Listen Until You're Blue In The Face

When you talk, you repeat what you already know; when you listen, you often learn something.

Listening is at the heart of every positive working relationship, every successful sale, every productive team, and every act of true customer service. It’s even at the heart of every good marriage.

So you’ve got to be a good listener if you hope to achieve all you can achieve on and off the job. And fortunately, you can learn to be a good listener. I’ve taught thousands of people how to do that in my program, “The Relationship Recipe: Rapport, Respect, and Recognition.” The feedback has been great.

Last week I wrote about the POSITION of listening. I gave you six things you can do to get ready to listen. This week I want to address the PRACTICE of listening. Do these six things–and you’ll double, triple, or quadruple your listening effectiveness.


Refrain from the all too common practice of hearing a few words and then jumping in with your response. It’s a sure sign that you’re not listening, and you don’t care that much about the other person’s comments.

Interruptions seem to be especially tempting when someone comes to you with a problem. We often want to jump right in and give advice. As one person joked, we should all swap problems–because we all seem to know how to solve the other person’s problem. More often not, however, the other person simply wants us to listen patiently.

I know you’re often pressed for time. And you may be thinking if you don’t interrupt, if you hear the other person out, it will slow down the conversation. That’s true, but you’ll save time in the long run. After all, it takes a lot of time to straighten out misunderstandings caused by a lack of listening.

Second, STAY WITH THE SPEAKER. Focus on what someone is saying. Don’t think about what you’re going to say when the other person is finished.

It’s like tennis. When you’re playing, you should watch the ball. It doesn’t work if you’re thinking about your next play. You’ve got to watch the ball as it’s coming towards you.

If you’re in a business environment, one way to stay with the speaker is to take notes–when appropriate. Note-taking will decrease your daydreaming and increase your retention. You will get 20% more from a meeting if you take notes.

Note-taking can even help with your interruption problem. Sometimes your interruption is not meant to be rude. You’re simply afraid you’ll forget what you’re going to say. So you feel a need to blurt it out.

Instead of doing that, jot down a word or two that will remind you of your thought. Then when it’s your turn to speak, you’ll remember your contribution.


Listening is not a sit-back, do-nothing, say-nothing activity. It involves some response on your part–although I did see a cute slogan in the airport the other day. The sign said, “Women like silent men…they think they are listening.”

One of the best things you can do is ask a few questions while you’re listening. It lets the other person know that you are listening, and it tells the other person you care about what he is saying. It’s very complimentary.

It’s also a great way to improve your relationships. As a young man, I worked my way through college as a radio announcer and shoe salesman. My manager at the shoe store was a formidable old fellow. He had a bark designed to scare all the sales people into submission.

I discovered this gruff manager had a little granddaughter that he adored. One day I asked him, “How is that nice little granddaughter of yours?” He melted like snow on a hot day. He told me all about her. As I listened, I saw a very thoughtful, loving, joyful part of him I had never seen before. And as I asked more questions and listened over the course of time, he became a tremendous support in my early career days.


Talkers want to know that you’re listening, so give some subtle nonverbal feedback. Say such things as, “Uh-huh… I see…Oh yes…Mm Mm.”

Sometimes the other person may be sharing some feelings, and you don’t know what to say. Simply nod your head as a sign that you are following along, and let yourself be touched by what she is saying. Use silence. Resist the temptation to say something just to be saying something.

That’s what the folks in the elevator did, according to Linda Neukrug. She reported the story of two tiny gray-haired ladies engrossed in an animated conversation as they stepped onto a crowded elevator. One of them stated loudly, “Well my fantasy has always been to have two men at the same time.”

There was complete silence as every passenger in the elevator turned to stare at the woman who made such an intimate disclosure. Then she laughed and said, “One would do the cooking, and the other would do the cleaning.”


Listen “for” things when people are talking–instead of merely listening “to” them. Listen “for” their thoughts, their key points, and their emotions. You’ll get a lot more out of the conversation.

And respond to the feelings before you respond to the facts. If your child says, “I think there’s a monster under my bed,” deal with his feelings first. Say something like, “You sound a little scared.” Don’t prematurely reassure the child with a firm statement, “There are no monsters.” If you ignore the child’s feelings, he’ll think you didn’t hear the real message he was sending.


This is by far the most important thing you can do in the PRACTICE of good listening. In fact, without this step, if you don’t check for understanding, you can never be sure that you and the other person actually communicated.

You can’t assume that you’re “getting it.” You’ve got to feed back what you heard to see if you got it right.

There was a story told about General Alexander Haig, the former head of NATO. One time, at an international party, an Englishman asked him, “General Haig, are you married?” Haig said, “Yes, I am.”

The Englishman asked, “Do you have any children.” He answered, “No, I don’t have any children. My wife can’t get pregnant.” The Englishman said, “Oh I see, your wife is inconceivable.”

A German fellow said, “No, no. You don’t understand. What General Haig meant was his wife is impregnable.”

But a Frenchman said, “No. What General Haig really meant was his wife was unbearable.”

In fact, if you get in the habit of checking for understanding, if you occasionally paraphrase in your own words what the other person is saying, it will help you with the second point I made. You’ll be able to stay with the speaker instead of planning your next response.

Besides that, when you check for understanding, you’re saying you care. You’re saying the other person is important. And whether you understand or misunderstand, you both win. If you get the speaker’s message right, he’ll feel good and affirm you. If you get the message wrong, he’ll clarify.

Those six things will turn you into an excellent listener. But just remember — your listening attitude is more important than anything you say in response to someone. Your attitude of respect and understanding is more important than your ability to formulate brilliant responses.

Years ago a workshop attendee gave me the following poem. I don’t know who wrote it, but it summarizes what I’ve been talking about.


When I ask you to listen to me, and you start giving me advice, you have not done what I asked.

When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings.

When I ask you to listen to me, and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem, you have failed me – strange as that may seem.

Listen! All I asked was that you listen – not talk or do – just hear me.

Advice is cheap. A quarter will get you both Dear Abby and Billy Graham in the same newspaper.

I can do for myself. I’m not helpless – discouraged and faltering, maybe – but not helpless.

When you do something for me that I can and need to do for myself, you contribute to my fear and weakness.

But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel, no matter how irrational, then I can quit trying to convince you, and get about the business of understanding what’s behind this irrational fear.

And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice.

Irrational fears make sense when we understand what’s behind them.

Perhaps that’s why prayer works so well for so many people.

God just listens and lets you work it out for yourself.

So please listen and just hear me.

And if you want to talk, wait a minute for your turn, and then I’ll listen to you.

Action:  During the next week, CHECK FOR UNDERSTANDING at least five times as you listen to various people at work. Get in the habit of checking it out rather than assuming you got it.