The Strategic Importance of Listening

I decided, with a little help from participants, to post the entire set of comments from my prior blog post, Strategic Listening Plus—some of these posts may seem less relevant than others, but we did not feel it was appropriate to edit as any editing is an application of bias. I think these 45 comments provide a range of perspectives—all worthy of your time:

Great post Tom. Is the video of the professor moving to the right available online somewhere? I tried googling it but couldn’t find anything.

Posted by Brett Tilford at April 2, 2009 10:12 AM

Please, someone post a link to that video …

Posted by Cam at April 2, 2009 10:12 AM

[I tried, too. No luck.—CM]

Pet peeve subject of mine.
Listening is NOT a skill – you can learn some techniques but this is not true listening.
Listening, above all, is an attitude. If you are/not interested in the person your body language will show it.
This is the reason why so many senior people are not good at listening – their attitude (I am Smarter, more successful, more important, have to answer this question, know the way forward etc) gets in the way.
Your interest in the other person has to be genuine. Your head needs to be totally empty of your thoughts – you need to be at one with the other person.
When preparing for a meeting (say a coaching session with an employee or a 1:1 with a customer) most people prepare notes, things to talk about etc – how many prepare their attitude and deliberately empty their mind?
Be Curious!

Posted by PaulH at April 2, 2009 10:27 AM

I agree with Paul.
I was talking to a nurse a few weeks back after a communication skills workshop. We discussed listening. She said ‘Listening is a function of the ear, hearing is a function of the brain’ – I like that and I now use it regularly. It’s neat and says it all.

Posted by Trevor Gay at April 2, 2009 10:38 AM

Nodding not listening?
Writing not listening?
Listening is listening?
and hearing
and understanding
and acting
and caring
and respectful
and right
and occasionally you hit gold!
Pan for the gold, it’s there – you just need to listen.

Posted by patrick at April 2, 2009 10:56 AM

I’m stealing this line: ‘Listening is a function of the ear, hearing is a function of the brain’ Thanks, Trevor!
Being in the middle of a duck-nibbling mess right now (because nobody will actually pick up a damned phone and talk to the other people. They’d rather fire emails back and forth…) – it really hits home. Aargggh.
One very valuable lesson I also learned when working for a Japanese company is that nodding doesn’t mean agreement. It just means “I hear you.” Something we Americans don’t always grok.

Posted by Mary Schmidt at April 2, 2009 11:20 AM

I don’t disagree on the attitude-skill distinction. But I’d argue that awareness may come first. Some are not aware of what lousy listeners they are–most bosses, for instance; they think they’re listeners, their employees think they’re interrupters.
I also think that a lot of people simply have not thought about the “strategic” importance of listening per se.
Finally, I think if you get a little better at listening-as-a-skill, you may be surprised at how interesting some of the stuff people say is–and some attitude adjustment may take place.
Finally finally: I think (no evidence) that about 60% of people, and 80% of men (there is evidence–on the gender differences) are lousy listeners–and you can’t just write off that share of the population.

Posted by tom peters at April 2, 2009 11:40 AM

Learning to shut up is – well – learned behavior. That’s the first step to developing the listening ability. Sure, it can be learned, to a certain extent. At least, you can practice the art of silence.
It’s one of the hardest things I had to learn when I became a consultant. Since – OF COURSE – I already know what the problem is and how to solve it (um, maybe not…;-)

Posted by Mary Schmidt at April 2, 2009 12:13 PM

No problem Mary – I stole it too! :-) There is of course, very little originality.
Tom – “their employees think they’re interrupters.” – I worked for him! – Adapting a well known quote – “A conversation between two bosses is a competitive exercise where the first person to draw breath is declared the listener”

Posted by Trevor Gay at April 2, 2009 12:36 PM

Nice, Trevor!

