Learning to listen

There is nothing soft or woolly about coaching, listening or giving feedback. Another perspective might simply be that they are guidelines for listening to, understanding and getting the information you want from the people you lead. Many managers find it useful to have some support in this area, particularly those who have progressed from a more technical environment and then find themselves managing people. The main difference between machinery and people is predictability. People are hard to understand, (they rarely conform to laws of physics), and management should be all about understanding your people and getting the best from them. Indeed management is after all a people game - and a contact sport!

Learning to listen

Listening is not an obvious ability. Think about how many people you know whom you would describe as a good listener, and you probably won’t know many. (I bet you can think of some good talkers though!) Yet the managers’ job is all about listening, and then managing what you hear, the information.

It’s often hard to listen because we are so caught up in our own worlds that we don’t really hear what’s being said. We might have an opinion on the issue, or be formulating our response to what is being said, and so we miss out on valuable information.

The first rule of listening is to listen to try to understand the other person’s perspective. If you try to understand, you will begin to build on what the speaker has said in order to get a fuller picture. Once you have a better understanding, you are better placed to respond, - as opposed to react. This distinction is very important as if we learn to respond then we are demonstrating that we have fully understood all the issues and have CHOSEN to respond in a certain way.

To react is to demonstrate that we have simply let the information hit us, have not given it any thought and gone with our first answer and thus we are not in control of the situation. To respond is to manage the situation - and demonstrate that we are managing the situation. Sometimes a response can be terse, or monosyllabic or even hard-hitting; but the key is that it is a response, ie it has been chosen among a range of options rather than simply fired back.

When people are asked what they find helpful in coaching interviews, “being understood” gets top ratings - every time.

So firstly, keep in your mind some of these points when you are listening;

  • What are the main messages?
  • What point of view is being expressed?
  • What does s/he need me to understand?
  • What are the main ideas or thoughts?
  • What is their perspective?
  • Why does s/he think the way she does?
  • What is most important to him/her?

Use open questioning techniques to get this information before you volunteer information yourself. This will help you not to jump in too quickly before knowing the facts. What you hear from the person might also influence the way you deal with him or her.

As the old adage goes, ‘you have two ears and one mouth - use them in proportion!’

Non-verbal attending

Sounds a bit jargonistic but ‘non verbal attending’ is simply a term used in counselling to describe what you might do to actually look like you’re listening! It’s important to listen, but just as important to demonstrate that you’ll be taking a real interest in them.

Actually looking like you’re listening can encourage the other person to talk, shows an interest, and actually puts you in a position to listen. How many times have you heard someone say ‘You’re not listening to me!’ When the accused person answers, almost predictably ‘I am listening to you. I can repeat everything you’ve said,’ the accuser is not comforted. Listening, real listening, carries with it a great deal of responsibility.

When we drive along we glance quickly in the rear-view mirror. But when we are on our driving test we arch our backs, we make a great show of the fact that we really (genuinely) are looking in the mirror to convince the examiner. In the same way when listening we need to make sure the other person KNOWS that we are listening.

Get your body language in the right mode. Folded arms can be a subconscious communication of defensiveness or an unwillingness to talk, even if you don’t mean it. When you interview someone next, look to see if the person has clasped their hands together. This demonstrates a ‘closed posture’, someone who isn’t relaxed enough to be open. Your job then becomes all about relaxing the person enough to allow them to really open up. The information you get then is likely to be more honest and open.

  • Avoid and prepare for distractions before meeting with someone. Deflect calls and shut the office door if necessary
  • Get your body language right - open your posture
  • Practise mirroring body language
  • Allow for silence, it’s OK - really! Practise holding silences, which can be a powerful tool. So many people are afraid of silences and feel they have to fill every void with words. Yet holding the silence puts the responsibility on the other person to fully understand the impact of what has just been said, and respond to it.
  • Maintain good eye contact (without staring!), as this again shows you are listening. The main facial area to focus on is the triangle between the chin and left and right eyebrow.

