Listening is Hard And Oh So Important

January 21st, 2015 by Marcy Schwab

Listening is Hard And Oh So Important

“Blah, blah, blah” goes on in the background while I sit and think about exactly what it is I want to say. Except that the person talking isn’t at the front of a large room or lecture hall, and it’s not a person running a conference call with 30 people. The person talking is sitting right in front of me, talking to me (well, at me, really), and I’m pretending to listen but not really listening. At. All.

The above describes something like 90%+ of the “conversations” I used to have everyday. The chatter in my head was constant, the ideas I had were better or more important, my mind wandered. And while I may have gotten the gist of what was being said to me, I certainly didn’t get the nuance. Sometimes, I didn’t even the gist, but instead, I got the gist of what I thought the other person was going to tell me. So, I guess it was all about me.

Listening is hard. It’s very hard. And most of us don’t do it well. We’re taught from a very young age that if you don’t speak up and contribute loudly, you may never be heard. The fact is, when you speak up and contribute loudly, it’s only valuable if someone else is listening. And that person can’t be speaking up and contributing loudly at the same time.

What is listening?

Really listening to someone means focusing on the other person and not on you. When you’re really listening well, you hear the words that are being said, the words that are not being said, and the underlying emotion and feeling associated with what’s being said. If you’re a really honed listener, you will use your intuition to understand the other person at a deeper level.

What do great listeners do?

Great listeners tune out their own commentary and opinion and focus on the other person. They ask questions to reach deeper meaning. They probe into the feelings about or impacts of what’s being said, and they toss their own assumptions aside and make sure to understand their companion. You’ve probably had a number of conversations where someone was really listening. What did that feel like?

What’s the result of great listening?


Think about your closest friends and family – the people you trust the most and who trust you. Chances are, they are the ones who listen openly and intently and do not make assumptions. One of the best ways to establish trust with someone is to listen to them. It is the best indicator that you care.

How can you listen more carefully and talk more thoughtfully?

  1. Notice your listening. Pay attention to what’s happening in your mind and your body when you’re in a conversation with someone. Do you hear your own commentary running through your head? Develop practices to move them aside. Do you get distracted easily? What distracts you? How do you keep those distractions at bay? In what situations do you listen best?
  2. Be prepared to listen. Because it’s so rare to be truly listened to and heard, listening is a gift. It takes energy and focus. There are times when you will be more ready to listen and more prepared. Recognizing that your next conversation with require deeper listening will help you be more prepared. Clearing your head by taking a deep breath, recognizing what’s distracting you and putting those things away can have a great impact on your ability to listen closely.
  3. Stop making assumptions. Instead of asking a question that’s embedded with an assumption, like “Why didn’t you…”, ask an open-ended question that will allow your conversation partner to go in the direction that he or she wants to take the conversation. Questions that provide more context or ask for deeper meaning give the talker the opportunity to take the conversation in the direction of his/her choosing.
  4. Practice. Great listening is hard. Develop some practices that enable you to focus on the other person and take the attention away from yourself. Practice asking great questions and noticing your assumptions.

Listening is a skill we can all stand to further develop. It’s the ultimate compliment and a tremendous gift. Happy listening!

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