The difficult art of listening

“Do you think I talk just to hear myself speak?” I never quite knew how to answer that question, so usually I didn’t. My father would ask it whenever he felt I wasn’t paying attention or listening carefully enough to his instructions. His booming voice both frightened and intimidated me; thus the harder I tried to listen, the less I heard. Or perhaps more accurately, the less able I was to comprehend the message.

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”

— Bryant H. McGill, American author, aphorist, speaker and activist

“Do you think I talk just to hear myself speak?”

I never quite knew how to answer that question, so usually I didn’t. My father would ask it whenever he felt I wasn’t paying attention or listening carefully enough to his instructions. His booming voice both frightened and intimidated me; thus the harder I tried to listen, the less I heard. Or perhaps more accurately, the less able I was to comprehend the message.

One of the first milestones in life is learning to speak, but learning to listen is equally important. We’re taught initially to listen to our parents and later to our educators and employers, but few of us are taught to be good listeners — that is, engaged and grounded listeners who are able to examine, challenge and make sense of the information we are hearing.

As Ralph G. Nichols — founder of the Field of Listening and inductee into the International Listening Association (ILA) — so aptly expressed, “One of the most basic of all human needs is to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

The frustration of not being heard illustrates the strong link between listening and self-esteem. When someone listens to you, you feel good about yourself. You also tend to feel good about the listener. Likewise, when you listen to someone, you are telling the speaker that he or she is important and that you are interested in him or her as a person. You are saying, “I respect you and your thoughts. You are worth listening to and have things to say that are of value.”

Having someone listen makes us feel better because it validates our thoughts and feelings. Remember the frustration, anger and hurt you felt the last time you shared something important with someone who didn’t appear to listen? Perhaps you felt intimidated and powerless — maybe your sense of self-worth went down as your stress and anxiety went up.

Why is listening such a vital skill? According to Bernard Ferrari, author of Power Listening, “Good listening is the key to developing fresh insights and ideas that fuel success.” Says Ferrari, many people focus a tremendous amount of effort on communicating and presenting their own views effectively but put little “sweat” into learning to listen and hear the view of others.

To what degree do you listen to your colleagues, friends and family members? Are you mentally preparing your response while they speak? If so, you’re not being an effective listener.

The next time you listen, make a conscious effort to be present and give the speaker your full attention. Listen without mentally formulating a response; then pause before you do respond. Finally, respond with a question rather than an answer — one that asks the speaker to further clarify the situation. Ask how the speaker feels about what has just been shared. If the sharing involves a problem, ask for solutions instead of immediately offering suggestions.

Keep in mind, effective communication is always a two-way street. The onus falls on both parties to ensure the time, place, and topic are appropriate for the discussion. To keep the conversation on track, start by establishing clear guidelines or ground rules prior to beginning the dialogue. Remember, if you’re asking to be heard, you too will need to be a good listener.

And speaking of respect, good listeners always show respect for other people’s thoughts and ideas. When respect is demonstrated, respect is often reciprocated. Good listeners don’t interrupt or give lectures about why they have all the answers. They ask respectful questions that help to unearth new ideas and solutions. The next time you’re involved in a brainstorming session, sit back and watch the antics of the group and try to recognize the good listeners.

OK, sometimes interrupting might be necessary to redirect the conversation along a more advantageous path but do so judiciously and with respect. Remember, good listeners seek to understand and perhaps challenge assumptions that lie below the surface of most conversations.

Practice this 80/20 exercise the next time you have a conversation: let your conversation partner speak 80 per cent of the time while you speak only 20 per cent of the time. And use your 20 per cent wisely by asking good questions rather than trying to sway the conversation toward your side of the argument. Admittedly, it can be challenging to suppress the urge to speak more than to listen but with practise and patience, you can learn to weigh in at exactly the right time.

It’s interesting to note the Chinese symbol for listening consists of 10 distinct elements combining words like ear, eye, heart, sense and respect. When you listen with your ears, eyes and heart you truly begin to comprehend the other person’s context, emotion and intentions.

Karl Menninger, American psychiatrist and co-founder of the Menninger Clinic once said, “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”

In the same way that some people are better writers than others, some people are naturally better listeners. With practise and patience, you can learn to be a more skilled and effective listener and never need to ask, “Do you think I talk just to hear myself speak?”

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at

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