Listening Intelligence: How to spot your bad listening habits, and self-correct.

“Ironically, humorously, yet sadly, ‘listening,’ has become ‘disruptive’ to communication. And therein lies the great opportunity when you do it correctly.”
- Dr. Mark Goulston, Just Listen

Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion (1897–1979) famously said that the purest form of listening is to listen without memory or desire. When you listen with memory, you trap the person you’re listening to in an old personal agenda.

When you listen with desire, you are tying that same person to a present or future personal agenda. When we “listen” with an agenda (as all of us do every day), we disrupt and hinder true conversation.

Luckily, there is a contemporary recipe for listening. In Mark’s own words, “Instead of listening deafened by your personal agenda, become a PAL and use Purposeful Agendaless Listening, where your purpose is to listen such that the other person feels understood and when possible, valued.”

In my own journey to become a PAL, I have become acutely aware of how to identify poor listening behavior (including my own). Next time you’re having a coffee with that investor, or leading the Monday morning staff stand up, check in with yourself if you are doing any of the following:

“Listening” anxiously for the gap in the conversation to interject.

By the time you get your say, the conversation has moved on and your previous witty diamond now sounds like a dirty lump of rhetorical coal that is dropped into a new and awkward silence, thus proving that wit has an expiration date. This was one of my personal greatest sins as a younger man.

Listening with personal pre-judgements.

People can tell when everything that they say to you is being taken the wrong way. It shows up on your face, no matter how well you think you hide it. *Note that people without empathy will still assume that everything they say is being taken as intended, thus never thinking that what they say is wrong. For more information see my post on spotting psychopaths.

Tuning out while nodding along.

This behavior is effectively a “mental leaning back” even though you may be physically leaning in. The person you’re listening to will know that you are patronising them. Stop nodding and start mentally leaning in.

Whether it’s poorly timed interjections, facially visible prejudgement, or transparently false nodding, these red flags will only breed ill-will and hostility. It’s impossible to close a sale or persuade anyone else of anything if you have first resoundingly annoyed them by making them feel unheard.

“Do you listen, or do you just wait to talk?” — Pulp Fiction

How to correct bad listening

So how do you turn these behaviors around? Whether it’s your team, a valued customer, or a prospective investor, here are a few tips to help make your audience feel understood and valued (and close the deal).

Treat others as storytellers.

For listening, I always recommend that you lean in and treat the person speaking as you would a favoured storyteller, no matter what the subject. By losing yourself in another person’s musings, as you would a great story, you hear, and make others feel heard. This works so well because we are all trained from a young age to put ourselves into the stories we are told.

Tune out your inner critic.

All of us have an inner critic who serves up judgement, breeds negativity, and imparts bias in our listening behavior. While we have a tendency to tune others out, instead try turning it around and tune out this inner critic – the worst part of you. What you will lose in false comfort of self-assured (but often incorrect) assumptions, you will gain back in multiples of understanding and personal connection.

They key here is you already know exactly how to tune out other people, and in this case you are instead tuning out the worst part of yourself.

To listen, don’t listen

How do we make sure that our listening isn’t disrupting our communication? First, become aware of your own red flag behaviors: interjecting at the wrong times, showing visible undisguised prejudgement, and nodding mindlessly. Then, actively self correct: abandon agendas, find your storyteller, and tune out your inner critic. Your conversation, your relationships, your life, and your business will thank you.

Follow SOSV: Inspiration from Acceleration.

For a deeper understanding of listening and leaning in, it is also worth watching these videos and reading these articles:

-This Week in Start-Ups: Mark Goulston interview by Jason Calacanis
-iOpener Interview
on listening with Bill Liao
HBR: How to Know If You Talk Too Much
Rothman Magazine: On Learning to Listen
American Management Association: Are You Listening?
-Mixergy Interview:
Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone
mart Lemming Review: Mark Goulston’s “Just Listen”
-Time to Listen:
Wisdom from Mark Goulston on Becoming and Exceptional Listener
Women in Parking: Listen Your Way to Success
-and listening to
Mark’s HBR Ideacast: “Become a Better Listener
-and of course the Mark’s brilliant book
Just Listen.