding. Stephen Covey is known for saying, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” By establishing this committment in your mind ahead of time, you’re on your way to understanding.

If your mind is preoccupied with something else, quickly decide if it can be tabled until later. If that’s just not possible, explain that you want to be able to give your undivided attention and ask if you can postpone conversation until you can truly focus on listening. Few things are as rude as semi-ignoring/semi-listening so by deferring the conversation until you can devote your full attention to it, you’re building a better relationship. While you’re listening, make sure you face the speaker, smile, maintain eye contact, and adopt a relaxed body posture.

No man ever listened himself out of a job. –Calvin Coolidge


If you can find out what the conversation is about up front, you’ll be in a much better position to respond properly, so before you get into details, ask what it’s all about. All you need to know is the subject matter. Employment issue? Legal matter? Safety concerns? Insurance issue? Billy’s grades? Susie’s curfew? No one really likes surprises. Sometimes you can just ask, “Good news or bad news?” If a top performing employee asks to speak with you, and after some small talk, drops the bombshell that she is considering another job offer, finding out up front that the conversation will be about an employment issue will help keep you from reacting in shock and surprise. The alternative is that you may find your mind racing with quick responsive thoughts, such as “What are we going to do now?” “Who can I get to replace her?” and “Should I make her a counter offer?” Forewarned is always forearmed, so don’t hesitate to ask for a preview.

How is asking for a preview a component of listening? It allows your mind to concentrate on what the speaker is actually saying rather than be shocked and go off in a dozen tangents.

Be a good listener. Your ears will never get you in trouble. –Frank Tyger


While not always possible, take notes whenever you can. The simple act of jotting down a few notes can help you remember important issues and keep you from forgetting something that you promised to do. It also helps you stay focused on the speaker and on the message at hand. If you’re speaking with someone on the phone, be sure to explain that your pauses in the conversation stem from you writing a few notes. This has the added benefit of covering yourself later if something goes wrong. “That isn’t what I have in my notes …” could save you a lot of grief later.

Know how to listen, and you will profit even from those who talk badly. –Plutarch

Think about the message

Body language is an important part of communication, but don’t neglect other aspects, such as eye contact by the speaker, the rate, tone and volume of what they say, or the emphasis they put on certain words. These features are part of “para-verbal communication.” The prefix para- means alongside of or related to, so para-verbal communication goes along with, or alongside of, the words the speaker uses. It can tell you whether the speaker is angry, sad, agitated, excited, positive, negative and more. Determining what the para-verbal signals are telling you in a specific situation can give you a great deal of insight, although in no case should you completely disregard the explicit verbal message.

Should the person talking to you begin to ask questions of you, you can easily turn it around and query, “That’s a good question … why do you ask?” Make sure you don’t use this one too often or you may be thought evasive but remember that when you’re talking, you aren’t learning. Remember, we want to hear the whole message from the speaker and we may have to draw it out with questions.

It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen. –Oliver Wendell Holmes

Express it in your own words

So the listener knows that you heard him or her and to insure that what was said was what you understood, repeat the message back to the speaker in your own words. You can do this at various points in the conversation to encourage the speaker to continue.

  • “Explain what you mean by ‘missing money.’ Are you saying that you suspect this employee of embezzlement?”
  • “You’re asking for a temporary extension of curfew because the movie last 3 hours?”
  • “You’d like me to assess this job candidate’s suitability for our open position?”
  • “You’re saying we can make extra money for the company by discontinuing this product line?
  • “That’s an interesting viewpoint/question/idea … can you tell me more?

Sometimes you don’t actually hear what you think you’ve heard. Repeating it back to the speaker will prevent miscommunication.

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. –Margaret J. Wheatley

No talking — at least for a few seconds

After the speaker has finished, take a moment to consider what he or she has said before you respond. Let them know what you’re doing by saying, “I’d like to think about that for a moment.” By doing this you communicate that you value the speaker and what she or he has to say.

You can’t fake listening. It shows. –Raquel Welch

Listening is your part in communication. Make sure you consciously listen and focus on what the speaker is saying to you. Clear your mind, watch for para-verbal signals, watch for non-verbal signals, take notes if possible, pause before responding, repeat back what you think you’ve heard, and ask many, many questions.





Original article by Ron Haynes.

Image courtesy of Ambro/ Used with permission.