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More important than speaking

"Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood."

-from Stephen Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People"

How do you know if you're a good listener?

Even if you think you "listen good," it won't be of much value unless the people you are listening to feel that you listen to them well. Survey at least five diverse people in your life (family, friends, colleagues, bosses, reports, even casual acquaintances). Try to make them feel as safe as possible to answer candidly the following question, "On a scale from 0-10, how would you rank my listening of you? A ranking of 0 means I'm the worst listener you ever met. A ranking of 10 means the I'm the best." If they rank you at less than an 8, ask them a followup question, "Please give me tips as to what I could do more, less, or differently so that your ranking of me might be an 8 or higher?" Thank them for their coaching in helping you to become a better listener. See How You Occur for Others.

Patience and Curiosity

You will have problems listening well if you are impatient (just waiting to say what you want to say or to leave the conversation). Impatience is typically caused by not enjoying the process. Use the tools in the NNI toolkit to find ways to enjoy the process of listening. One of those important tools is creating curiosity about hearing and understanding what the other person is trying to communicate.

Reflective listening (and making acknowledgement sounds)

If you're not clear about how to listen reflectively, plenty of quick resources are on the Internet. Reflective listening not only helps ensure that the other person is aware of your attentiveness and curiosity, but also keeps the two of you on the same page. Moreover, making acknowledgement sounds ("okay... got it... tell me more... yes... keep going... ahh...") is helpful to indicate listening. Making these sounds (not too many, though) is more important when talking on the telephone than when face to face. 

Set it up so that you're taking care of yourself while you're listening

  1. If you have limited time, or only feel good about listening within a tight time frame, create this understanding with your conversation partner at the beginning. For example, say, "I've only got ten minutes now for this conversation...does that work for you?"

  2. If necessary, when talking with someone who "goes on and on," consider choosing courage to be "rude" and interrupt them in order for you to contribute to the conversation. It probably won't even occur to them as rude. 

  3. If you're still having trouble enjoying the dialogue, initiate a Partnership Conversation with the other person to find ways that you can both enjoy the interchange. Start with, "Somehow I'm having trouble really engaging in this conversation with you. Could I ask for your help in figuring out a way that we can both have fun talking together?"

Listening cf. obeying

Most of us grow up conflating listening and obeying (or agreeing). The act of active listening is entirely distinct from either obeying or agreeing. If you haven't clearly made this distinction for yourself, listening well will probably be problematic. Know without a doubt that you can listen well, and the person who you are listening to will feel that they were listened to, regardless of whether you obey them or even agree with them.

Are you focused on being efficient?

If you attached to an intention that your conversation with someone be "efficient," or even "productive," that can interfere with listening well. See undoing efficiency.

More specifically, what is great listening?

I borrow from Jonah Berger in his book, "The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone's Mind":

Use Minimal Encouragers: One way to show someone you are listening is to demonstrate through your body language and verbal responses that you are focused on what is being said. This can include nodding your head, leaning forward, or watching the person’s eyes, as well as phrases like “Yes,” “Uh-huh,” and “Okay, I see.” While such assent words or phrases may seem inconsequential, they’re actually the glue that holds conversation together. When presenters don’t get any response or feedback from their audience, they not only enjoy it less, they do a worse job overall.


Ask Open-ended Questions: Questions get discussion going and build trust. Looking at a range of situations, from getting-to-know-you conversations to speed dating, people who ask more questions are liked more. Questions also help collect useful information so people can better understand their conversation partners. But not all questions are equally good. Why questions (“Why didn’t you take out the trash?”), for example, can make people defensive or feel like they are being interrogated. Yes-no questions, or those that encourage one-word answers (“Do you have a gun?”), are also less effective because they fail to advance the conversation. Open-ended questions (“Can you tell me more about that?” or “Wow, how did that happen?”) not only show people you’re listening to but generate details and information that can be helpful later.


Harness Effective Pauses: Pauses harness the power of silence. Silence can be uncomfortable, so people tend to fill in conversational space. Hostage negotiators use pauses to get subjects to speak up and provide additional information, particularly when they think asking a question might derail things. Rather than asking a follow-up question, they’ll be quiet and let the suspect fill in the dead air. Pauses also help focus attention. Pausing just before or after saying something important breeds anticipation and encourages listeners to focus on what the communicator is saying. President Obama was famous for this. His campaign slogan “Yes, we can” was often delivered with a pause in between, as in “Yes… we can.” In his 2008 election night speech, his most stirring sentence contained ten of these pauses: “If there is anyone out there… who still doubts… that America is a place… where all things are possible… who still wonders… if the dream of our Founders… is alive in our time… who still questions… the power of our democracy… tonight… is your answer." Strategically pausing helps make points and hold attention.

Reflect What You Heard: Mirroring involves repeating the last few words of what someone said to show you’re listening and engaged. Particularly if someone is feeling emotional, it encourages them to keep talking and gives them the opportunity to vent. If someone says, “I’m so annoyed that our supplier is always a day or two late,” for example, one could respond, “They’re always a day or two late?” Mirroring builds liking and affiliation while keeping the conversation flowing. Rather than repeating exactly what was said, paraphrasing involves restating someone's meaning using your own words. This shows not only that you're listening but that you truly understand what was being conveyed.


Label Emotions: Changing minds is often as much about emotion as information. Facts and figures are fine, but if you don’t understand the underlying emotional issues, it’s hard to get people to move. Emotional labeling helps identify the issues and feelings that are driving someone’s behavior. Statements like “You sound angry” or “You seem frustrated” help show that you’re listening and trying to understand. Even if the emotion is misidentified, the response provides background that helps identify the root issue.

Related links:

Listening for their listening of you

Being 100% responsible

Fifteen minutes for love

Partnership conversation

Undoing shoulds

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