Hallmarks of a Great Listener

Great listeners are like trampolines. You can bounce ideas off them. So say researchers Jack Zengler and Joseph Folkman in their study “What Great Listeners Actually Do.” Great listeners give us energy and support. We’ve all experienced not-so-great listeners —- those listeners who are looking for cracks in our argument so they can prove us wrong, or those who want to immediately fix us by telling us what to do, or they keep interrupting to tell us their stories rather than hear ours.

Great listening is a matter of surrendering to the other person, however, as Zenger and Folkman, discovered the usual advice we get about being a great listener is often more platitude than fact. The worst offender is when we’re told not to talk when someone is speaking and to only provide indications of our attention by nodding or through facial expressions or verbal sounds. Zengler and Folkman state that, according to their study, “these behaviours fall far short of describing good listening skills” Zengler & Folkman, 2016, para 2).

After analyzing the data from 3,492 participants in a training program on coaching skills, they discovered that great listening was more than being silent while the other person talks. Asking good questions that contributed to the conversation was a mark of great listening. They also argue that great listening occurs when the listener builds the speaker’s self-esteem by enabling him or her to feel supported and safe. Great listeners were seen as “cooperative conversationalists” where the speaker was challenged but not judged. Rather, they made suggestions that could open up alternatives the speaker might consider.


Do you want to be a better listener?

Try the advice that Zenger and Folkman suggest. [I’ve added my own two cents.]


  1. Create a safe environment in which difficult, complex or emotional issues can be disclosed. [So, what’s “safe? Privacy in a comfortable setting, maybe over a cup of coffee. A glass of wine always works for me.]
  2. Clear away distractions such as phones and laptops, and focus on the speaker. [Respect the speaker with your undivided attention. Lean in, so to speak.]
  3. Capture ideas and restate issues to confirm you understand. [Use phrases such as “Are you saying…” or “I want to be sure to understand….”]
  4. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears. [Notice the little give aways that reveal the depth of a person’s feelings such as blushing, perspiration, placement of eyes. For instance, if the person says, “I’m okay,” but shakes her head from side to side expressing a non-verbal negative, this dissonance might lead you to you to ask a follow-up question to determine whether she really is okay.]
  5. Validate the speaker in non-judgmental ways. [Use words such as “I hear you….” or “I understand where you’re coming from.” Or “That’s terrible….” (My daughter said that one time to me and I felt so much better.) Rather than, “why the heck did you do that?” Or “Are you nuts?” There could come a time for that kind of shoulder-shaking, but not in the early, more fragile stages of your conversation.]
  6. Ask questions that clarify assumptions and help the person to see the issue in a new light. [This is high-level listening. It can be as simple as asking, “What are you assuming?” “What if you challenge those assumptions? What then?”]

As Zengler and Folkman conclude: “…the highest and best form of listening comes in playing the same role for the other person that a trampoline plays for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height and amplification. These are the hallmarks of good listening.” (2016, para 13)


Zengler, Jack and Folkman, Joseph, (2016 July 14). “What Great Listeners Actually Do,” Harvard Business Review.