Posted by tom peters at April 2, 2009 12:40 PM

Back to attitude vs skills. Any good trainer is working on attitude as much as skills. I acknowledge attitude is hard to change, but central to great training is giving people a whole new way to frame a problem–which may indeed lead to the start of a new attitude.
If you go down the “attitude–and it’s fixed” path, then more or less shut the door to 100% of leadership training.
(All that said, I surely subscribe to “Hire for attitude, train for skills.” One must, however by and large work with the hand we were dealt.)

Posted by tom peters at April 2, 2009 12:45 PM

I too am a fully signed up member of the club ‘recruit for attitude train for skills.’ I agree with your sentiments about trainers. As a trainer myself I estimate 85% of my workshop time is on attitude and 15% on skills. I’ve met well over 2500 front line healthcare staff in the last three years in customer care/communications workshops for front line healthcare staff. One of my favourite quotes I use in all workshops is this one:
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude of mind” – William James 1842 – 1910
Feel free to steal :-)

Posted by Trevor Gay at April 2, 2009 12:57 PM

Training is of little value if the culture does not encourage (institutionalize) the requisite behavior.

Posted by Tom Asacker at April 2, 2009 1:03 PM

In terms of attitude – one question set worth asking a “poor” listener.
Who do you most respect as your hero?
Let’s say they answer Tiger Woods
If I could engineer a day with Tiger Woods would you listen to him?
As well as 80% being lousy listeners. How many of you have really been listened to?
There is a level of listening in coaching beyond active listening where the coach is almost in a transcendental state and the listener feels as if their very soul is being heard. It’s the most amazing experience – so few get to feel it.
Listening is a massive gift to humanity – if you can do it you can touch people in a way others can’t.
Listening works well with children too. One of my favourite quotes from child coaching:
“What the children of today need is a damned good listening to.”

Posted by PaulH at April 2, 2009 1:04 PM

“What the children of today need is a damned good listening to.”
Like it Paul – thanks, another one for the slides.

Posted by Trevor Gay at April 2, 2009 1:10 PM

If I could be presumptuous enough to offer you guys another tip: when in a meeting requiring them, offer to write the minutes. It has 2 advantages: a) it makes you listen; b) s/he who writes the minutes gets to shape the official record and the action points. It’s a double win!

Posted by Mark JF at April 2, 2009 1:42 PM

The Japanese teach and practice the art of “active listening.” Nodding, note taking, eye contact, and the regular “ah…” are all tools to help the listener be an active participant in the exercise, not just a passive lump.

Posted by Useless Sam Grant at April 2, 2009 2:49 PM

Denzel Washington (attorney) in the 1993 movie Philadelphia, “Talk to me like I’m a two year old.”
Not because he can’t listen
Not because the other person can’t be heard
But because, even when listened to, most people don’t speak intelligently enough to be “heard” clearly with understanding.
Therefore, for another slide, proudly display TALK TO ME LIKE I’M A 2 YEAR OLD so you can truly understand what people are attempting to say in a meeting.
Funny exchange I had with an executive leader once…we were disagreeing on a budget for finished goods. In my assessments, I thought his numbers were stratospheric and unattainable. He wanted to convince me the numbers were supported by sound principles of business. Before he begins to plea his case he states, “Let’s have a positive probe for a few minutes.” I gave him a look like he was F’ed out of his mind. Before he continued, I blurted out…
“The doctor said the same thing last week and the probe wasn’t so positive.” The President and CEO were in the meeting and began to laugh. I was trying to show everyone how stupid we sounded, when listened to, in the meeting.
As much as these posts (very good) are focusing on listening, how about focusing on the dumb ass that’s trying to communicate too.
TP—-nice to see you provide a lot of pointers on this blog. Good blog!
Nodding in America, to me, now means the other person is full of s&^t, full of themselves, or both.

Posted by Scott Peters at April 2, 2009 3:13 PM

Thanks Mark JF – your point b is something Tom’s been advocating for years!

