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How to be a great listener

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

With a bit of a nudge, most of us--including people who are not professional coaches or therapists--are able to tap a natural ability to listen empathically and host a learning conversation. “Listening empathically” is when you leave someone feeling like you really get them. A “learning conversation” is when you help someone figure something out for themselves … as opposed to “schooling” them or telling them what to do.

To be clear, we are not saying that listening skills are trivial or easy. At Convu, we see the process of building such skills as a lifelong commitment, analogous to mastering a sport or musical instrument. However, we also believe that you are cultivating a natural ability, and that a few simple distinctions can get you off to a good start.

First, consider an image that illustrates the role of "host" versus the role of "guest" in a learning conversation. Picture the conversation as a river. The guest's role is to jump in: to be open and honest, to talk about a real issue or aspiration, to consider new perspectives, and (ultimately) to learn something. There are three recognizable stages in this down-river journey: (1) opening a gap (or learning goal), (2) generating insight, and (3) taking action.

The host's role is to give banks to the river: to provide enough support, on one side, and enough challenge, on the other, so that the river of learning can flow. Think of it as helping your guest to get clear on something for themselves. It helps when they feel safe enough to talk and think about it (hence the support); and when they feel strong enough to consider other perspectives and take responsibility (hence the challenge). They are the ones on the learning journey. Your job is to make it easier for them by providing a space for calm reflection and honest reckoning.

It all starts with an invitation. “Come on in, the water’s fine!” You can’t force your talking partner to trust you, to let their guard down, to consider their contribution to a problem (rather than who they want to blame), or to explore what they could have to learn; but you can make it easier for them to engage by listening empathically, validating their feelings, and demonstrating that you care about them and their needs. Remember, “They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

The guest's role is to be open to learning. They are the hero of the story. Your job is not to upstage them or solve their problem for them, but rather to create conditions where they can generate the insight and commitment that will empower them to learn and grow. Your role is more like that of a gardener than a mechanic. Sometimes this means just being a good sounding board. Sometimes it means offering a challenge of some kind--an alternate perspective or a probing question (like, “what do you think your role was in all of this?”). With enough support on one bank of the river and enough challenge on the other, the host provides a context in which the guest can embark on their learning.

When the conversation gets going in this way, you can hear the “sound of learning.” Instead of hearing defensiveness, posturing, excuse-making, gossip or complaining, you hear things like curiosity, humility, exploration, insight, commitment and gratitude. Next your job will be to keep the flow of learning going...

The Stages of Tiffany’s Learning

Another way to think about your role as host (or coach) is to consider the story of Tiffany (not her real name). Tiffany was struggling with how she engaged her peers and superiors on topics she felt strongly about. She was a "black belt" in Six Sigma (a method for achieving excellence in manufacturing) but did not have the same graduate degrees as her peers; she sometimes worried that her potential would be overlooked and that she would be boxed into a small--even humiliating--role. As a result, she tended to view her job in the conversation as being to show that she was adding value and convince people that her views were correct.

Let me pause for a moment to point out that many people at first take on the role of host in a learning conversation with a similar goal. They think their role is to offer solutions and expertise. “Ah yes, I understand your problem. Let me tell you how to fix it.” But if you have ever been on the receiving end of such advice, you know that it can be disempowering and off-putting. It does not invite you into the flow of learning. It just leaves you feeling “less-than,” as if you were resourceless without the host. In terms of our river analogy, this is an example of too much “challenge.” The river cannot flow because the host is taking over.

The next most common mistake is when a host decides their job is to be the “cheerleader.” They agree with everything you say, offer blanket acknowledgements and encouragement, and never question or challenge your interpretations. In this case, your feedback to the host might be “I like that you are on my side, but you are letting me go in circles. I would like you to push me to think outside of the box!” This is what happens when the river (or learning conversation) is constrained by too much support.

In Tiffany‘s case, here is what the journey down-river looked like: in the first stage of learning, “opening the gap,” she recognized that she wanted to be taken more seriously and feel more confident in her relationships with senior colleagues. She acknowledged that there might be factors she didn’t control, such as unconscious bias related to her formal education, but resolved to focus on what she could control and could learn. Her learning goal started out as “More often engage with senior colleagues in a way that leaves them feeling confident about my role and my value-add.” The question of what, specifically, she would get better at in order to achieve this outcome was yet to be discovered, but this was a good enough starting place.

As she entered the second stage of learning, “generate insight,” Tiffany started to notice that one consequence of her outlook was that she often dominated conversations. She would focus on her agenda and defer questions until she was done explaining her views. She tended to talk a lot and avoid topics that she was unsure about. As a result, she often felt that something was missing: her boss did not seem quite convinced, or her peers did not seem to fully appreciate her contribution. In response, she would redouble her efforts, push harder, explain more, and bring still more slides. As you can imagine, this only made the problem worse. Fortunately, Tiffany was learning. She came to notice that she wasn’t connecting with people or hearing them in a way that left them feeling understood.

