3 Steps to Listening Better & Hearing More

| | General Leadership

When it comes to teaching people to communicate we have historically focused a lot more on effective speaking, writing and presenting than on effective listening. Yet what has you trust someone more: the ability to speak eloquently or the ability to listen so that people actually feel heard? Too much of the former and not enough of the latter is all too often what causes us to label someone that 10 letter word “politician”.

If you buy into the belief that successful leaders engender a high degree of trust, I would argue that listening is a critical skill. It may even be more important than speaking skills. I’ll even suggest that by learning to listen better you will actually become a better speaker, presenter and writer.


1. Prepare for What You Want to Learn, Not Just What You Want to Say

We spend a lot of time preparing for meetings by putting together speaking notes and PowerPoint presentations. Our focus is all too often entirely on us. Whether the meeting is small or very large it is as though we were preparing for a performance with our attention on what we want to say. Yet how many PowerPoint presentations have you fidgeted or even slept through? I don’t sit still well so these are particularly painful for me!

Whether you are preparing for a one on one meeting or a meeting of 100 I suggest you prepare for a conversation not a presentation.

Think first about your audience. What can you contribute to them? What are their burning questions? Then think about how to engage your audience not just talk at them. Consider what you want to learn from the conversation, not just what you want to communicate. Prepare a thought provoking question or two. Great questions have the power to turn a presentation into a great and memorable conversation. When people are engaged their energy rises and attention sharpens.

TIP: Make one of the goals of your next meeting to learn more than the person or people with whom you are speaking.

2. Ask Questions AND Give People Enough Time to Answer:

To be effective at asking questions we have to become comfortable with what I call the “pregnant pause”. When you are asking a question it can feel like an eternity waiting for someone to answer. The bigger the group the longer that pause can be. It is uncomfortable and our tendency is to want to jump in and fill the space.

Remember that people may need a few minutes to think about your question so they can formulate an answer. And as group size increases the discomfort for many people to actually answer your question also increases. They may need even a little more time to muster up the courage or to formulate their answer so they can speak confidently.

TIPS: Prepare a question other than “do you have any questions?” for the end of what you have to say or present.

Focus on taking 3-5 slow deep breaths after you ask a question (remember to keep eye contact though or you can get so relaxed people think you checked out!).

3. Ensure People Know You Heard Them (and that you hear more).

Nodding your head is a helpful way to let someone know you are listening, but unfortunately we can nod and not hear a thing they said. And they know it, or at least they feel it. You actually have to speak before someone really knows you were listening. You can do that with phrases like “I understand”, “uh huh”, etc. You know the drill. But if you really want someone to know you heard them, try giving them back what you heard.

This is not about being a parrot. It’s about saying in your own words what you got out of what they said, or what you will do as a result of what they said, or asking a relevant question. That is the only way we can ever be sure that we actually understood what was said.

Do we hear what people say or do we hear what we think they said?

We are interpretation machines. We listen through the filters of our personal beliefs, knowledge and experience. All too often we don’t hear what people have actually said, or tried to communicate anyway, even though we think we did. This is a significant cause of mis-communication. Practice this and not only will people feel heard by you, but you will actually start hearing more of what they are saying. I can guarantee you will have fewer communications breakdowns all around if you get really good at this.

TIP: If you don’t feel like you are being heard you are probably not listening.

Any questions?

,,,just kidding!

What else do you need to know or understand to feel confident that you can execute these steps?

Which one of these is the most challenging for you?


Enter A Comment

Mike Henry   |   22 February 2009   |   Reply

Another great post. The best way for me to remember to listen is to consider others more important than myself. By default I am the most important person to me, and I can do that any time. If I can choose for you to be most important, listening is natural.

Jay   |   22 February 2009   |   Reply

I know this post gave you a little trouble, but it is certainly worth it. Being a husband, I have learned that to be the man my wife Tina needs, I need to listen more and try to solve her problems less. The only time we should talk sometimes is to ask questions so they can talk more and we can learn more. May our ears guide us to leadership! Thanks Susan!