Mehrabian wanted to know what cues people use to judge whether a person likes them or not. He and his associates discovered that the person’s actual words contributed only 7% to the impression of being liked or disliked, whereas voice cues contributed to 38% and facial cues 55% .They also discovered that when facial expressions were inconsistent with spoken words, facial expressions were believed more than words. This demonstrates the importance of using your body when you listen.

Listen Without Interrupting

Catch how many times in one day you interrupt a person when they are speaking to you. It is easy and destructive. It means you are not taking time to consider the other person and their response.

Encourage the person to talk by using open questions. Open questions are the only way you will be able to open someone up and find out what’s going on.

“The quality of information we get from someone will be determined by the quality of the questions we ask…”

Practice open questions

Take responsibility for the information you get. For example, you may complain about one of your team, ‘He’s so quiet. He never says anything.’ Take responsibility for asking him using open questions.

Closed questions lead to limited information. Most people know about open questioning techniques and yet never bother to use them, probably not realising their value.

Closed questions begin with ‘Do you’ ‘Can you’ ‘Have you’ ‘Is it’ ‘Don’t you think’. They generally lead nowhere.

An open question…

  • Will never get a Yes or No answer
  • Allows the other person the freedom to talk.
  • Stimulates conversation
  • Conveys a desire to understand
  • Is non judgmental
  • Digs deeper - helps to identify problems and the factors causing them
  • Leads you to a better understanding
  • Gets to the facts - gains useful information

Use words like…

Using the question ‘why’ can come across as aggressive and so its best to ‘soften’ it by adding more words. For example, ‘Why do you think that is?’

You know the question is open when the other person can’t answer with YES or NO.

Look at this scenario:

John arrives looking miserable; this is unusual so you say, ‘Are you OK, John?’

‘Yep’ says John, and skulks off; a direct result of a closed question.

Now look at this:

John arrives looking miserable; this is unusual so you say, ‘What’s up, John?’ He says, ‘Nothing’ so you dig deeper.

‘What sort of day are you having?’ ‘A bad one’ he says. ‘Why John, what’s been happening?’…

More examples:

Closed question: Were you angry when that happened?

Open question: How did you feel when that happened?

Closed question: Did you start the argument?

Open question: How did the argument start?

Closed question: Do you still enjoy the job?

Open question: How do you feel about the job now?

To recap, the purpose of a question is:

  • To clarify - gain specific information
  • To help identify problems and the factors causing them
  • To gain useful information
  • To help you get a better understanding of the individual
  • To check reality
  • To explore underlying thoughts and feelings
  • To encourage further insight

A golden rule is to use your eyes and ears more than your mouth!

Reflecting skills

Advancing from open question techniques, you can also use ‘paraphrasing’ and summary statements to keep the conversation flowing and interactive. The purpose is:

  • The person can hear back what they are saying
  • You can check your own understanding with the individual
  • Certain points can be clarified
  • Communication flows between the two parties
  • Information becomes more manageable

Paraphrasing is a rephrasing of information given by the other person. It states the essence of the content in the listener’s words. Someone might talk for five minutes, and when you paraphrase you try and sum up everything that they’ve said in a few sentences. It can give a slightly different perspective on the material, lets the person know you are following what has been said and conveys that you understand.


a) The person says: ‘I am having a really hard time managing my workload. Every time I seem to get on top of it then someone else comes along and gives me more to do, so that the pile of files on my desk seems to be getting bigger and bigger. I feel so powerless in this situation and its even affecting me at night because I can sleep…’

b) Summary response: ‘So you are struggling with your workload and feel that the pressure is mounting, even to the extent that you can’t sleep at night…’

Applying these skills

  • Listen carefully and listen more than you speak
  • Don’t be defensive or accusatory - suspend judgement
  • Use observation to assess how comfortable or uncomfortable the other person is
  • Use open questions to open out what the person is trying to convey and to expand your understanding
  • Paraphrase when appropriate to check your understanding