Posted by Shelley Dolley at April 2, 2009 5:07 PM

Once we had an active listen session with Trevor Gay with plenty of nodding & copius notes – & got TG to admit to:
1. plenty of soccer hooligan events with him as ring leader
2. up is down & down is up in the new utopia socialism of Labour
3. Margaret Thatcher is his secret heroine of all time
4. complex tranche derivatives are his real passion
Then he deftly & super swiftly ran an intricate maze like a genius member of the rodentia family.
And he was super pleased to get all-you-can-eat fish & chips as a reward. :>)

Posted by C Love at April 2, 2009 6:43 PM

PS: “You Are Psychic” is a favorite – the author lives in Sedona, AZ. – take a seminar from him perhaps. Psychic 3.0 gets beyond mere “listening” 1.0.

Posted by C Love at April 2, 2009 6:59 PM

Listening is a skill, and an attitude.
But it seems that Tom is describing something different: How to communicate empathy, as a listener, to the speaker. These are great techniques, that do not have to be manipulative, to invite a speaker to engage with you more deeply. Nothing wrong with that!
Next time you are trying to get a slightly disinterested prospect or lukewarm customer to pay attention to a conversation with you, get them talking and then use the techniques Tom is suggesting. Nod, take notes, and then take notice. The other person will be much more engaged with you.

Posted by Steve Yastrow at April 2, 2009 8:14 PM

I agree. Another tactic to use, when listening to someone that doesn’t make a bit of sense, is to look bewildered, stoic, and puzzled throughout the conversation. Don’t say a word and let them talk themselves in circles. Just use body language and an occasional Hmmmm. Sooner or later the person will state that they’re full of poop, and then you can begin a real conversation. I believe the biggest flaw with communication today is the overemphasis on being politically correct!
When I was training as a counselor, there were times in a 50 minute session that I wouldn’t say a word (deliberately). I would just use facial expressions and utterances. I was amazed to find out how many people would flip-flop through a session, a story, and get to the truth. They knew, based on my non-verbal messages, that I knew they were skewing the truth.

Posted by Scott Peters at April 2, 2009 10:18 PM

“First comes my belief that Serious Training in listening-information extraction is a “Top 5″ skill for leaders, and non-leaders for that matter.”
Information extraction! Yes, definitely a skill that is needed and one that can be taught indeed. You extract information through questions, by gaining confidence and credibility…even in the briefest exchange. You can teach folks to “hear” what people aren’t saying. What’s the old story about the reason you have two ears and one month is listen twice as much as you speak? Our biggest challenge in training new customer service reps is convincing them the ability to game and use social networking sites means nothing when you have to access an unfamiliar system, extract information to answer a customer’s question, and then apply that information to exceed the customer’s expectations.

Posted by Dave Wheeler at April 2, 2009 11:47 PM

C Love – Brilliant … with one minor criticism. You forgot the mushy peas and salt & vinegar with my fish and chips. Promise me you will try harder :-)
Yours as always … affectionately
from “Thug Tory Thatcher Complex Kid”

Posted by Trevor Gay at April 3, 2009 1:12 AM

If you vary the pace of your nodding you can get the speaker to speak slower or quicker. It’s all part of the natural ability all humans share to be in rapport with each other.
Other tips for rapport involve frequent uses of the word “Yes” especially when used at the first word in response to a statement that you may disagree with fundamentally. Also everywhere you would consider using the word “But” switch to “And”. “But” means delete everything before and substitute with everything following and that can come across as a real slap in the face. If you use “And” you can subvert without necessarily getting into a fight.
To the person who said listening is not a skill, I completely disagree. It is a skill because you can learn to do it, and that includes learning actually to be interested in other people and what they have to say. The word “Attitude” is hopeless as it is unmeasurable, ambiguous and unteachable. Never use it in a personnel appraisal because the appraisee might challenge you for evidence and accuse you of prejudice if you haven’t got any.

