So you think you’re a good listener? (And why it matters if you’re not.)

Listening is one of the most important skills you can have. How well you listen has a major impact on your job effectiveness and on the quality of your relationships with other people. Active Listening is an exercise that helps you be a better listener.

then somehow...
Oct 15 · 8 min read
Photo by Bewakoof on Unsplash

Communication is a really important skill in the workplace. Pretty much everything you do — from initiating new projects to empowering staff, from sales calls to asking how team members are getting on — involves talking to someone else. And I don’t just mean communication in the broadcast sense — where you speak and I listen. I mean participative, two-way communication where people exchange meaning.

Of course, there’s never going to be 100% understanding of meaning — we’re all so different and each of us sees the world in such different ways, that we’ll likely never get that. But we believe it’s worth striving for the best chance that someone else understands what you mean, or at least for that to emerge.

One way to do that is to focus on your listening skills.

Given all the listening that we do, you’d think we’d be good at it. In fact, most of us are not, and research suggests that you only remember between 25 percent and 50 percent of what you hear.

That means that when you talk to your boss, your colleagues, your customers, or your spouse, they pay attention to less than half of what you’re saying.

Turn it around: when you’re getting directions or being presented with information, you too aren’t hearing the whole message. You may be hoping the important parts are captured in your 25 to 50 percent attention, but what if they’re not?

Clearly, listening is a skill that we can all benefit from improving.

By becoming a better listener, you can improve your productivity, as well as your ability to influence, persuade and negotiate.

What’s more, you’ll avoid conflict and misunderstandings.

All of these are necessary for workplace success.

We have an exercise to practice listening — it’s called Active Listening.

Active Listening: How to Do It

In pairs, your partner asks you a question, such as “Tell me something about… [your topic for the day].”

You have to answer it and your partner can’t say anything apart from, “Why is that important?” or, “Tell me more?” or just, “Uh-huh.”

The idea is to just keep the conversation open. All you have to do is keep it going.

At the end of the exercise, your partner has to repeat back what they heard.

You can make it more effective if the person talking holds a pen, and only when your partner explains back to you appropriately and accurately what you intended them to hear, you hand them the pen. And then you swap round.

If they don’t get it right, the speaker keeps hold of the pen — and says “that’s not what I said, let me tell you again.”

Don’t give away the pen too easily!

After trying this first version of Active Listening, you can try another version of it where the instruction is, “When you’re listening, do not look at the person who’s talking. Do anything you can to give the impression you’re not listening. Do not acknowledge them, do not respond to their silences, just be the rudest you know how to be.”

In this version, at the end of the conversation, you can ask: “What was that like?!?”

Most people say, “It was horrible. It was so disrespectful.”

Compare that to when someone is looking at you and saying ‘tell me more’ — how does that feel? People usually say, “That feels amazing.”

The Replay Tool is similar exercise. It’s about the difference between hearing and listening.

Traps to Avoid

One of the most common traps when you do the Active Listening exercise, or any time you think you’re listening — is the trap of giving advice.

Why? Well, when you’re listening to someone and you’re interested in what they’re saying, you start to form all sorts of ideas about the things they’re saying.

Within your own frame of reference, it begins to make sense, and as it makes sense, you have ideas about what they might do. And then you tell them.

We can’t help ourselves.

“Hey Brian, what you should do is this!” you say helpfully.

You think you’re being helpful, but I’ve watched people doing this exercise and it’s a trap.

If you watch carefully, the person receiving advice often has a really visceral reaction: they’ll physically lean back in their chair, away from you, sometimes crossing their arms.

You may be full of bright ideas but you don’t actually have the full context, you haven’t asked enough questions, you don’t really understand what it’s like for them. You probably stopped listening the moment you had your idea for them.

The person on the end of your advice isn’t an idiot, they’ve probably tried some of the stuff you’re suggesting, or they’ve had a bunch of other data that will preclude them from thinking that this was possible, and you only have some of the story.

And yet, “Why don’t you do this?… You should do that,” you say.

And they say, “It won’t work for this reason… it won’t work for that reason.”

Then you’re just helping them to build up all the reasons why a solution won’t work for them. Which keeps them locked into a status quo.

It’s much much more helpful if you can prevent yourself from giving advice — and instead of asking them to think about what you think, you just keep asking open questions.*

If you can keep it open and keep it going, almost every time, people get to a point where they say, “You know what I could try is X!”

