On a flight to Wellington the other day I had a truly memorable moment.  After the first few minutes on board getting through the where to place elbows without harming others, sort of activities, I asked the person sitting beside me what they were heading north for. What followed was a 40 minute chat and when we landed, the person thanked me for such an interesting conversation.

The memorable learning moment was that apart from my asking the initial question and my making a few minor prompts (really? then what?) and a few non-verbal encouragements (nods, eye contact, raised eyebrows) along the way, I had said almost nothing and been asked nothing.  I had been talked at for 40 minutes, and the person, in talking at length about themselves, had had a great time and believed they had had a good conversation.  It has given me some amusing moments since then, reflecting on the joys of listening and the skills we have or think we have.

Human nature being what it is, and try as we might, when we listen to others, we invariably find our ears dimming down and our minds moving with warp speed to formulate our response to what we hearing, even though the person may still be speaking. Who hasn’t been guilty of that?  And how easy it is also, to anticipate the rest of someone’s sentence or line of thought, and cut in, interrupting with a comment, while they’re still speaking. And how difficult it is, wouldn’t you agree, to simply keep one’s mouth shut and listen for what is being said and not spoken?

So what can one do, to brush up one’s listening skills for maximum benefit?

Be silent

It is difficult this, so it needs practice. Consciously say nothing while someone is speaking to you. Don’t interrupt, override or guess what’s coming next. And when they’ve finished speaking, take a few moments (think 1001, 1002, 1003) before responding to gather not only your thoughts but also to signal to the person that they’ve been heard.

Hear with your ears and eyes

A bit tricky sometimes, this is about hearing the tone used and the general gist of what’s being said, as well as the actual words used.  Pick up what else the person is trying to say, regardless of the vocabulary. It’s about hearing the hesitations, the false starts, the words held back, and putting it all together with what has been actually said.


This is about picking up on all of the communication, your reactions and sense of what is being said and how it is being said, and what people are communicating non-verbally while they speak. It’s about listening from the whole you, and not just your ears and mind.

Reflecting back

This isn’t about being an annoying parrot or sounding like a cracked record stuck in a groove, but about using segues like ‘so what you believe is’ or ‘it sounds like…’ or ‘is what you’re saying ……..’. It’s a way of checking that what you’ve heard is what you’ve heard and eliminates confusion, mistaken beliefs or interpretations.


To get the full story, sometimes you will need to ask for more information. If you’re not sure you have the full story, ask and keep asking till you have the information needed. Ask open questions like ‘what happened next?’, ‘what do you want to happen next’, ‘how are you feeling now, given what happened?’

Use prompts

Sometimes people assume the information they give is all that is needed for the full picture. Sometimes it isn’t that obvious to the listener. So, prompt – ‘really?’, ‘are you sure about that?’, ‘tell me more’;  ‘keep going, then what?’.  Prompts can assist people to stop rambling off topic, and give direction to the conversation. They’re useful, try them.

Use non-verbals

The non-verbal encouragers of eye contact, nods, smiles and facial expressions make it easier for people to communicate. That’s not to suggest you mimic the look made famous by the Thunderbirds puppets, so develop a style that is natural, relaxed, and you. Remember that non-verbals such as pursed lips, furrowed brows, a thunderous demeanour or not looking at the person speaking can be major communication killers.

Be super aware

We’d all like to think we’re excellent listeners and that it is others (naturally) who  have a problem. Of course! However, wishful thinking aside, it’s likely we could all do better on occasions.  One way to begin this process is to consciously note how we listen, how often we find our mind wandering off into ready responses before the speaker is finished, how often we anticipate the next bit, how often we use prompts, reflect back and be silent.

And the challenge for us all? Try a small experiment. Take note of your listening skills on a typical day, and see how you fare in your interactions. Identify the ways you could improve and consciously take different actions on day two. Repeat the process for a week. Then keep repeating the exercise.   Did I hear you say you’d improved no end?
First Published in NZ Business February 2002�

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