By Bill Hellkamp

Sure, I’ve heard it before, “listening is a skill.” But what does that mean? Of course, I can acknowledge that listening to others is important, but I listen to other people. I hear what they say, and then I tell them what they need to hear! OK, sometimes my mind wanders when I try to listen to them, but, my gosh, some people can talk forever about the simplest issue. It’s just natural to lose focus sometimes. Anyway, I am a great multitasker. I can listen to them while I catch up on a couple of emails and glance through a report on my desk. If I give them a grunt or two and a couple of hmmm’s they think I’m focused on their issue. And really, that’s what I’m trying to do, isn’t it? Make them feel that they are important by listening to them. Usually I’ve made up my mind after the first couple of sentences anyway, and the rest of the time I just go through the motions for their benefit. Yep, I think I’m a pretty good listener!

Have you dealt with the “good” listener mentioned above? Is this your boss? Your spouse? You? Listening well is difficult, time consuming and tiring and for most of us, we are too consumed with our own issues and desires to get and stayed focused on someone else. Even for those who realize that listening to others is important in both our work and personal lives, we still don’t take the time to do it well. So why don’t we listen as well as we should? Here are some common reasons:

1. Distractions

a. Too much noise
b. Too busy
c. Visual activity around us

2. Disagree with what is being said
3. Sounds like something we’ve heard before
4. Don’t really care
If you have a desire to listen better (that means I can’t help you with #4), here are some suggestions that can help.

Listening Location

For me personally, having a suitable location for the discussion is critical to my ability to fully listen. This is because I am easily distracted by my surroundings. For example, when my wife and I go out for dinner, I try to choose restaurants that don’t have 50 big screen televisions showing sports. Despite my best efforts to keep focused on our conversation, I will find myself glancing up at one of the screens every so often. She notices my glances and interprets it as a lack of interest. I’ve worked with other people who have a noisy work environment, one that causes them to speak at full volume to one another. Sometimes one of the parties gets upset because they feel they are being yelled at. We recommend that you find a place that doesn’t distract either of you and allows for a constructive conversation to take place.

Keep Your Mind Open and Your Mouth Shut

I don’t mean this to sound as harsh as it does, but it is important that you are attempting to listen better. The only way to do that is if you aren’t talking. The other party won’t be able to listen to you until they have gotten their whole issue out on the table. So not only should you keep quiet, but you should make every attempt to not decide a path of action early in the conversation. To do so causes you to be distracted with your answer and how you will frame it to the other party. Then you start to think about how he or she will react to your answer and all of a sudden you have lost concentration on what the other party is saying.

Stay Focused by Taking Notes

For many people the activity of taking notes on the conversation keeps them attentive to what is being said rather than how they want to reply. It also shows the other party that you are taking their needs seriously. Sometimes when I’m taking notes I write “SU” on the paper as a reminder to me to “Shut UP” and let the other person finish completely.

Ask Clarifying Questions

I’m not suggesting that you keep totally quiet throughout the process. You should give the speaker feedback to indicate that you are listening. Maintain good eye contact, nod, smile, and make the appropriate “hmms” & “aahs”. But since you are listening to truly understand the other person, ask thoughtful, clarifying questions. Be sure to keep them short and not use them to drive the conversation in your preferred direction or hurry it along. Instead, they should elicit deeper and more useful information from your partner.


When the other party has finished speaking and you’ve gotten the clarification you need, take a moment to summarize the conversations. Let them know that you heard them and make sure the communication was clear. Avoid making a judgement or expressing your opinion too quickly.

Repress Your Solution

If this is an important conversation with far reaching ramifications, we suggest that you repress the urge to make a quick recommendation or decision. Instead, let the other party know that they have brought up significant information and ideas, and that you want some time to give them the consideration they deserve. Perhaps you already have a pretty good idea of how you want to handle this situation. It is still a good idea to think about crucial issues rather than going with your initial reaction. Additionally it will verify that you respect the other person and their ideas on the matter.

Being an attentive listener will build stronger relationships, give you more credibility as a leader and allow you to communicate better with those who are important to you.


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