Now it’s their idea. They have full possession of all the facts, they’ve got a way to proceed.

They’ll get there much quicker if you don’t give advice and tell them what you think.

The constraint of the Active Listening questions — “Tell me more”, “Uh-huh”, “Why is that important?” — lead people to their own natural conclusions.

That’s the secret to the exercise.

And people really appreciate it when they’ve been listened to. And properly heard.

An example

A coach friend of mine goes to a cafe to meet a client. He sits down and says, “Hi, how’re you doing?”

His client says, “Yes, great,” and starts talking for 45 mins without pausing. Then stops, to take a slurp of coffee.

My coach friend asks, “Anything else?”

His client starts talking again for another 45 mins. Then pauses to take a sip of coffee, makes a comment, my friend says, “Uh-huh…”, and off his client goes for a third time non-stop.

At the end, the client says, “That was brilliant! Thanks so much. I found that so helpful.”

My friend had only said, “How’re you doing,” “Anything else,” and “Uh-huh” — that was his entire contribution to the conversation. His client found it really valuable.

I love this story. The gift is the gift of listening and allowing his client to reach their own conclusions.

Active Listening is a way to practise this. It’s an incredibly generous thing to do.

What You Can Learn

What Active Listening teaches you is:

First of all, Active Listening is often quite awkward at the beginning — so don’t be put off by that.

Secondly, when it’s your turn to be heard, it’s weird how the questions open up something and it becomes hard to stop talking. When someone is really listening to you and not putting their own stuff onto you, it’s a real gift.

The real lessons are:

  • To acknowledge how great it is to be listened to
  • Remember that, and be generous when you are listening
  • Giving advice and telling people what they should do is a form of cultural imperialism — let them work it out for themselves
  • Sometimes someone wants options — if they specifically ask you, that’s different.

Why This Tool is Good for Leaders and Managers

You might become aware that you’re frustrated with your bosses or peers when they’re not listening to you — that may give you some options in changing the dialogue that you’re having.

Because we all make massive assumptions about what people hear when we speak, this is a way of remembering that leaders and managers are in it and doing it too.

Think about a dynamic you’ve got with someone and ask yourself, “Do I actually really properly listen, or do I leap in with my diagnosis and recommendations very quickly if they come to me with a problem?”

If you can reflect on how valuable it is for your staff to experience real listening, it encourages you to give them that generosity.

In a similar way to how CPORT works with delegation, and how REPLAY works when people don’t hear what you say, practice your ability to listen to them, it will help them reach their own conclusions without you telling them what to do — and that’s really great.

Increasing your sensitivity to this can help you in all kinds of ways.

Extra Reading / Useful Resources

Download a Free Active listening worksheet here.

The REPLAY tool is worth looking at — particularly the practice of double-checking, and cross-referencing. We do not all hear the same stuff. People aren’t listening, they’re reloading. They’re waiting for you to finish, they’re loading up their response. They’re not even listening, they’re too busy thinking about how beautifully they’re going to articulate the next sentence.

So we’re not hearing people, we’re not noticing people. Most communication is non-verbal — we pick up cues — but if we’re not fully engaging with them, we’re not getting a sense of what’s really going on or their emotional state.

* Open vs Closed Questions

Asking open questions instead of closed questions is very relevant.

An open question is one that can’t be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and also doesn’t have an agenda.

Sometimes we think we’re being really helpful by asking questions and we’re trying really hard not to give advice, but we’ll ask a question that’s really a piece of advice masquerading as a question.

An example: if someone says “I’m having a really shit time at work.” And you think, “He’s always banging on about having a shit time”, so you ask, “Have you ever considered quitting?”

It sounds like a question, but actually you’re giving advice because you’re bored of hearing their stories of how bad it is.

A better, open question might’ve been, “What’s triggering that?”

That might lead them to understand that actually they’ve not got a problem with work, they’ve got a problem with one person.

Originally published at on October 15, 2019.

then somehow

We invent, pilot and deploy tools and programmes that help organisations become better places to work. We help you make informed decisions, and change behaviours that support improved cultures. All our tools have data and stories, logic and magic, at their heart.

then somehow...

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then somehow

We invent, pilot and deploy tools and programmes that help organisations become better places to work. We help you make informed decisions, and change behaviours that support improved cultures. All our tools have data and stories, logic and magic, at their heart.

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