The Art of Listening

“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”

               — ee cummings (Poet 1894–1962)


Beautiful questions ask us to dig a little deeper. By their nature, they force us to think differently about the things we take for granted. They can evoke in us creative and deeply-felt responses about ideas we didn’t realize we knew. They engage us and even thrill us to respond with our hearts, minds and souls. However, beautiful questions must be centred on the other person’s experience in order to be meaningful. The genesis of those questions must be based, therefore, on focused and deep listening. In a creative leadership context, effective listening is as imperative as effective questioning. If you fully hear what the people in your life are trying to say, then asking “the more beautiful questions” will be a natural outcome.

What is effective listening?

Effective listening, according to leadership coach Robert Hargrove, is “the act of trying to understand what another person is saying by stepping into his/her frame of reference.” (Hargrove, 2003, p.169.) It is a matter of being attuned to the other person. Downey elaborates: “When you understand the speaker to the best of your ability, something extraordinary happens: the speaker typically arrives at a better understanding of the topic for themselves.” (1999 p.41) Madelyn Burley-Allen states: “Listening, when it is open and non-judgmental, is a way of validating others and becomes a powerful force in human relationships. It can build teamwork, trust and a sense of belonging to a group.” (1995 p.6)


What are the attributes of effective listeners?

Mary Beth O’Neill, in her book on Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart,” (2007) explains that effective listeners have an open mind. They listen with their whole being, from the heart and with a non-judgmental mindset. They listen to both the content of what is being said, and the essence of the speaker’s message. An effective listener is alert, seeks concreteness, conveys empathy and points out discrepancies between what the speaker is saying and actually doing. The effective listener shows respect that conveys the deep belief that the speaker has the resources to handle and solve the challenge before her. (O’Neill, 1999, p. 103-106)

Maintaining a questioning attitude in general is integral to the listening process, however, so is the obligation to listen with an attitude of care about the growth of the person you’re having the conversation with, and not advocate for an idea from which you think he or she might benefit. States Hargrove:

“In normal business discussions, people tend to advocate their positions to win and discourage inquiry into them. The same applies to

listening.” Rather than invoking our own ideas on a the [speaker], (advocating) it’s important to “listen by trying to understand what another person is saying by having the courage to step into his frame of reference.” (Hargrove, 2003, p. 169) The effective listener, continues Hargrove, “listens with commitment of time and attention and the commitment to absolutely bring out the best in people and to unearth what people passionately care about and how that links to the extraordinary future they want to create for themselves and their organizations.” (Ibid.)


What are the barriers to effective listening?

Myles Downey, author of “Effective Coaching” (1999), describes how he gave a group of students a simple exercise on coaching. At the end he asked, “What got in the way of listening?” They replied:

  • other people talking
  • what I thought they were going to say
  • what I thought they should say
  • they were boring
  • I had already worked out what I thought they should do
  • I was thinking of the next question
  • I was thinking what’s for dinner.
  • I was thinking ‘why is he wearing that tie?’

Regrettably, this list rang true for me. Perhaps it does with you, too.

They are all kinds of barriers to effective listening, but I feel the most insidious barrier is our emotional state. Our emotions can contribute to a successful relationship or an unsuccessful one. When we are aware of how we are feeling we can find ways to interpret and address those feelings that could be getting in the way of effective listening. It’s when emotions, whether our own or the speaker’s, exist at an unconscious level yet are being played out in the leadership context, that progress can be impeded. One example of this phenomenon is a common relationship issue in leadership referred to as transference. McMahon explains: “It’s where the individual transfers unconscious feelings and attitudes from a person or situation in the past on to a person or situation in the present, and where the process is likely to be, at least to some degree, inappropriate in the present.” (McMahon, nd, para, 2).

For instance, you could remind one of your employees of his authoritarian father resulting in him feeling fearful, angry or resentful of you. In transference, the person, is unaware that these associations are affecting his attitude towards you.

Transference can also be positive if, for example, the person had a wonderful sister or mother and you remind her of these positive relationships and subsequently, she behaves agreeably. However, it can also refer to romantic feelings for the leader, which, if unexplored or unabated, can interfere with the effectiveness of the relationship. When the same thing happens to the leader it’s called countertransference. Yes, it is possible for you to be affected romantically by your constituents or followers, and especially colleagues.

These types of emotional reactions, if gone unexamined, will likely impede your relationship or end it entirely, not the least of which could impede your entire career. However, if noticed and examined they can be a rich source of deeper self understanding and meaning.


What are some different styles that can impact effective listening?

Burley-Allen has an interesting take on the personal styles of listeners that can get in the way of actually listening. She describes five styles: the Faker, the Dependent Listener, the Interrupter, the Self-Conscious Listener, and The intellectual or Logical Listener.  I think we’re all guilty, at one time or another, of each of these styles; the key is to be aware and modify our listening habits.

