08 November 2005

How to listen

Great communicators are great listeners. They pay attention and ask questions until they gain a deep and textured understanding of whatever situations they find themselves in.

An intellectual understanding is not enough: great communicators listen till they feel it. They empathize.

If you want to be a better communicator learn to listen, and more importantly, listen to learn.
As you talk to people, make it a habit to continuously check to confirm that you are understanding them correctly. The more questions you ask, the less tempted you will be to preach or prescribe solutions. How would you feel if your doctor prescribed medication before asking you about your symptoms? The more people talk to you, the more they will feel understood, and the more they will like you.

Here are the ten commandments of good listening:

1. Empty your mind. Try to begin with a blank slate. This will help you stay open to things you don't expect -- one of the most powerful things listening can do is open your mind to new ideas or reveal things that were formerly hidden.

2. Understand the context. Try to figure out what the person is trying to communicate and why. This will help you act in a manner that's appropriate to the context, and ask the right questions.
- Are they just venting or do they want to change something?
- What problem do they want to solve?
- What result do they want?
- Do they want you to do something? If so, what?

3. Don't get distracted. Your mind will have a natural tendency to wander, because we can think faster than people can talk.

4. Use follow trails. A follow trail is a simple question that you can keep asking till you get to the root of something. Just continue to ask the question till you get to the source. You'll be surprised how powerful this one is. Here are some examples of follow trail questions:
- And?/and?
- Why?/why?
- How?/how?

5. Use body language. Your physical behavior signals how well you're communicating. The most important signal is your eyes. Make steady eye contact and focus on the person's face. Nodding and leaning forward also signal attention.

6. Ask questions. Like a good detective, the art is in asking the right questions, and asking them well.

7. Take notes. It demonstrates that what the person is saying is important enough for you to write it down. Occasionally, verbally summarize your notes out loud, to show the other person you are hearing and understanding them.

8. Confirm your understanding. As you listen, think about how the person's thoughts would work in practice. play out scenarios in your mind and ask the person to confirm your understanding. For example, ask the person:
- "So if I were to apply this, I would..."
- "So what you are saying is..."

9. Let the person finish before you speak. We listen and process information faster than people can talk -- this can result in reacting or answering before someone is finished speaking -- your mind is racing ahead. Not to mention it's rude. Don't interrupt.

10. Don't judge too quickly. Suppress your own reactions -- remember to maintain that blank slate in your mind. Reserve judgment till the end of the conversation (or even later). If you keep an open mind you will reap the full benefit of the conversation and if you don't, you are limiting its potential.

Next time you communicate -- whether it's with an individual or with agroup -- diagnose before you prescribe. The results will amaze you.

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Anonymous said...

I hear you.

Yet another good useful post.

Thanks Dave.


Anonymous said...

Trouble is, most people overestimate their own listening skills. In a RainToday.com study titled How Clients Buy top responses of sales failure were misunderstood needs, because the sales person didn't listen. And these are the sales people.

Unknown said...

WOW. That surprises and saddens me.

Pretty much everyone can stand to improve their listening skills.

Anonymous said...

listening skills improve with age and maturity ; obviously, i am a better listener now at 43 than i was whhen i was in college ,for example...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that mate, its has been really helpful:)

Robin M. Watts said...

May I link to this post in our online hospice volunteer training program? Except for item #7, I think this is perfect for the volunteer who is learning about communication with patients. The only reason I leave item #7 out of necessary rules for communication is that the hospice patient needs to have the full person being attentive and not writing notes unless asked to do so.


Unknown said...

JRW, yes please do!


Anonymous said...

so.... it's good too maintain a blank slate of judgement.
I think that would help me alot, I see one thing about me that starts a lot of arguments is that I usually express my thoughts, right when I get them. So they don't slip away.

It usually results in the other person being cut off and me looking arrogant.

Hmm food for thought.

lucymax said...

Great article!

I belive #8 and #9 are extremely important.
As a retired clinical social worker of over 50 years of practice, I learned the more anxiety producing the subject, the higher the risk of misunderstanding.


Apprentice of Life said...

You know I used to think I was a good communicator... But sometimes with listening I fall short, or specifically in conversational listening...

I too very often blurt out what I'm thinking, as I will often forget it if i don't! I notice this stops conversations dead in their tracks, with me forgetting what we were talking about as I was so intent on getting my point across!

Some good stuff for to think on... Many Thanks

Fadi said...

Thank you!

Anna said...

As the good ol' saying goes, “God gave man two ears but only one mouth that he might hear twice as much as he speaks”.

Terrific and practical list. We're doing a bit of a deep exploration on deep listening these days and would love to get your thoughts and recommendations. Are there particular books/articles on listening that you would recommend?


Anonymous said...

Love this! Amen; to this whole article.

Maremare said...

Good to have a reminder like this once in awhile! TY....

jay said...

Dave, great list with one exception: Learning styles are bunk.

Here's Donald Clark's put-down of VAK.

The peer-reviewed putdown of learning style concludes there's no credible evidence that styles make any difference in learning.

Unknown said...

Thanks Jay. I've updated the post accordingly.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dave
Thank you very much for sharing your wisdom. Its an area I need improvement and I'm going to read it many times until I feel I have changed my bad habits.
There is however one thing that bothers me. The interrupting for questioning. I was brought up in a culture where often one interrupts  for questioning, actually we are very talkative even with strangers, but now I live in Australia and I notice people don't like being interrupted as it's considered very rude. I find that I end up loosing my concentration, forget later on what I was going to ask or the conversation moved on and I lost the opportunity. Dave, have you come across that situation before and what do you think is the best way to handle it?

Unknown said...


I carry around index cards or a small notebook for that reason. If I have a thought and I don't want to forget, I make a note of it. This way I can remember what I want to say without interrupting. Hope this helps.