Are you practising ‘active’ listening?

And are you hearing all you need to hear?

Photo: Kerstin Musl

One of the questions we ask all our guests on the Role Models podcasts and at our live events is:

“Which three foundational skills that you would advise people to learn early on which will carry them through their careers?”

We get a mixed bag of answers but one of the most common ones goes along the lines of “learn how to listen” or “be a better listener”. It’s a principle that’s easy to that’s preach, but what does it actually mean to practise better listening in our daily lives in order to have more fulfilling, invested and informative interactions with people? Here, our Role Models share their tips for better listening habits.


Leadership coach, Carolyn Coughlin, introduced us to the concept of seeing our identities as bell jars which we all live inside and which represent the limits of how we see the world. “We don’t even know that we’re in a bell jar”, she says, “so when we get together with a group it’s like being at a bell jar ‘ball’ — everyone making sense of the world in their own way and creating a pretty complex system to navigate.” This is why, in amongst all the ‘bell jars’ and noise, active listening is key. To actively listen better, Carolyn recommends employing curiosity:

“The key really is to be curious and to just keep asking yourself “what might be going on for that person?” or “what would that person mean by that?””


For Soraya Dorabi, founder of Trailmix Ventures, there’s a calmness to active listening. “It’s about not waiting to speak (which, by the way, takes practise)” she points out. Instead, try really thinking about the motivation behind the other person’s words and why they’re telling their story in the matter of fact way that they are. Soraya’s advice is to:

“Try not just to hear the actual words that come out of the other person’s mouth, but also the tone in which they’re conveying them — a lot comes out in tone.”


For Facebook’s VP Product Design, Margaret Gould Stewart, it boils down to:

“The way in which you engage with a conversation and an intent — to really pull that intent out of the conversation. It’s about your body language and the extent to which you are fully present.”

If it sounds really simple, it isn’t and it’s amazing how many times we all fail to listen ‘actively’. In order to get better at it, Margaret advises “turning off your phone, closing your laptop, sitting facing the other person and making eye contact. “Not in a creepy way” she points out, “but so that it’s clear: “I am fully present to hear what you have to say to me” and that, within reason, you can say anything to me and it’s a safe place.””


“If you’re not accessible and you’re not approachable, people will not come and tell you the things you need to hear…” Margaret continued, “…we all want to be a good listener and it’s hard to hear that we’re not doing things perfectly all the time (spoiler alert: none of us are!) But to figure out how can we invite that feedback and then let it come to us and just be there and not feel the need to engage and defend and rationalise our way out of it…

“…if we don’t learn that listening skill and that ability to just listen to what’s being said then we train people to not tell us the things we most need to hear.”


Echoing this advice, Megan Quinn, a general partner at Spark Capital which has invested in companies like Twitter and Slack endorses the need for active listening when driving collaboration forwards.

“You have to be a good listener. You have to understand not just what people are saying, but why they’re saying it. What are their motivations? What are they worried about? What are they not saying that they’re implicitly saying?”

And this works the other way as well, something which Anna Soellner, head of communications at Reddit and someone whose job hinges on effective communication, pointed out:

“Getting to understand how your executives ingest information is so essential because it doesn’t matter how beautiful your answers are, or how great your talking points are; if you’re not communicating them directly to who you’re working with in the right way and the way in which they process information — it doesn’t matter.”

So next time you’re struggling in amongst all the daily noise to make sense of a situation, or, if you find yourself disconnected and battling in a professional situation try: taking a step back, being curious, patient & calm, addressing the other person face on and working out their motivations through both tone and body language. You may be surprised at the effect…

Role Models hosts candid conversations with inspiring women and is a bi-weekly podcast and event series motivating the next generation of global leaders.

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