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  • Writer's pictureBruce O'Brien

Listening to hear

Following on from my previous blog about creating a thinking organisation, I want to spend a bit of time on the first tool I mentioned which is listening. Listening is defined as:

"making an effort to hear something; being alert and ready to hear something"

I want to pull apart what great listening can look like (or sound like!), so that you can build your own listening muscles and find out much more from the people around you. This could serve you in building a business strategy, in sales, in managing your team and more broadly in creating human connections with other humans So read on to find out how you can know more through quality listening.

Firstly, listening is about trying to understand someone else. It is not about trying to get our own point across. That may seem quite passive as an activity, but in fact it’s very active as it involves doing a lot to make sure you are fully focussed on the person you are listening to. Here are some of the key elements that constitute listening. Remember, if listening were easy, it would be shorter word….

o Be curious: this is HUGE! This means being genuinely interested in what the other person is saying now and what they are going to say. This means that you are dying to find out what the other person has to say. This is about having nothing else on your mind. I repeat – this is HUGE. If you’re not curious, then the rest just won’t follow

o No guessing: try not to predict what the other person is going to say. Just sit back and listen to what they actually say when they say it.

o Listen to the words: what extra meaning does this convey? The words that people select often express more meaning. For example the difference between “she said” and “she stated” could be huge – it could be the difference between information offered and a really pushy approach being used. The words “must” and “should” seldom indicate the speaker is in a good place and may need help. So listen out for what else the speaker is conveying – could be more information or a perception. Either way, they are conveying it, so take your time to hear it. It could service you and them!

o Listen to what they are not saying: sometimes we are reluctant to tell the whole story or sometimes we forget details – so listen out for what might be there but isn’t being said. Clues lies in expressions such as “I didn’t get the job, but that’s ok”. It’s clearly not ok. And what’s not being said is “I was upset”. So don’t take everything at face value. Listen. Feel. And try to find out what’s really at stake.

o Listen to the tone: we all use tone to illustrate our meaning. Think about the different ways you could say “stop doing that”. It can be gentle, it can be kind, it can be aggressively shouted or it could be cold and clinical. The tone adds another layer of data that you, as a listener, could pick up and use.

o Listen to the body language: observe how they use their body to communicate and what that says. Fidgeting can indicate nerves. Slouching can indicate boredom. You know the drill. I’m not telling you anything new. Just take the time to drink it in.

o Stop thinking: this is really hard. When we listen, very often we start to think about how this relates to us, when we had similar experiences, whether what we are listening to is good or bad or indifferent. When that happens, our focus moves from the person we are listening to and onto ourselves. And then we may miss something important. So try to remain present. You are here to listen and find out more (be curious) and there is time to relive your own experiences some other time

There’s a lot going on up there isn’t there? So how do you put it all together? I’d suggest you start at the very beginning and be curious. If you are not curious – if you don’t believe that the person you are talking to has anything to say, then none of the rest of this can work. And then start to layer on the skills by focussing on one at a time. Again, not rocket science. So how will you know if you are succeeding? Well here are a few things that happen when we are curious:

  • We ask questions

  • We tend to say little

  • We seek to understand more

  • We try to put the other person at ease so that we can gain maximum information

  • We ask questions to clarify meaning

  • We check our understanding by summarising what we have understood

  • We ask open questions (these generally begin with how, what, why, who, when)

  • We know more than we did at the beginning of the conversation

  • We feel connected with the person we listened to (and likely they feel connected with us). And you don’t have to like the person but you can still feel connected.

If you want to know how you are doing, use this checklist to evaluate your own listening skills after an important interaction. How did you do? Another way to look at this is to notice what doesn’t happen when we are truly listening:

  • We talk more than the other person

  • We disagree with the other person or offer judgement without being asked

  • We seek to confirm a point of view we had before the conversation began

  • We relate what we are hearing to our own experience (as it tends to move our focus from listening to remembering our own story)

  • We come away knowing nothing new

There – that’s all. Give it a go. See how you show up as a listener, and seek to deepen your skills. Imagine all the information that is in the world that you could get more of with heightened listening skills? Imagine how you could run your business better if you knew more about your competition, knew more about your staff? Well you can! It’s true that some situations demand that we “tell” eg. Where we have new information, or where we need to give feedback. In both of these cases, it is important to check that others understood your message and then you’re back to listening.

So if you truly want to know more about what is happening around you, and you want to engage other human beings, you must be able to listen and listen well. Try out some of these strategies and let me know how you got on.

And of course, if you’d like to find out more or test my listening skills (fair challenge) then get in touch at

Bruce O’Brien

Co-Active® Coach, Leadership Development Consultant

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