Lance   |   23 February 2009   |   Reply

Hi Susan,

This is very timely, as I have a meeting coming up with our upper management team – to discuss several items, and get buy in on their part for some upcoming projects. While I’m preparing for this meeting – I’ll also be focused on how I can ensure I’m engaging my audience. Luckily, this group of people usually have no problem sharing their viewpoints. So, maybe the key for me is to make sure I’m actively listening by going back over what they say – to make sure we’re all on the same page.

I couldn’t agree more about the importance of listening. In fact, I was recently having a discussion with someone about public speaking skills – and we veered right in this direction – the importance of listening as well as improving our public speaking. Great stuff Susan. A failure to really listen is the cause of many communication issues…

Bruce Carlson   |   23 February 2009   |   Reply

Hi Susan,

The listening issue has been an ongoing and sometimes contentious struggle for me through the years. Taking my ego out of the picture and really being there for the other person (rather than being there just for myself so I can give hotshot advice or look clever or be witty or act out some other silliness) is not easy and I often just do it unconsciously.

But for me, engaged listening or “deep” listening is what genuine communication really boils down to. If I am willing to take a journey with the other person and really listen to their story and try to see things from their perspective, I will understand them better. This will make for less conflict and friction. And, as you point out, I will learn. Wow.

The benefits of being a good listener are often glossed over in our obsessed-with-talking culture. Thanks for reminding us about them in your post Susan.

Henie   |   23 February 2009   |   Reply


Thank you for a very informative and stimulating post! I enjoy coming by because I always learn something to better myself with! :~)

I used to fall under all the scenarios you mentioned (and sometimes still do) so I made it a point to learn about the different “listening approaches” which I will summarize below:

1) Appreciative Listening – People who like to appreciate while listening and want to enjoy the listening experience. They want to be entertained and will most likely pay attention to what is being said.

2) Emphatic Listening – People who want to empathize while listening. They want to provide the speaker with a sounding board to offer support and reflection.

3) Comprehensive Listening – People who like to comprehend while listening. They relate what they hear to what they already know by organizing and summarizing.

4) Discerning Listening – People who like to be discerning and want to get all the information, most likely take notes so as not to forget what the speaker is saying.

5) Evaluative Listening – People who like to evaluate while listening and look for the facts to support what the speaker is saying…they do not accept something as true just because the speaker said so.

I tend to fluctuate between all 5 with “Appreciative” as my highest and “Evaluative” as my lowest.

What kind of listener would you say you fall under?

I apologize for commenting extensively but you provided me an opportunity to re-visit what I once learned…thank you!

“Sometimes silence speaks the loudest!” ~Henie~

prissyperfection   |   23 February 2009   |   Reply

Really great points, Susan. The one that gets me is the “pregnant pause”, that gap in time between question and response that can seem interminable. The desire to fill in that space is really strong, I think often because the old inner critic will start to tell me, “well THAT was a stupid question. You’d better move on quickly and maybe they will forget you asked it!” 🙂

Henie   |   24 February 2009   |   Reply

Hi Jay…

Since you’re leaning towards “Appreciative” listening, here’s a little more about it that I can remember…

This kind listens for inspiration. They prefer speakers who make them feel good about themselves thus helps them relax. Appreciative listeners are also more likely to listen if the speaker is genuinely enjoying his presentation. Appreciative listeners are apt to care more about the overall impression of the speaker rather than the details being presented.

Hope this helps, Jay! And Susan, thank you for providing the platform!:~)

Jay   |   23 February 2009   |   Reply

Back again Susan to see how the post is going.
@ Henie- who knew there were different kinds of listening. Wow- I strive to be #1 but that ego always gets in the way saying “say this, say that, help the talker out”.

@ Susan- how do you think we can work through these types of listening to always be Appreciative? Do you think this would be a greater example of leadership in action?

