Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

What Good Is Listening Anyway?

It’s a common refrain. In order to build a rapport with clients and customers, we must be “good listeners.” We must pay attention to what they’re saying and respond to their needs. But what does it really mean to be a good listener? And how is that different from other behaviors?

We’re taught to think that listening is passive, and speaking is active. But the best listeners know this is far from the truth. Truly listening to, and understanding, someone else requires just as much proactive engagement as speechifying – maybe more.

I’ve observed that good listeners set themselves apart with a few key habits. These behaviors come naturally to some, but they can be practiced or developed by anyone.

Here are a few tips to consider:

1. Be fully attentive.

To listen well, clear distractions. One common trait of all good listeners is that they make you feel like they have the time, attention, and focus to deal with the conversation directly in front of them.

2. Use the 80/20 rule.

In an advisory or management capacity, seek to listen 80% and speak 20% of the time. Of course, there are instances when the 80/20 rule is not practical, but it still can act as a reliable self-awareness monitor. It’s an easy indicator of whether you’re really listening or not.

3. Seek clarification.

Think of a conversation as a way to gather more and better information and keep the client talking. Ask questions like, “What else can you tell me about that?” or “What other possibilities have you considered?“ – open-ended questions that probe for greater detail. The more you know, the more informed your solutions.

Good listeners make you feel like they have the time, attention, and focus to deal with the conversation.

4. Summarize and paraphrase.

It’s amazing the cognitive distance that can be created by our individual perceptions. A great skill of listening is the ability to quickly summarize the other party’s thoughts to clarify what you’re hearing. Start with, “What I heard you say was…” and see in real-time if you’re accurately listening or not.

5. Listen for what’s NOT being said.

Are there unspoken emotions arising that you can pick up on via body language or tone? Do you notice any hidden assumptions that might be a logjam? Having a sense for what emotionally motivates a person’s communication can help you to operate above the “noise” and address what really matters.

6. Absorb all ideas before editorializing.

It’s human nature to be awed by our own brilliance. Before you give your ideas, be sure you’ve heard theirs. Don’t try to fix things too early. The great paradox is that the less you talk, the more brilliant you become!

Over To You

What other behaviors do good listeners practice?

More insights on: Clients, Collaboration

Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
load comments (22)
  • Vikashan Thayanithy

    Note taking prevents my mind from wandering

  • Nick

    Smile, make good eye contact, nod in approval and face the person completely. Don’t have your hand on the door, text on your cell phone, be leaning away, fidget, or show other signs that you are impatient to get out of the conversation.

  • GraphicDesignBoss

    Great post. I think women are alot better listeners naturally in this department.

    Something I do is recap the conversation in a creative brief back to the person. For example if the person is briefing me on a project I will mostly listen, ask some questions, then type it out and email back as confirmation of the creative brief.

    How do you do it?

  • evan

    good post.

  • Scott McDowell

    Totally. I do the same thing in any kind of proposal. I try to recap the conversation that brought this person to want a proposal from me in the first place. It starts the relationship right, like “ah you’re hearing me.” And if you get it wrong there’s territory for a conversation.

  • Yuzer

    Whats the best way to take note in a briefing or meeting…

  • SH/NE

    I definitely need to work on point 6.

  • Gospodina

    Sometimes though, you’d rather be a good shouter. Yeah I know, another easy one but article is calling from it. You gotta be a good listener *shout this on every media platform*

  • Jon Elcombe

    A good listener also does not look like they are about to interrupt you. The “I want to say something face” makes me think the listener is not paying attention to what I am saying

  • Jonathan Patterson

    Summarize and paraphrase is an excellent tip. Especially when dealing with technical projects. Sometimes customers think they’re saying one thing when they have said something completely different.

  • Jonathan Patterson

    A friend if mind said “don’t wait to talk, listen.” So true.

  • Avery Smith

    Listening for what’s not being said is a good way to get details on a project that your client may not have thought relevant to discuss. That can then help to clarify each of your roles moving forward.

  • laura

    So true! These skills are also crucial for effective communication within an organization as well, at all levels.

  • denarosko

    The 80/20 rule can help ensure that when I do speak, I speak quality!

  • Parin Patel

    Nice Tips! Especially #6:

    6. Absorb all ideas before editorializing.

    We have a tendency to want to share our ideas and opinions without listening to the full story sometimes. Being a little patient and just let let them finish, using your questions as a way to clarify and inquire more.

    Another tip I’d add is to take our your pen and paper, and take notes. You can’t always “safely” interrupt the person or even catch everything, so actually writing notes is a great way to not only review later on, but to confirm your understanding.

  • Sasha

    The 80/20 rule is great, but sometimes if I am talking and the listener barely gives any responses I would actually think that the person is not attentive, and have not shown enough interest.

    I am still struggling with how many responses I should give if I am a listener.

  • Amirbazlee

    I’m a new the99% follower, and I just love these articles. They are highly useful not only for business people and the like, but also for university students like me. I’m hoping that in the future the Behance team would design a news app for the99%, just like they did for ActionMethod(which makes a great task organiser!)

  • angel brown

    I find it also helpful to not only listen to what’s being said, but try to figure out the person’s motive for saying it. What are they really trying to get across, or what are they really feeling that has prompted them to say this?

  • Clmahanes

    I didn’t know 99% existed until this morning but find the articles very interesting and was able to draw on something from all of them.  They are all concise and not filled with fluff..I like that.  I have bookmarked the site and will continue to follow. :)  

  • ClaireF

    Reply when:
    The speaker stops
    You need clarification to follow the speaker’s thoughts
    The speaker seems to be struggling (good time for “if I heard you right….)
    Re-direct them if they are way off topic and available time is an issue.

  • Alaska3

    i found that more often than no, most people in the “1er world” propose solutions to problems but disregard the historical background that had driven the issue on hand.
    Listening means slow down. Listening means taking the time to know and understand the historical meaning of any fix proposed. 

  • Pamela Blunt

    These are excellent points. I think that being relaxed as a listener is important–people know when we are sincerely interested. Like Nick wrote: impatience shows. Sometimes being quiet together to let something sink in, then asking a question that digs deeper. Also letting someone know when I DON”T get it: “I really want to understand, but I am not sure….can you tell me more?” I can’t think of a situation where these skills aren’t really useful.

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