The Faker: This is the person who pretends to listen but is not really listening. “They so exhaust themselves in playing the attentive role that they end up no longer listening at all.”

The Dependent Listener: These listeners are most concerned with making a favourable impression. “…they focus on how they appear to others, rather than on the clarity and content of what they are saying.”

The Interrupter: These listeners think they will forget what they want to say. “This can be a discouraging and frustrating experience, yet it happens often. “

The Self-Conscious Listener: These listeners have a pre-occupation with internal matters at the expense of effective listening. They ask: “Am I doing well or badly?” “Do I look all right.” Or “I wonder if the talker things I’m intelligent?”

The Intellectual or Logical Listener: “This kind of listener listens mostly with his or her head. They are more interested in a rational appraisal and tend to neglect the emotional and nonverbal aspects of the talker’s behaviour.” They miss out on the deeper meaning.


How might we improve our listening skills?

Downey (1999) suggests that we must learn to manage our communication cycles and notice, throughout the cycle, when we are not listening. A communication cycle consists of the initiating question, the response, and the acknowledgement process.

In most conversations, it’s important to take what the speaker says at face value without reading too much into what the speaker is saying. However, in a leadership situation, in order to really grasp what the person is trying to convey that might not be on his lips but in other aspects of his demeanor. Dr. Salman Akhtar (2013) suggests that the we should listen skeptically. Skeptical listening involves:

  • Listening to the omissions in the narrative (helps to discern pockets of anxiety and transference-based resistances. For instance, if an employee talks about his new house but not the price or she talks about her boyfriend but omits his name.
  • Listening for slips of the tongue and mispronunciations. These could provide access to the person’s unconscious functioning.
  • Listening to the intonations and points of emphasis. This can yield self-deceptions. [“I really do love my mother.”]
  • Listening to pauses —often followed by defenses against the anxiety in the first part of the sentence.
  • Listening to negations and unsolicited disavowals. This can reveal distressing deeper content.
  • Listening to the person’s sighs and grunts. This permits access to areas of pain, anxiety and resistance.

Akhtar (2013) also explains how listening to silence can also serve many purposes, resistance being only one. When a person is silent it could indicate that what follows or preceded was emotionally significant. Varieties of silence include:

  • structural silence: predictable, recurring pensiveness. The listener must wait patiently
  • unmentalized silence: the leader should gently encourage the speaker to think more
  • defensive silence: most recognized; guilt, fear, shame; deliberate withholding
  • enactive silence: aim to mislead, control, render the leader impotent
  • symbolic silence: death; a sustained and profound insensitivity to someone’s individuality
  • contemplative silence: pensive followed by meaningful revelation; mulling
  • regenerative silence: ego replenishing; resting
  • blank silence: lying fallow

Burley-Allen (1995) adds to the dialogue by suggesting methods to improve our listening skills:

  1. Find areas of common interest
  2. Take the initiative
  3. Work at listening
  4. Focus on ideas
  5. Make meaningful notes
  6. Resist external distractions
  7. Hold your rebuttal
  8. Ask to clarify understanding
  9. Summarize
  10. Practice
  11. Analyze non-verbals
  12. Evaluate content not delivery

Another interesting source on improving one’s listening is Julian Treasure. I first came across his work in a TED Talk he gave on “5 Ways to Listen Better.” I subsequently bought his book, “How to Be Heard,” where he adds a sixth point to better listening. The first step, according to Treasure, is to recognize that we have been unconscious listeners for most of our lives and to set the intention of becoming fully conscious. He offers the following practices that assist along that journey

  1. Recalibrate your listening in the world around you by appreciating silence.
  2. Pay attention to the individual components of the soundscapes around you and become more fully in the moment.
  3. Seek enjoyable sound encounters and savor them.
  4. Look at the person you are listening to and empathize.
  5. Listen actively and empathetically
  6. Desire to be other directed, non-defensive, imagine the experience of the other and listen as a receiver and not a critic.

Devising Your Agenda Towards Becoming a More Effective Listener

What will you do over the next six months to become a better listener? 

How will you know if you are a better listener in the end?

I guess by whether or not you are able to ask more beautiful questions. I wish you well!

Here are some video suggestions and a good place to start:

TED: Benjamin Zander on “The Transformative Power of Classical Music.”

TED: Julian Treasure on “5 Ways to Listen Better.”

TED: Willliam Ury on “The Power of Listening”

TED: Rennie Polanexzley on “The Power of Deliberate Listening.”

TED: Kathleen Macferran on “The Art of Listening.”

YouTube: Empathetic Listening.” (Carl Rogers)