REAL Active Listening


This article appeared in the Otago Daily Times on 26 August 2021.

‘You never listen! You just don’t get me!’’

As lockdown continues we may be hearing these words a lot from those in our bubble. They may not be words spoken out loud in the business world, but I bet you have felt like shouting them at a boss/coworker/client before?

There is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing means ‘‘the process, function or power of perceiving sound’’.

When we hear something, we are aware of the noise being made, but we don’t necessarily make sense of it. Listening, however, means ‘‘to hear something with thoughtful attention: give consideration’’. To listen, we have to pay attention and interpret what we hear.

Active listening involves us focusing completely on the person who is speaking to us, understanding their message, comprehending their information and responding thoughtfully. It is a useful soft skill to cultivate if you want to succeed as a leader, but also if you want to resolve differences with people.

Sheila Heen, coauthor of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, notes that active listening helps you learn what the other person in your conversation really needs, plus it helps them really listen to you. You will model a new line of communication that will help you get to the bottom of your differences a lot faster and find a longer lasting solution.

Despite our best intentions, often in difficult conversations we think we are listening to understand the person who is talking with us, but we are really just waiting to reply. When we feel we are not being properly listened to, we can assume that they are stubborn or don’t really understand what we are saying. We reframe our point in different ways or pause the conversation and repeat the same thing later. These might seem like good strategies but are unlikely to resolve what you disagree about because the other person doesn’t feel you have listened to them.

Generic active listening strategies include:

• Ask questions, particularly ‘‘why’’ ones.
• Listen for feelings, the speaker may be scared or hurt.
• Repeat back what you understand the speaker has said to you and how they feel.
• Be attentive, mirror the speaker’s body language.

Heen et al recommend the most effective strategy is to ‘‘listen from the inside out’’ to shift our perspective from ‘‘I understand’’ to ‘‘help me understand’’. Shift your purpose in the conversation from getting the other person to change or to apologise, to simply understanding what is going on. The trick is to make sure this shift is authentic.

You can achieve this by:

Checking in with your motives: Are you truly curious to understand what the speaker is saying? Do you really care about resolving your differences? If you want to prove you are right or influence the outcome to be more in your favour, the answer is no. If you win the difficult conversation it will end the difference you have for now, but it is likely more differences will arise between you in future.

Checking in with your feelings: You need to identify what you care about and what worries you before you can begin to understand the other person’s feelings. Otherwise your feelings and assumptions will get in the way. Assumptions about their intentions can lead to us be defensive and misjudge the reality of what they feel. Resist jumping to conclusions.

Sharing your feelings: If you don’t share what you are truly feeling about a difficult conversation, the other person will make assumptions as well. They may also not trust that you are genuine. By acknowledging how you feel and the contribution you made to the differences that have arisen (even if you think you only caused 20% of the problem), that trust will grow.

Sorting your feelings out might be easier said than done, especially if someone else starts a difficult conversation with you.

It is OK to say something like: ‘‘I must admit I am surprised to hear you say that. I think I disagree but tell me more about how you see it’’.

It is also OK if you are too confused or shocked or busy to properly listen. Then you can take a break and say something like: ‘‘Thank you for telling me this. I really want to listen. At the same time I am finding this pretty tough to process right now.’’

If you want your business relationships to be strong and long lasting, mastering active listening is essential for working effectively through difficult conversations. Maybe you can practise the techniques outlined above at home during lockdown.

To learn more about Heen’s work, check her out at the Harvard Negotiation Project.  To learn more about me, email me on or follow me on linkedin.