The Art of Listening: What I learned About Taking Advice — And Ignoring It.

When to listen. When to stop.

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“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” ― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Or, as John Wayne put it:

“You’re short on ears and long on mouth.”

Listen to the Duke. If you want to create, lead or transform something you’ll need to hear from other people.


Too much advice at the wrong time can be extremely damaging, and it’s up to you to find the right balance. That is the art of listening.

As an actor, I didn’t read reviews for my theatre work until the run was over.

This is quite common practice, though at the start of my career I didn’t understand why. Then one morning I read something that threw me for the next show, and the maddening thing was that it was completely avoidable.

I knew whether what I was doing was working, because the audience told me every night. The critic’s views were useful to someone who was thinking of coming to see the show, not to me.

My collaboration had started a long time before and was with the director, the cast and the audience.

Starting Out

At the outset of your mission when you start rehearsals, design your skyscraper, begin your campaign for world domination or your blog, you should be listening widely and attentively, and your mind should be open to challenge. Because no matter how vaulting or modest your ambition is, you might be — whisper it — wrong. As time goes by, you will turn down the background noise of the experts, the wolf-whistles and the well-intentioned advice. When your vision has matured, you can work out who can help you to achieve it and who will blow you off course.

The Groundwork

There is no shortcut to doing the groundwork. Narrowing down the input does not work for people who don’t discuss, consider, and take on difficult truths. You can’t isolate yourself: people who provide services can never stop listening to people who use them, nor the elected to those they represent. But everyone needs a way to filter out fact from supposition and work out when they’ve got it wrong, and when there’s a difference of opinion.

It’s hard to do it alone, so you need some friends.

The Inner Circle

There are voices at any stage of a project that are so compelling, so familiar, so powerful, that they are hard to put aside. But they don’t always have what you need.

Who is in your inner circle? Why are they there? Editor, campaign director, producer, chair of the board: you trust them, not because they tell you what you want to hear or protect you from what you don’t.

You trust them because individually and collectively they have three qualities:

  • They are competent
  • They all the information you have
  • They are completely committed to what you are doing

Two out of three may not be bad in some situations, but here’s where it can go wrong with advice from the wrong people:

The Veteran

The higher profile your work, the starrier your contacts list will be, and their value must be weighed up against the dangers. Are they trying to relive their glory days, or make up for past mistakes? There is a lot to learn from the heroes who went before us — but this is your vision, and because you have done the work you can have confidence in it.

They have vision and competence, but they don’t have the data.

The Commentator

A powerful force: smart, credible, often with information — but why should they be committed to an individual politician’s campaign or a novelist’s dream? That’s actually incompatible with their job and if you fall, they won’t look back. They will talk confidently about what’s going well, who got it wrong, who’s fallen out with whom, but their priorities are not yours.

They have competence and data but not the vision.

The Well-meaning Friend

Of course, you will talk to the people who love you. They want so much for you to succeed that they will do anything for you, but it’s hard for them to push back on something you believe in. Unless they are themselves an expert in the field, you cannot use them as an inner-circle advisor.

You tell them everything, so they have the data and they share your vision, but they don’t have the competence.

Breaking Out

Advice from those we love, respect or have sought to emulate is hard to ignore. It can feel like a betrayal, a wrench from the natural order, a step into the abyss. Do not forget that the professionals have done the same themselves and your friends will understand.

Know when to take feedback and when to hold your nerve. The best and brightest can be flattered or spooked by the wrong intervention.

And consider this: would you admire a politician, leader, or artist who is so unsure of their vision that they can be put off by a journalist or an angry tweet?

Your Mission

Your mission is based on your own experience, your values, information and sound data. The more thought you have put into it the less easily you will be blown off course.

Understanding who you listen to and when means that when things change (as they will) your decision is based on data and good judgement, not because you have been destabilised.

The Balance

I wasn’t thrown by a hatchet job: the review that broke my stride was a great one. But her interpretation of one of my monologues seemed so good to me that I tried to recreate what she had described, and it became clumsy and self-conscious. I learned and moved on, but I put the papers away from then on until I had played the part the way that the director, cast and I believed in.

As a politician for over a decade, my integrity and effectiveness were based on the balance of listening and holding true to my values: always evolving but not losing sight of why I was there. Did I make mistakes? Of course — but that’s for another time — and the better I got at that balance the more I got done.

Then, as now, I achieved most by not being blind to criticism or praise — and not being blinded by it.

Written by

Trustee of the RSPCA, former Dep Leader of Lambeth, mentor, consultant, owner of large headstrong dog and small headstrong child.

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