Posted by Sean at April 3, 2009 2:22 AM

Levels of listening:
1) Cosmetic – Not really listening, going through the motions. Often happens in social situations. Unfortunately it’s very common in business situations too.
2) Conversational – general mixture of talking, thinking, and listening. If you catch yourself thinking about anything else or even what you are going to say next this is the level you are at. Behaviours are often outwardly positive (the nodding, ahas, etc). Most meetings happen at this level as people are actually thinking about the responses or what they are going to say next.
3) Active Listening – very focused on the individual – ensuring understanding of what is said. This is where you are 100% focused on UNDERSTANDING the other person. You move from the Aha and nodding and you are actively using different questioning techniques (open and closed questions, etc) to really get deep on what is in the other person’s head.
4) Deep Listening – a level where the listener is able to experience the other person. It is a deep emotional engagement as well as understanding. Has similar qualities to meditation. Generally this doesn’t last very long – you can’t conduct a whole meeting like this.
Most people who think they are active listening are still in conversation level. 99% of business interactions take place at levels 1+2. Remember if you are trying to think about what they are saying and understand it in your head you are not listening – you want to get to the point where you understand it in THEIR head.
Level 3 is the one to aim for. If you are really curious about the other person you don’t have to think about the questions (the act of thinking about your questions puts you back to level 2) – they will arrive from your intuition/subconscious. Your aim should be to be a catalyst (i.e. not adding to or being changed by the situation – simply helping it to happen)
Part of the challenge of listening in a business context is in letting go and trusting your intuition to ask the right questions. Many business people (especially senior) struggle with this.
It’s probably unlikely you will experience level 4 in a normal business environment – it’s a little too intense without permission to go that deep anyway.

Posted by PaulH at April 3, 2009 2:36 AM

I understand your point about skill – there are skills you can learn. However I would say most people would gain more in terms of their listening ability by changing their attitude first.
If you don’t respect another person’s views you are simply not going to listen to them – no matter how much skill you have. I would say that in learning to do this their attitude might change.
In terms of “attitude” I would agree that attitude is not useful in most appraisal situations because most appraisal type meetings are massively superficial.
In a coaching environment where you are exploring values, self limiting beliefs and perceptions, the attitudes and beliefs that people have about others, events and themselves are very useful.

Posted by PaulH at April 3, 2009 2:47 AM

Sean – on reflection I might have been a bit strong against the importance of skill part – good call on your part to bring that up.
I should have been clearer – What I detest is the superficial skills that is often talked about around listening (use of body language, mirroring, the ahas etc). Sorry Steve Y – I do disagree – these techniques are nothing to do with real empathy. You have exactly the right approach – (i.e. start listening to the customer) but the wrong method to carry it out.
Perhaps I am being a bit harsh here – any listening is better than none! But I would urge you to find out more and practice this art.

Posted by PaulH at April 3, 2009 3:02 AM

“In a coaching environment where you are exploring values, self limiting beliefs and perceptions the attitudes and beliefs that people have about others, events and themselves are very useful.”
I would argue that attitude is not useful even in a coaching environment because it’s such an ambiguous word. Behaviours, skills and beliefs are more accessible and observable characteristics of a person. All of those are involved in listening and they can all be identified, taught and measured.

Posted by Sean at April 3, 2009 3:03 AM

“What I detest is the superficial skills that is often talked about around listening (use of body language, mirroring, the ahas etc).”
Couldn’t agree more. If you attempt to break rapport or learning down into simplistic, unthinking procedures you will fail. Then again too much in business these days is procedural. Thomas Watson’s greatest (I would argue) contribution to IBM was the introduction of the word “Think” as the corporate motto.

