Examine How You Listen



The word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT” Alfred Brendel


Most of us think we know how to listen. We don’t, and growing up we are rarely if ever told to Examine How You Listen.

When another person is speaking, what happens? Unless you are hearing-impaired, hearing happens; it requires no effort. It is a biological act of perceiving sound by the ear.

Listening on the other hand doesn’t “simply happen”; it is something you consciously choose to do. It requires intention. It necessitates concentration. It demands attention.

Yet in our current business environment where everything and everyone is seemingly vying for that attention, most of us find that our minds tend to wander more than just a few times each day.

So who has time to examine how you listen? And why is it so important?

It is a fundamental human need to feel acknowledged. You want to be understood regardless of whether or not another agrees with you. Learning how to actively listen creates a feeling of appreciation, connection and meaning.

Yet often times, we are so preoccupied that we do not listen to what is being said. We hear the words; but we choose not to focus or feel we don’t have the “time” to fully absorb or understand what is shared thereby grasping only some (or none) of the intended message.

Listening goes far beyond the natural hearing process. To actively listen means that you are:

  • Present without mental or verbal interruption
  • Paying attention to the words that are spoken with the intention and desire to fully understand
  • Seeking to understand before being understood
  • Suspending assumptions and prejudices
  • Keeping an open mind
  • Giving undivided attention to the speaker
  • Allowing for silence – offering appropriate time and space to absorb and reflect on what has been shared

Listening is foundational to Generative Dialogue because it frees the mind to move in new ways. It is the kind of listening that is active, empathetic, reflective and silent, engaging the heart — going beyond particular points of view.

I believe Krishnamurti states it best:

“I do not know if you have ever examined how you listen. It doesn’t matter to what — whether to a bird — to the wind in the leaves — to the rushing waters — or how you listen in a dialogue with yourself or to your conversation in various relationships.

We find it extraordinarily difficult to listen because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas; our prejudices; our background; our inclinations; and our impulses. When they dominate we hardly listen at all to what is being said. And in that state there is no value.

One listens and therefore learns. Only in a state of attention — a state of silence in which this whole background is in abeyance — is quiet; then, it seems to me, it is possible to communicate.

Real communication can only take place where there is silence.” ∞Krishnamurti



“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”

– Stephen R. Covey

Experts tell us that the average person remembers a very small portion of what is said to them, implying that many – if not most — of us should wear this warning sign around our necks or imprinted on a tee-shirt. But why do we find it so difficult to listen and what can we do about it?

Everybody’s talking.

You’ve seen the quotes:

“We don’t learn from talking; we learn from listening”.

“The word listen contains the same letters as the word silent”.

“We have two ears and one mouth”.

And of course, Covey’s profound mention above.

All of these — an indication about how little we should speak and how much we should listen. Most of us know how foundational listening is to our human interactions; yet we continue to keep on talking…

Given our innate desire to be acknowledged – to be heard – is the root cause of why we listen less than we talk. And in some weird way, it makes sense. At the same time, it’s counterintuitive. After all, if acknowledgement is a fundamental human need, why isn’t there more balance between talking and listening so that everyone has an opportunity to be heard?

Our obstacle to listening is our preconceived notions and the attachments we have to them. With these beliefs come hard, fast assumptions and expectations that build up our individual sense of identity – make us who we are – or so we think. So; often times, we feel a need to get our ideas out there – through words – and if we don’t, somehow we’ll get lost or not be noticed.

This is where something as simple as a small notepad can be incredibly freeing.

Over the course of 20 years, I’ve been in many client meetings. More often than not, I observe a lot of “talking over” — where people interrupt others or speak over them in tone or sound level. One tool I suggest to my clients is that of a small notebook – a pad just large enough to jot down a few mentions.

At the beginning of a meeting, it’s important to set a few ground rules about how you want to operate together, including paying attention to how (and if) you are listening. As a conversation ensues, once you feel the urge to interrupt or notice that you are already forming a reply in your mind or experience the feeling that you simply can’t hold back, use the notebook to jot down a phrase or two which will remind you later of what you intended to say. In doing this, you are acknowledging to yourself that you have something to say and that what you want to say feels important to you. The unconscious fear of forgetting what you want to say is eliminated by putting brief words to paper; so you are no longer distracted and can re-focus your attention on listening and say what you want to say at a more appropriate moment.

Everybody’s in a hurry.

We live in a high-speed world. Everything is faster and more immediate than even a short ten years ago. We’re often in a hurry; we want instant gratification. With this haste comes the perception that we need to say what we want to say and do it quickly. This is why relationships are failing at a faster rate than ever before. And this is why nearly 70% of US employees feel disengaged at work.

We tend to focus on developing other business acumens before we ever consider investing time in learning how to listen. Taking a course in the classroom feels more finite. Learning how to listen can take a lifetime.

We don’t want to hear it, but: Listening. Takes. Time. This is because listening is not a passive skill; it is an active skill – something you consciously choose to do. And it is a discipline – where there is more focus on the learning process than the end result and involves commitment, development and continued practice.

Everybody’s plugged in.

The Smartphone. Our “indispensable lifeline” to the rest of the world. And another distraction to interpersonal connection.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been in an executive board meeting where each person looks at his or her phone multiple times in less than an hour. And not only do these small rectangular electronic devices hurt our relationships; amazingly, a study by the University of Essex showed that simply having a phone nearby – without even checking it – can be detrimental.

At best, we retain about 20% of what we hear and even less than that just 24 hours later. And now we’ve added multitasking to the mix by our incessant desire to check email or await an incoming call. After all, if I cannot immediately reply to an email from my client, he will go elsewhere. Right?


Interacting without a cell phone nearby seems to help foster closeness, connectedness, trust and empathy. These are the building blocks of relationship and that’s what going to keep the client. Moreover, research has proven that while there are many benefits our phones afford us, “they often divert our attention from our current environment – whether we are speeding down a highway or sitting through a meeting.”

And if your attention is being diverted, you can be certain that you’re not listening.

It’s a smart businessperson who recognizes the fundamental importance of what it means to actively listen. So stop over talking; slow down; unplug from that mobile device and listen up!