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"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent

to reply."


Stephen R. Covey 

November 2010

When it comes to asking questions of candidates or customers, it is easy to fall into the trap of getting just enough information to "check a box". I encourage clients to let their natural curiosity take over and engage others in dialogue without an end in mind. My advice is this: just listen. Let go of the need to know what you will get or where the conversation may lead. Once I acquired the practice of listening that encourages others to talk, I was addicted (as those of you who have sat next to me on an airplane can attest to!) and now I cannot help but ask people to tell me their stories. I started to write this month's article on listening and found one in our archives that is as relevant today as it was when it was originally published in November of 2006. Happy listening...      




 The Art of Listening So People Will Talk

Consider this common employee complaint...."I keep talking but no one is listening"..."I have said this to my supervisor over and over but I never feel heard".  Too many of us find ourselves in communication loops - inefficient conversations about the same things over and over again. If you have been on the sending or receiving side of these circular dialogues, you may want to reconsider your greatest tool in effective leadership - your ears, not your mouth.  Research shows that 80% of effective communication is attributed to listening. 
Likely you have heard about this topic somewhere before, but turned inside out - how to talk so that people will listen.  In today's take-charge, results-driven business environment, we tend to focus our energies on areas we can actively control and will get us what we want as quickly as possible. 
Most of us are motivated to solve problems, so we listen just long enough to determine the solution. Sometimes, others are asking for your advice, but just as often they simply want to think out loud, talk out options, or just be heard. 
Watch for mixed messages. For instance, if you say, "Talking to you about this is important to me" but sit back in your chair, tap your pen and cross your arms, the employee hears that you are interested and available but sees that you are disinterested and rushed.
  • Match your facial expression to theirs as you are listening. Blank facial expressions increase anxiety. Expressions that reflect your understanding help the speaker connect with you.
  • Consider timing and location. Try to get out from behind your desk and move to a more collaborative setting like a conference room. Be cognizant not to rush the interaction even when you think you know what they are going to say. 
  • A simple but powerful non-verbal affirmation is direct eye contact. Giving someone your undivided attention says, "I am here and fully present with you."


  • Reflect - by selecting certain emotions to reflect back ("I can see how that would be difficult for you", "It sounds like you felt left out of the team") you confirm you heard them, eliciting more information and specific details that may be helpful in your understanding.
  • Clarify -the most difficult things are often the things we dance around or dilute. If we can avoid saying them at all, we will. By saying "Tell me more about...," or "Help me understand that more," or "Can you give me an example?" it will help untangle the issue, clarify the root causes, and shed light on development opportunities. Clarifying helps both parties find meaning.
  • Ask - rather than using questions that can be answered with a yes or a no, use open-ended questions to encourage the person to provide details that will aid in your understanding of the issue. Rather than "Did this situation happen recently?" ask "Share with me how this situation came about." Also, be sure to ask specifically what support or involvement they want from you.

The Bottom-Line

Remember, just because we can hear doesn't mean we can listen. The art of listening so people will talk is just that - an art. CoacheeIt is a learned skill that requires practice. Seek out listening mentors whose skills you have benefited from. Ask for their listening best practices. Take another look at your problem performers. Could poor listening on either side be a contributing factor? If the answer is yes, then try some follow-the-leader, where you get to set the example for active listening in your team.

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