Posted by Sean at April 3, 2009 3:07 AM

Hi Paul – these are the notes from our handbook used in our customer service/communications workshops – very much like yours I guess
In order to provide an exceptional service to patients we must be able to listen. Listening is not something that most people do well naturally. There are several levels of listening:
Level 1: Background: Most people can listen to what is going on in the background without really listening to it. Interestingly enough they do hear and can replay the last couple of sentences from memory on request. Many of us did this at school when the teacher caught us daydreaming!
Level 2: Superficial: This is when we are not really listening. We are only pretending. We naturally slip in “Umm” or “Uhh” to give an impression of listening.
Level 3: Positive: This is when we really put energy into listening, and focus on what the person is saying.
Level 4: Empathetic: This is a higher level of listening when we really try to understand what it is the speaker is saying, and how they feel about it.
At work most of us listen at level 3 (unless someone is being long-winded in which case we may swap to level 2). In order to offer exceptional customer service we need to work at moving towards level 4. In order to do this we need to learn the skill of active listening.
Have a great weekend!

Posted by Trevor Gay at April 3, 2009 3:13 AM

This is a great conversation. I am tempted to post the whole thing as a single “run on” post. I think the thoughtful disagreements would be invaluable to somone try to decide whether or not the topic was BS, whether it’s teachable or not, etc..
What do you think?
Post the whole thing?
Or not?
It’s “yes” or “no,” whole thing or no thing. I don’t want to apply my own edits.

Posted by tom peters at April 3, 2009 7:17 AM

Wow! This is a great conversation.
To me, the heart of listening is reflected in the well-known story of Zen master Nan-In. The story goes that a professor of philosophy from Tokyo University once came to Nan-In to learn Zen from him. And Nan-In said sure, let’s talk. As they spoke, Nan-In soon realized that the professor was more interested in putting across his point of view than in really learning about Zen. So Nan-In offered him tea. And while pouring him a cup of tea, he poured until the cup was full and kept pouring until the cup overflowed and hot tea spilt onto the good professor’s lap. The professor jumped up and yelled: “What are you doing? Can’t you see the cup is full? It won’t take in anymore.” At which Nan-In replied calmly, “Like the cup, you are full and you aren’t taking in anything. Why don’t you leave now and come back when you’ve emptied your cup, and then we’ll talk about Zen.”
In my mind, Listening is about emptying the cup. Not only the listener’s cup, but also the speaker’s. It’s only when the speaker’s cup begins to empty that the real insights, reflections and deepest truths begin to emerge. And perhaps Tom’s experience with the journalist was around this emptying-the-cup kind of listening and speaking. Here’s to more empty cups?
And yes Tom, I do think this is a great conversation that deserves a post of its own.

Posted by Porus Munshi at April 3, 2009 9:38 AM

Porus, one vote is enough–it shall be done.

Posted by tom peters at April 3, 2009 9:44 AM

A separate post? Did you not see me nodding? ;-)

Posted by Sean at April 3, 2009 10:05 AM


Posted by PaulH at April 3, 2009 10:19 AM

Great post Tom. Is the video of the professor moving to the right available online somewhere? I tried googling it but couldn’t find anything.

Posted by Brett Tilford at April 2, 2009 10:12 AM

Brett, I VEEEEERY RELUCTANTLY admit that I saw this in the fall of 1970, right after I’d started at the Stanford Business School. Hence, 39–yikes–years have passed. God alone knows whether or not you can unearth it.

Posted by tom peters at April 3, 2009 10:20 AM

This has been one of my favorite discussions because you can feel the passion. In my experience, most people want to be better listeners and hence the development of listener training. What is lacking is the mental preparation to go into a meeting and listen. We work with our clients to do a short mental preparation before any meeting, negotiation, etc. to set their intentions, visualize their physical response, establish their state, and set their energy level. I posted a blog on called What You Focus On Grows and this is a perfect example. If you focus on your interest and curiosity in another person’s opinion your engagement grows. As a bonus, so does their interest in you.

At first, clients feel like this is a little forced but can you imagine an athlete not “warming up” before they perform. I have had clients call me immediately after a meeting to share how engaged they were and how much more effective they were because they took the time to go into the meeting prepared.

