How do you become a Consummate Listener?

On Saturday night I came thudding back to earth. During the week I like to think of myself as a consummate listener – someone who enables my clients to really feel heard and understood. But on Saturday night my 17 year old daughter gave it to me straight – Dad, you’re looking at me, but I can see you’re not listening. And she was right. I wasn’t.

Being a consummate listener is not a permanent state of being. It requires intention and focus and it’s very easy to lose the plot.  But it’s critical for us as leaders and parents to be highly effective listeners in order to build trust, develop relationships and facilitate great outcomes.

Be aware of the traps

It’s useful being conscious of the things we do that undermine our performance as listeners. Here are some common behaviours that come to mind:

  • Talking over the top of someone
  • Interrupting to explain why what the other person is saying is incorrect
  • Thinking about what you will say next
  • Ignoring what’s just been said and making a completely different point
  • Pretending to listen when you’re not
  • Thinking about your next meeting / lunch / dinner etc. while the person is speaking
  • Looking at your watch, phone or computer while the other person is talking

None of these behaviours contribute to hearing what is being said and building relationships – recognising this can help you to monitor and reduce this type of behaviour.

It’s how we’re wired

Becoming a consummate listener is challenging because the way we listen is really a consequence of the way our brains work. The scientific research suggests that our brains actively hear what we listen for. We build on prior knowledge (both conscious and unconscious). It is said that prediction is the primary function of the neocortex and the foundation of intelligence (Hawkins and Blakeslee, On Intelligence). So you have to really focus hard to avoid the brain kicking in and compromising your listening.

A Useful Model for better listening

In Becoming Conflict Competent, Runde, Flanagan and Miller offer a nice model for effective listening. This is a looping model where you keep looping back to listen attentively during the course of the conversation.

1. Listen attentively

Listen to what is being said, focusing on both the verbal content and the non-verbal cues that often give you a richer understanding. Non-verbal cues include things like the tone and pitch of voice, facial expression and other body language.

2. Acknowledge

Consciously acknowledge what the talker is saying by strong eye contact, nodding of the head and brief (one or two words) acknowledgement of any emotion that is being shared, for example, when it is clear the person is expressing frustration or confusion say: “frustrating or confusing”. It can be useful to illustrate you understand the emotions that are coming into play for the other person.

3. Invite

Instead of jumping in with a question or sharing your view of the world, it is often helpful to hold back and simply invite the talker to continue.  “What else?  Tell me more. I’m interested in understanding more of how you see this”. Good listeners mine for information and this means they hold back and encourage the speaker to continue talking.

4. Summarise

“So what I understand you to have said is…” Summarising what the other person has said does two things. First it helps keep you focussed on what they are saying (if you know you are going to try and summarise you actually listen) and second it provides evidence that you have either understood or misunderstood what has been said.

If you summarise correctly you will then either be able to encourage further comment, ask a question or lead the conversation. If you summarise incorrectly you will quickly be told what they really meant and get back on track to continue the conversation with a correct understanding of what has been said.

It’s important when summarising to repeat your understanding of what they’ve said, not your thoughts or evaluation of what they’ve said.

5. Explore

There will be times in the conversation when it makes sense for you to take the lead and ask open questions to gain a better understanding of the situation. However, be conscious of the fact that great listeners listen more than they talk! So by all means use open questions to explore the situation, but recognise that the aim of the game is to allow the other person to be heard and understood. When they feel heard and understood you will have plenty of time to share your views.


The key take-away

The challenge for smart people is that your natural intelligence gets in the way of you being a consummate listener.  Instead of listening attentively, smart people tend to race ahead, anticipate where the conversation is going and come up with the answer. The key is to stay curious, slow down and focus on listening and understanding what the other person is saying. Having a practice of summarising regularly is a great way of keeping you focused.


Enjoy the week.


Mark Rosenberg