The Power of Listening

Recently, I attended a reception at the women’s club where I’m a member.  When I attend programs, I make it a point to circulate and talk, usually joining three or four tables over the course of an event.  I’ve been fortunate to participate in dozens of conversations, meaningful and superficial, and I’ve formed some good relationships.  When in conversation, ideally, I listen more than I talk. That ebb and flow is the subtle dance of communication.

While in conversation, learning to keep one’s mouth shut and ears open, so that you can focus attention on the person who is speaking, requires mindfulness and discipline.  So often we do not really listen, we only pause, to formulate an answer that will help us win a debate or demonstrate expertise in the topic.  Conversation can become a game of one-upmanship, when we’re more interested in being clever, or seeming to be very wise or au courant.

When you take the time to listen, the ego must be set aside as you signal the unique value of the other person by allowing him/her to express thoughts and feelings, insights and knowledge.  You may appear to be passive but in reality, listening well is quite active.  When we listen with intention, most of our senses are activated.

We watch facial expressions and detect happiness, distress, interest, or boredom in the eyes and mouth and even the posture.  We hear the cadence of speech, the choice of words used and the tone of voice.  In this way, we take in the story as it is told and we begin to understand the other person’s values, worries, joys, competencies and humor.  Listening with conviction is the highest compliment that one can pay to another human being.  When we listen, we get to know people and build relationships.

Careful listening also allows you to grasp what a person does not say and that could be very revealing.  Hone your listening skills and learn to “listen between the lines,” so that you can more fully understand the motivations and perhaps hidden agendas of those with whom you interact.  Listen and get a sense of who is telling the truth and who is hiding behind a facade.  Whether you are in a negotiation with a client, interviewing a job candidate, or at dinner with someone you wonder if you should see again, listening well will guide your next steps.

Listening skills are a key ingredient of selling skills.  Listen carefully to your prospect and learn what is most important to him/her and then describe how your product or service will resolve the need and eliminate difficulties.  If you are a Freelance consultant who is interviewing with the hope of winning an assignment Dave Mattson, CEO and president of Sandler Training, the sales training firm, recommends that you get straight to the point and ask what three criteria define success for the project and then listen, and truly hear, the answer.  You will quickly discover whether you are a good fit for the project and what you must say and do to win it.

Finally, listening will allow you to adjust your style of communication to align with the person you are speaking with and that is a very important part of building trust, demonstrating proficiencies, telegraphing empathy and being persuasive, the building blocks of both good relationships and effective selling.  Essentially, your heightened listening will allow the two of you to speak the same language and that is the heart of effective communication.

Thanks for reading,



Listen and Learn, Hear and Understand

If we would become better listeners, then the world would become a better place. Effective listening is a cornerstone of relationship – building  and relationships are the foundation of diplomacy.  The ability to listen effectively is a valuable leadership skill.

Listening is complex and contrary to popular perception it is active, not passive . Our ears and eyes, biases and fears, past experiences and hopes for the future all impact our interpretations of what is said to us.  We really do hear what we want to hear.

Active listening is a demonstration of empathy and respect . When we grant an opportunity to hear one who would like to share information, we validate  that person and the  story. Active, effective listening requires that we are fully present. Simultaneous engagement in multi-tasking activities is detrimental to the process.

In the September 1, 1957 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Ralph Nichols and Leonard Stevens interviewed more than 1000 college students and several hundred business executives and found that our listening skills are not stellar. We are largely unable to retain more than 50 % of what has been told to us, immediately after the telling.  Eight hours later, we will retain about 1/3 of what has been told to us.  Six months later and we retain merely 25 % of the story or information.

Nichols and Leonard revealed a main obstacle to listening—we think much faster than we speak. As we listen, or if we listen,  to information that is being delivered comparatively slowly, our busy brains are either coloring the story with our personal biases or agendas, or we’re thinking about something  else entirely.

They suggest that in order to bolster our listening skills, we might give our brains something to do that supports the activity:

1.  Take notes to improve recall of important points.

2.  Incorporate other senses, such as sight, and make note of body language and facial expressions. As well, note tone of voice and emotional state.

3.  Process the information as it is delivered and  try to make sense of it. Formulate questions and think about what was not said.

4.  Respond by first confirming that you correctly understand what has been said and then move on to other clarifying questions.

Thanks for reading,


Listen and Learn

We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less.”   –Diogenes

We love the sound of our own voice,  so much so that we sometimes don’t know when to shut up.   Talking is lots of fun,  especially for the extroverts among us.  Silence can be uncomfortable.   But we all know that listening is an important communication skill.  When we allow others to express themselves and tell their story,  we demonstrate that we care about them and that we value the quality of the information that they are sharing.

The benefits of good listening skills are significant.  Everyone loves a good listener and one invariably learns a lot by listening,  including who is worth listening to!  People will open up and sometimes say the darndest things and all we have to do is be there and show that we are paying attention.  It is ironic that saying and  (mostly)  doing nothing is such a vital component of relationship-building.  Yet listening is the foundation of bonding;  silently,  one demonstrates empathy,  telegraphs that another human being matters and creates rapport.  Fortunately,  the art of listening can be learned.

Attention, please

When listening,  give the speaker your undivided attention.  Nothing else demonstrates the level of respect that you have for another than this one act.  Let the phone go to voicemail,  close the laptop lid.   Sharing your valuable time with another and focusing your attention on that individual is so validating.  It is also a defining element of charisma.  Charismatic people are known to make whomever they are listening to feel as if only the two of them are in the room.   Demonstrate your laser focus with eye contact,   smiling or showing concern,  nodding your head and declining to interrupt,  except to ask a question or two that ensures that you understand what is being said.

Risk acknowledgement

As noted above,  when people start talking,   you might be floored by what is revealed.   No matter how you feel about what has been said,   maintain your cool.   Show that you are worthy of the trust that has been extended to you by way of the revelation.   Appreciate and acknowledge the risk that was taken by the speaker when the decision was made to confide in you.

Take notes

Always take notes when in a business meeting.   When you write as someone talks,  you demonstrate that the subject of the conversation is important to you.  The note-taking process also allows you to ask questions to ensure that you understand what has been said.  Within 24 hours,  send an email in which you thank that individual for meeting with you and confirm the agreed-upon next steps.

Achieve understanding

Stephen Covey (1932-2012),  author of the timeless self-help classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  (1989),  noted that most people listen not to understand,  but to reply.  Be careful not to jump to conclusions or hear only what you want or expect to hear.  Perfect the art of listening and minimize miscommunication problems that can lead to costly mistakes or hurt feelings.

Listening is an art form that unfortunately,  is underrated.  Regardless,  the most compelling leaders,  the most successful sales professionals,  the most powerful negotiators,  the most charismatic people and those with whom we develop the most satisfying relationships are all active listeners.   Follow the advice of Diogenes and sharpen your listening skills by employing patience and self-discipline to your business and social conversations.

Thanks for reading,