These insights came as Tiffany explored the “current reality” of her situation with a focus on how she might be contributing to the situation. This was a sensitive topic. We could say it was a narrow passage in the river. To avoid provoking defensiveness or complacency, her coach (or "host") needed to provide non-judgmental listening and understanding (support), combined with the right dose of challenge--offering questions like “How do you think they felt at that point?”, “What did you do when you thought they weren’t appreciating you?” and “What results did you get when you acted that way?

After generating these insights, Tiffany in effect returned to stage one, “opening the gap.” She revised her learning goal to be more specific and actionable. It became: “to balance advocacy and inquiry--specifically to more often listen and empathize with my colleagues--even when I am trying to make a point!

Now Tiffany was well-positioned to generate further insight (i.e. continue with stage 2 of her learning). Her host asked a very important question: what has prevented you from listening in these situations? Because she was in the flow of a learning conversation at this point, rather than respond defensively, Tiffany paused, remembered, and reflected. Then she put words on her experience: She had been imagining that if she inquired, listened and empathized, it would make her look weak or uncertain, and cause her to miss opportunities to get her ideas across. That was quite an insight! After letting it sink in, her host asked whether she was willing to explore how she could listen without losing her status or her confidence. Tiffany said “yes.” This is when the learning conversation moved into stage three: “Taking Action.”

Tiffany intentionally designed and tried out some new ways of engaging with her colleagues. Here is what she discovered: as she relinquished control and began listening, and focused on what others were thinking and feeling, she started to get what she had been striving for all along: a feeling of connection, of trust-building, of being included, and of being an ally. As she kept exploring, she got a major “aha”: instead of feeling stressed and vulnerable when she went into listening mode, she (and her colleagues) relaxed. Instead of feeling that she was “missing her turn” or missing opportunities to add value, she saw that she was already demonstrating and adding value. She came to see an important part of her job as being to listen and connect. Ultimately, by listening and focusing more on what others felt and needed, she was better able to influence them and to secure the sense of belonging that she had been striving after. Here again, the conversation went in a loop, not a straight line. The third stage, “Taking Action,” produced new “stage 2” insights, which cleared the way for further experimentation and skill-building.

In the end, Tiffany’s learning conversations supported her in identifying a blind spot: in her effort to be acknowledged, she had been failing to listen and connect with her colleagues. Once she got this fresh perspective she became motivated to try new behaviors and discovered that she had far more influence on the situation than she had realized. The outcome was positive and empowering for her. But imagine for a moment if her host had focused on the “problem” instead of supporting Tiffany to explore her experience. Imagine if he had advised her on “how to be taken seriously,” focusing on presentation methods, work ethic, and getting psyched up for the next big meeting. How would Tiffany have felt at the end of that conversation? How empowered would she have been? The success of these learning conversations depended on the host being willing to put Tiffany’s own aspirations, insights and empowerment at the center of the process.

Tiffany’s story is a dramatic example. She discovered that, for her, the key to being taken more seriously was--counter-intuitively--to listen and inquire. Let me suggest, however, that all of us must cross a similar threshold when we step into the role of host of a learning conversation. We must leave behind our need to control the agenda, to impress or over-perform, to “look good” and “be right” (the “advice-giver”). Likewise, we must leave behind our impulse to “be nice” and only say things people will like and agree with (the “cheerleader”). Instead we must focus on what’s happening with the other person and on how we can provide the right mix of challenge and support to help them move through the stages of their learning.

In summary, here are some principles you can choose from as you practice your listening.

Forms of Support:

  1. Whether this is a formal or informal learning conversation, make it safe for them. For example: “This conversation is just for you. (I’ll get my turn later!) I won’t share what you tell me with anyone.”

  2. Get them talking. Ask “Have you thought more about topic X since we spoke last?” Or “What’s been on your mind?“ Or “What do you most want us to focus on?“ Be encouraging. Listen attentively. Refrain from interrupting for at least 3 to 5 minutes!

  3. Summarize what you are hearing so that they understand that you are “getting them;” let them correct or add to your understanding.

Forms of Challenge:

  1. Inquire to understand what “better“ would look like. What do they hope will happen?

  2. Invite them to consider what their role could be in improving the situation. Explore their choices and their capacity to respond. What could they do now, or learn to do?

  3. When they get insights, ask them about the implications. What do they want to do about it? What advice do they have for themselves?

  4. Finally, invite them to make a commitment: what will they practice until next time? Say “What do you want me to ask you about next time?”

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