The Listening Tricks

Market Insight
Mac Bogert

"You can interrupt the chorus of monologues by being the first to listen"

--William Ury


Listening . . .

. . . is the builder of lifelong learning and of strong relationships. It is also the key to building functional and productive leadership. It's even critical for playing in a band. Above all, listening demonstrates courage and trust. For some reason, we prefer talking over it.

When I started teaching, I followed a simple formula: I talk, you listen. It took me a couple of semesters to discover how much more effective I was if I clapped my trap and let my ears lead me to learning and to teaching.

But I didn't learn to study and practice listening skills until I took mediation training in 1995. My heart may have been in the right pace, but my ears were not. When I took the training to heart and practiced what I was told, I thought, duh, this is amazing; why don't we just listen naturally? After all, being listened to is something we all want. So what's stopping us?


Four Roadblocks to Listening

For one thing, listening feels passive. Coupled with a burning desire to hear our own voice is a phony perception that listening deeply looks weak, i.e. if I really listen to you, you're going to think I agree with you. Nonsense. The truth is, listening always demonstrates strength and courage. Always.

Second, though we have practiced looking interested thoughout our lives, we have seldom, probably never, practiced listening as a singular activity, i.e. with total focus. No thinking about what we want to say, nor internal judgment about the other person. No wondering Did I remember to lock the car? Since our brains have tiny short-term memories, if we're thinking, we're not listening. We can't. Don't believe it? Try thinking of your seven-digit cell phone number and the lyrics to your favorite song at the same time.

Third, we're addicted to short cuts. So we listen for bullet points rather than context, what we agree with or want to contradict rather than meaning, the lead singer rather than the whole band, our ear buds when we walk rather than the subtle sound harmony of the woods by the hiking path.

Finally, no two human beings on earth speak the same language (if you're married, you already know this). Listening is actually translating - from your context to mine and vice-versa. Whenever I listen 'fast' - waiting for you to hurry up and finish, thinking of my response, skipping over the things I consider unimportant, listening for talking points rather than the entire content, I trade meaning for speed. That's a crappy exchange.

Since meaning comes from context, it depends on the surroundings, so sloppy listening avoids comprehension. Here's an example: chunky is good in peanut butter (for some, anyway), in soup and stew. It's not so good in milk. Context.


Three Tricks to Practice

First, give your ears a break. We overload our hearing with video, music, books-on-tape, podcasts, whether we're doing chores, driving, exercising, walking or sitting around. As Pascal suggested, "Most unhappiness comes from not being able to sit quietly in a room." Our hearing needs quiet to tune and become attuned. If we eat continuously, meals lose their pleasure, right?

Second, listen like a laser. Try this: the next time someone is speaking, play a simple game with one rule: When this person finishes speaking, I will be able to repeat everything s/he said. Don't actually repeat it, as they'll hit you repeatedly. Just be able to.

Third, check for neutral understanding. If you need help, give your ears two 'bins' to sort before you respond: what we have in common, where we differ. No wrong or right, better or worse. Focus on comprehension rather than contention. This may feel like giving in, but it's not. If we can only argufy (push back) rather than argue (clarify), we generate heat without light. Rather than "That's wrong" as an opening salvo, try "I think we see this differently, though we seem to agree on . . . "

Practice these. Like learning to ride a bike or to swim, you'l find them awkward at first. That awkwardness is not danger, simply novelty. When listening neutrally becomes the norm, you're there.

If you'd like to listen to the podcast of this piece, simply click on


About the author

Mac Bogert is President of AZA Learning and a regular columnist for the Learning Counsel. He began his career as an English teacher. For the past 25 years, Mac has focused on the intersection of leadership and learning. In between, he is a musician, professional actor, yacht charter captain, staff development consultant, curriculum designer and author of Learning Chaos.


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