CareersCogent Communicator

Cogent Communicator: How to Listen

By Susan de la Vergne

A few weeks ago, I was reading a book by renowned linguist Dr. Suzette Haden Elgin, one in her Gentle Art series of books about communication, this one aimed at the workplace. One of the things she writes about is the importance of listening.

There’s little disagreement about whether listening is essential for good communication. Good speakers listen to their audiences, good meeting leaders listen to people in meetings, good managers listen during one-on-ones. Yet for something as important to communication as listening, it appears there’s precious little out there about how to actually do it.

In her book, Dr. Elgin observes, “Inspirational materials”¦tell you how important it is to listen carefully and respectfully but offer no information about how that is to be done.”

So I’m going to attempt to fill that deplorable gap.

Listening Isn’t Hearing

Let’s start with the obvious: listening depends on hearing. But just because we can hear doesn’t mean we listen. We all know people who hear perfectly well and don’t listen at all. There are also people who don’t hear well and listen intently.


So just because we can hear doesn’t mean we can listen. It just helps.

Instead, listening depends on thinking-that is, on our ability to control our thoughts when someone else is speaking. Why? Because our thoughts are usually running amok, and they interfere. For example, when someone is speaking:

  • We’re formulating a response in our heads before the speaker is anywhere near done;
  • We’re thinking about something else (I hope he stops talking soon! I need to leave!)
  • We’re waiting for the speaker to take a breath so we can interrupt;
  • We’re thinking about ourselves (My back hurts, I have other things to do, I’m hungry);
  • We’re doing something else (checking social media, the weather, or directions to our next destination; doing other work, texting, reading email, etc.).

Nothing on that list has much of anything to do with hearing ability. Every item on that list calls on our ability to manage our thoughts.

Managing thoughts so we can fully focus on someone else isn’t easy. We have way too much practice at doing the opposite-tuning into ourselves. But there are ways to shift our focus, and I said we’d get to the “how to,” so here goes.

Root Cause

Why do we think about ourselves? Why do we focus on our stuff rather than really tuning in to someone else’s stuff?


We have to answer those questions-to get at root cause-if we want to solve the real problem here. No cheap tricks will solve this. We have to know why.

The reason we think primarily about ourselves and focus on our stuff is because we think we’re important.

Every one of us thinks that. It’s an underlying thought that we carry with us most of the time, and it’s completely normal. I don’t mean we’re all egomaniacs beating our chests about how great we are. I mean that we see what we want, what we have to do, as the most important thing and what someone else wants or has to do as either not important or not very important. We’re operating from this place most of the time: What I care about is most important.

Here’s what that looks like: A colleague at work has a challenging project deliverable to produce, and it’s very important to him. He’s working hard on it and is worried about doing a good job. But that’s not really important to me. It doesn’t mean I don’t like him. It just means it’s not important. What is important to me, instead, is that I get to the airport on time. “Tough assignment for you, man. Oh well, gotta go.”

Or this: A colleague comes to work with a terrible cold-snortling, blowing her nose constantly, coughing. She sits next to you in a meeting. You say, “You should have stayed home today,” because you’d rather not be sitting there inhaling her bacteria. Getting sick now would interfere with all the things you have planned! You may also be sympathetic (after all, she looks terrible), but you’re actually much more worried about contracting it yourself than you are concerned for her. Not because you don’t like her but because she’s not as important.

That’s what I’m important looks like, and most of us are thinking that all the time.

Other ways to say the same thing: I am so busy! I have tons to do! I can’t afford to take my foot off the accelerator for a second! Different words, but they mean the same thing: I’m pressing MY accelerator hard because MY reputation/life/deliverables/success are important!

It’s very normal to think that way-not, perhaps, our best selves-but normal.

Yet with that as our prevailing sentiment, listening fully to another person, concentrating on something outside ourselves, is tough indeed.

Perspective on Importance

To become a better listener, take that insight and do something with it: see “importance” differently.

Imagine for a moment you’re viewing your workplace from a camera lodged in a drone. This camera has amazing powers: it can see through walls. (Go with me here, just for a minute.) It’s hovering over your company’s building(s), and you can see all the people who work there going from one thing to another. Every single person is buzzing along with the same thought: I’m important. What I want, what I’m doing, is important.

The camera zooms out. Now you can see your entire city and all the people within it, bustling along from one thing to another, every person in the city thinking I’m important. Now the camera zooms out some more. You’re looking at the entire nation. Everyone you’re looking at has the same thought: I’m important. There are 7 billion people on the planet, all of them, everywhere, no matter what they’re doing, are thinking the same thing. What I want, what I’m doing, is important-more important than what you’re doing.

Seven billion people thinking I’m important? Kinda gives you a different perspective on importance, doesn’t it?

Listening in the Moment

Practical things you can do with this new-found perspective:

  1. Leave your “important” stuff outside the door. While you’re meeting with someone who needs to talk to you, make her “important” your “important.” Just for a little while. And every time your stuff clamors for your attention, ignore it. Commit to the importance of the speaker’s topic for the 30 minutes that you’re together. You can pick up your important stuff on the way out, and there is absolutely no danger you will stop caring about its urgency in the time you were giving yourself over to someone else’s priority.
  2. Use technology only to further the discussion, but no side trips! If you need to look up something that’s relevant to the discussion at hand, do it. But while you’re in there, don’t allow yourself to hop over to your email. (Self-discipline. You have it, I know you do, or you’d never have gotten where you are!)
  3. Lead by example. Think about how great it would be if someone really listened to you, made your work or topic the number-one important thing to pay attention to. Imagine not fighting for attention, not worrying about someone drifting off, missing important facts and getting only part of the story. What would that be like? Productive? Respectful? Less stressful? Yes, all of that. So lead by example. YOU do that for someone else.

That’s all you need to do to be a better listener: make the speaker’s concerns more important than your own.

What follows from that? Every “good listener” technique you’ve ever heard will come naturally. You’ll look at the speaker. You’ll nod at the right time. You’ll ask the right clarifying questions. You will because it’s natural to do so when you’re really listening, not because it’s some arbitrary technique you’re trying to apply.

What else follows from that? Improved understanding and retention-that is, you’re less likely to forget what you actually took in. Less re-work-because there are fewer mistakes to correct, fewer gaps to fill, when you get it right the first time. Improved relationships-everyone likes to be listened to, because it signifies respect.

And that is how to listen.

Susan de la Vergne is a writer who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. 

Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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