Susan Mazza   |   24 February 2009   |   Reply

@MikeHenry Context is so very important – I think shifting your attention from yourself to another is the secret to being an effective communicator.

@JayFrawley Had serious writers block. Asked for help in Twitter & got 5 responses in 3 minutes. Wow. The idea for this post came from that 3 minutes. The power of social media!

Also, what we listen for directly effects the impact of our listening on the other person. You provide a great example of this. Listening for the problem you can help to solve only works when someone is actually asking us to help solve a problem! If that’s not what they are asking for our feedback occurs like unsolicited and all too often unwanted advice. The outcome – you may have listened and heard but the other person isn’t left feeling like you listened.

@Lance Glad this was timely & useful for you. Please let us know how it went including what you did differently & how well it worked. Would love to start getting some stories.

@BruceCarlson On some level we all want to look good don’t we or at least not look bad. The interesting thing is the better we listen the better we actually “look” to others. Communication is about connecting – if you both peak an listen the more likely you will make a meaningful connection.

@Prissyperfection (aka GwynT) The inner critic does tend to get rowdy in those pregnant pauses. This is one I think worth dedicating an entire post to.

It’s starting to look like this post needs to turn into a series. Excellent and thought provoking comments. I don’t think I will be having writers block again any time soon 🙂

Susan Mazza   |   24 February 2009   |   Reply

@Henie Thanks for taking the time to articulate the different kinds of listeners. A useful shift in how to relate to these “kinds of listeners” is to consider them “ways of listening”. This takes us out of the mode of putting ourselves in a box with a label. There is a skill and value to each. While we tend to be naturally drawn to one way if we can learn to listen in the multiple ways our effectiveness at listening will increase dramatically.

@Jay So in answer to your question “appreciative” is one way with specific skills involved. There is a whole body of work called Appreciative Inquiry that digs into this extensively. If interested in learning more you can check out http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/.

Thanks for engaging in this way. I am committed to this developing into a learning community. At some point the platform will need to change to enable that but what you are demonstrating here is the opportunity for dialogue and learning together.

Henie   |   24 February 2009   |   Reply

Hi Susan!

Excellent point, thank you! I like the shift from kinds to “ways!”

I will also check the “AI” link you provided.

Yes, it’s really all about sharing and learning together, isn’t it?

merip   |   24 February 2009   |   Reply


I think the huge take-away for me in this post are the two things I know I struggle with:

1. 3-5 slow breaths after asking a question. It seems that “dead air” grows lengthier if you are standing in front of the crowd as a speaker – counting by breathing will make a huge difference!

2. Repeating what someone has said. I have a tendency to forget to do this one. I believe I listen intently, but what a great gift to offer back in return, but their own words!

I watched Oprah a while back and was doing a little self-study on interviewing, as I had one coming up. I noticed her repeat a strong point back to her interviewee 2-3 times solidifying a very strong point.

Thank you for a some very inspiring tips as I ventured to your great site again!

Susan Mazza   |   24 February 2009   |   Reply

@merip Glad this was helpful to you. Thanks for taking the time to comment this visit!

@Henie Let me know what you are learning as you look into appreciative inquiry. It is a really wonderful body of work.

Chuck Musciano   |   25 February 2009   |   Reply

Great post, and one that should resonate with anyone that wants to use listening as a true leadership skill.

As leaders, we’re often so focused on communicating outward that we fail to hone our skills at being good listeners. Something I consciously remind myself in these situations is that I need to actually listen, instead of just waiting to talk. I wrote about this recently, at http://effectivecio.com/2009/01/09/listening-and-waiting/. Thoughts and comments appreciated!

Claudia   |   25 February 2009   |   Reply

Yes. This is definitely a needed approach: prepare for what you want to learn, not just what you are going to say. That really reframes the conversation and opens both speaker and listener to infinite possibilities. Sometimes, we forget that it is a two way street. Listening to others, going beyond our certainty and even our passion, and being open to other perspectives allows us to make progress…together. Thank, Susan.