How to Listen
Susan de la Vergne
A few weeks ago, I was reading a
book by renowned linguist Dr. Suzette Haden
Elgin, one in her Gentle Art series of books
about communication, this one aimed at the
workplace. One of the things she writes about is
the importance of listening.
There’s little disagreement
about whether listening is essential for good
communication. Good speakers listen to their
audiences, good meeting leaders listen to people
in meetings, good managers listen during
one-on-ones. Yet for something as important to
communication as listening, it appears there’s
precious little out there about how to actually
In her book, Dr. Elgin observes,
“Inspirational materials…tell you how important
it is to listen carefully and respectfully but
offer no information about how that is to be
So I’m going to attempt to fill
that deplorable gap.
Listening Isn’t Hearing
Let’s start with the obvious:
listening depends on hearing. But just because
we can hear doesn’t mean we listen. We all know
people who hear perfectly well and don’t listen
at all. There are also people who don’t hear
well and listen intently.
So just because we can hear
doesn’t mean we can listen. It just helps.
Instead, listening depends on
thinking—that is, on our ability to control our
thoughts when someone else is speaking. Why?
Because our thoughts are usually running amok,
and they interfere. For example, when someone is
We’re formulating a response
in our heads before the speaker is anywhere
We’re thinking about
something else (I hope he stops talking
soon! I need to leave!)
We’re waiting for the
speaker to take a breath so we can
We’re thinking about
ourselves (My back hurts, I have other
things to do, I’m hungry);
We’re doing something else
(checking social media, the weather, or
directions to our next destination; doing
other work, texting, reading email, etc.).
Nothing on that list has much of
anything to do with hearing ability. Every item
on that list calls on our ability to manage our
Managing thoughts so we can
fully focus on someone else isn’t easy. We have
way too much practice at doing the
opposite—tuning into ourselves. But there are
ways to shift our focus, and I said we’d get to
the “how to,” so here goes.
Why do we think about ourselves?
Why do we focus on our stuff rather than really
tuning in to someone else’s stuff?
We have to answer those
questions—to get at root cause—if we want to
solve the real problem here. No cheap tricks
will solve this. We have to know why.
The reason we think primarily
about ourselves and focus on our stuff is
because we think we’re important.
Every one of us thinks that.
It’s an underlying thought that we carry with us
most of the time, and it’s completely normal. I
don’t mean we’re all egomaniacs beating our
chests about how great we are. I mean that we
see what we want, what we have to do, as the
most important thing and what someone else wants
or has to do as either not important or not very
important. We’re operating from this place most
of the time: What I care about is most
Here’s what that looks like: A
colleague at work has a challenging project
deliverable to produce, and it’s very important
to him. He’s working hard on it and is worried
about doing a good job. But that’s not really
important to me. It doesn’t mean I don’t like
him. It just means it’s not important. What is
important to me, instead, is that I get to the
airport on time. “Tough assignment for you, man.
Oh well, gotta go.”
Or this: A colleague comes to
work with a terrible cold—snortling, blowing her
nose constantly, coughing. She sits next to you
in a meeting. You say, “You should have stayed
home today,” because you’d rather not be sitting
there inhaling her bacteria. Getting sick now
would interfere with all the things you have
planned! You may also be sympathetic (after all,
she looks terrible), but you’re actually much
more worried about contracting it yourself than
you are concerned for her. Not because you don’t
like her but because she’s not as important.
That’s what I’m important
looks like, and most of us are thinking that all
Other ways to say the same
thing: I am so busy! I have tons to do! I
can’t afford to take my foot off the accelerator
for a second! Different words, but they mean
the same thing: I’m pressing MY accelerator
hard because MY
It’s very normal to think that
way—not, perhaps, our best selves—but normal.
Yet with that as our prevailing
sentiment, listening fully to another person,
concentrating on something outside ourselves, is
Perspective on Importance
To become a better listener,
take that insight and do something with it: see
Imagine for a moment you’re
viewing your workplace from a camera lodged in a
drone. This camera has amazing powers: it can
see through walls. (Go with me here, just for a
minute.) It’s hovering over your company’s
building(s), and you can see all the people who
work there going from one thing to another.
Every single person is buzzing along with the
same thought: I’m important. What I
want, what I’m doing, is important.
The camera zooms out. Now you
can see your entire city and all the people
within it, bustling along from one thing to
another, every person in the city thinking
I’m important. Now the camera zooms out some
more. You’re looking at the entire nation.
Everyone you’re looking at has the same thought:
I’m important. There are 7 billion people
on the planet, all of them, everywhere, no
matter what they’re doing, are thinking the same
thing. What I want, what I’m doing, is
important—more important than what you’re doing.
Seven billion people thinking
I’m important? Kinda gives you a different
perspective on importance, doesn’t it?
Listening in the Moment
Practical things you can do with
this new-found perspective:
Leave your “important” stuff
outside the door. While you’re meeting with
someone who needs to talk to you, make her
“important” your “important.” Just for a
little while. And every time your stuff
clamors for your attention, ignore it.
Commit to the importance of the speaker’s
topic for the 30 minutes that you’re
together. You can pick up your important
stuff on the way out, and there is
absolutely no danger you will stop caring
about its urgency in the time you were
giving yourself over to someone else’s
Use technology only to
further the discussion, but no side trips!
If you need to look up something that’s
relevant to the discussion at hand, do it.
But while you’re in there, don’t allow
yourself to hop over to your email.
(Self-discipline. You have it, I know you
do, or you’d never have gotten where you
Lead by example. Think about
how great it would be if someone really
listened to you, made your work or topic the
number-one important thing to pay attention
to. Imagine not fighting for attention, not
worrying about someone drifting off, missing
important facts and getting only part of the
story. What would that be like? Productive?
Respectful? Less stressful? Yes, all of
that. So lead by example. YOU do that for
That’s all you need to do to be
a better listener: make the speaker’s concerns
more important than your own.
What follows from that? Every
“good listener” technique you’ve ever heard will
come naturally. You’ll look at the speaker.
You’ll nod at the right time. You’ll ask the
right clarifying questions. You will because
it’s natural to do so when you’re really
listening, not because it’s some arbitrary
technique you’re trying to apply.
What else follows from that?
Improved understanding and retention—that is,
you’re less likely to forget what you actually
took in. Less re-work—because there are fewer
mistakes to correct, fewer gaps to fill, when
you get it right the first time. Improved
relationships—everyone likes to be listened to,
because it signifies respect.
And that is how to listen.
Susan de la Vergne is a
writer who worked in software development and
Information Technology leadership for a very
long time. Her new book,
Peaceful Under Pressure,
will be out in winter 2015. Other books by Susan,
Engineers On Stage:
Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals,
are available from Amazon. More about Susan at
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