I agree with PaulH’s very first comment about being curious. Next is be prepared. This means making the effort to clear your mind, prepare your mind, make up your mind and then engage your mind.

Posted by Scott Peltin at April 3, 2009 10:29 AM


Posted by Trevor Gay at April 3, 2009 10:56 AM

In our age of Blackberrys, Buttberrys, Treos, iPhones, Twittering, Tweeting, Facebooking, My Spacing, etc., I find that listening skills have eroded over very recent years.

I think about how many times I’ve been to lunch with someone that is texting, tweeting, or generally annoying me.

Tom, I think it’s prudent to continue the conversation as you see fit, because, in my assessments, all of our F’ing gadgets keep us from truly focusing on the here, now, and future.


—-I see the next generation as completely preoccupied in the world of nothingness. Many people overcommunicate, which de-sensitizes people from listening.

Posted by Scott Peters at April 3, 2009 11:03 AM

I’m with you, Scott. My observation — especially disconcerting when watching teens today — is that by and large Facebook, MySpace, et al, have become mechanisms of vanity. When I see a teen who can’t seem to carry on a face-to-face conversation with someone posting dozens… hundreds… of pictures of themselves and merely writing words to convince someone how wonderful they are, I am saddened by the lack of true communications and social skills they are stepping into life equipped with. My feeling is, if you REALLY want to convince me your my “friend,” do a bit more than including me in the list of a quadrillion (thanks, TP) people you emailed today. I watch these teens key in literally hundreds of text messages with lightning speed on their cell phones, then at the end of the day, they have NO CLUE what any of their friends are up to. HUH? Bottom line, “Everybody’s talkin’ at me… I’d don’t hear a word they’re sayin’…” To me, that’s not “commnication,” “conversation,” or “dialog.” It’s BROADCASTING.

Perhaps nodding as a means of pretending to be listen could be analogous to just having your cell phone turned on so the other person’s message is received… by the phone anyway. “MENU… INBOX… UNREAD MESSAGES – 285… DELETE ALL MESSAGES FROM INBOX?… Y.

No time. Too busy SENDING.

To loosely quote Stephen Covey: “We were given two ears and a mouth. Only one of those holes was DESIGNED to close.” (Emphasis added.)
Posted by Dan Gunter at April 3, 2009 12:05 PM

Scott – at the risk of sounding like an old fart, I agree with the point about people texting, doing e-mail on the Blackberry etc over lunch but I’d expand the point. A) I think it’s a basic lack of manners. B) If answering e-mail during a meeting is more important than being in the meeting and contributing, you shouldn’t be in the meeting. C) If people concentrated on the meeting and it’s properly run, it probably would only take about half the time that’s needed when people bring these distractions in with them: you need to break the vicious circle.

I used to work for a company that operated “Champagne Rules” during formal meetings: if your mobile phone rings or you’re caught using your Blackberry, you have to buy a glass of champagne for everyone present. Someone left his phone on during the annual sales kick-off meeting once: that was expensive!

Posted by Mark JF at April 3, 2009 1:01 PM

I must be an old fart, too, because I agree with Scott and Mark above. Although I’ve never figured out why my wife doesn’t think I’m listening to her when we are on the phone with each other. I’m nodding away like a madman and she thinks I’m ignoring her!

I interviewed with a large, high-profile company for a nice position last summer, but the person who would be my boss took me to dinner the night before to “get to know me” and he spent the entire time either on the phone or texting–to his children! I asked them not to make me an offer the next day. Never looked back.

Posted by Useless Sam Grant at April 3, 2009 2:23 PM

One thing, mostly missing in this excellent discussion, is gender differences. Are women who read this blog laughing at us boys (mostly) for even having this discussion?

Posted by tom peters at April 3, 2009 3:21 PM

Tom Peters posted this on April 3, 2009, in Strategies.
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