The Art of Listening

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Listening is the most important skill to use when things are going poorly.


by Rick Maurer

It takes a special quality of conversation to explore differences. It takes courage to just to begin this exploration – and sticking with it when the outcome is unknown is even harder.

There are tools that many have used to make similar journeys. These approaches have been developed by mediators, negotiators, psychologists, consultants, conflict resolution practitioners, physicists, and acting teachers. They have been used in international peace negotiations, marriage counseling, between union and management, in families, and between pro-life and pro-choice advocates searching for common ground.

One thing that links all of these tools is that they are based in a different way of engaging in conversation. As you read through this chapter, you will undoubtedly see techniques you’ve read about, and things that you’ve used consciously or instinctively. You may find yourself saying, “So that’s why I was successful?” The more of this acquired wisdom that we make conscious and part of our own repertoire, the more options we’ll have when we choose to explore differences.

Define Terms

It is important to use words precisely. We often assume that common terms mean the same to us as they do to others. These untested assumptions can be disastrous. If I believe business reengineering means a fundamental reexamination of how our work is organized, and you see it as a less intrusive process, we had better define and agree on terms before we begin a project. Think of how many terms get thrown about and treated as if everyone understands what is meant by him or her. This problem can be especially true when an organization has developed its own code or jargon. Assumptions about meaning get piled on top of assumptions.

Without clarity of meaning, we argue and later find that we actually agreed; we were simply talking about different things. Lack of clarity can also get people to agree to things they don’t understand. On the surface this may seem ideal, but if you need their support later on, you’ll find that time will help them see the error of their thinking and resistance will set in.


Using your own words, repeat what you think you heard the other person say. This serves two purposes: it slows you down so that you have to listen before you respond, and it helps you make sure you hear what the other person is saying. When tension is high, your ability to listen diminishes. You hear what you think he meant. Our assumptions hinder our ability to hear. Paraphrasing keeps you listening with open ears.

Listen between the Lines

As you read this chapter, you can only guess at the tone of voice I would use if I were to read it aloud to you. In places, I may be sarcastic. For some readers, the words alone will be all the clue they need; for others, it would help to hear the inflection in my voice or see my eyes as I smile. In tense situations, the words alone are usually not the most interesting part of the conversation. So much is being said by people’s eyes, tone of voice, body position, pace. And you can only guess at what a furrowed brow might mean, but you can always ask.

Don’t Interrupt

This can be very difficult. If others are attacking your idea or going after you personally, it may be very difficult to sit still – but you must. Only in silence can you create the space for others to speak. If you counter each of their statements with a rebuttal, they will either quit talking or take you on in a debate. Neither will get at issues that are sitting just beneath the surface. The only way to understand your differences is to allow people the space to talk freely.

Also, don’t interrupt their silence or take the wrong meaning from it. Out of nervousness or haste, you may assume that silence means agreement and try to move on. If you’ve ever stood in a winter storm, you know that the snow doesn’t come in one burst. It may snow heavily for a while, slack off, even quit for a while, then start again. Silence can be like that; people may be thinking, allowing clouds to form. They may be waiting to see what you will do. They may be afraid to say any more. In whatever way you can, show that you truly want to hear all they have to say.

Listen for all Levels of Resistance

When exploring resistance, you must hear the other speakers on many levels – their words, feelings, assumptions, values, wishes, and fears. You must listen for the unspoken. What they are not saying may be more important than their words. If people say they agree to the change, but your instincts tell you that they should be angry – explore. Listen beyond the words to see if you can pick up information from their tone of voice, eye contact, choice of words, how they hold their bodies, or where they choose to sit.

Listen from the heart as well. Resistance cannot be transformed simply by attending to rational Level 1 concerns. What are the feelings embedded in their statements? Since most resistance stems from fear, you must be willing to listen to those concerns as well. These are Level 2 or Level 3 issues.

People don’t often talk about feelings at work, and when they do, they often disguise them. I’ve heard clients say things like this conversation:

  • I took the bullet on that one.
  • Well, I suspect that taking a bullet might hurt…or, the macho response: took the bullet.

This type of conversation is a way of acknowledging feelings indirectly. It’s worth exploring. Even a simple response like, “You say you took a bullet?” might be enough of an opening to encourage the person to speak more freely.

Feed Back Impressions

Unless you ask, you can never be certain that what you assume is true. Check observations by making simple statements that describe the assumption you are making. “If I were in your shoes, I might be wondering if this plan was really a code word for downsizing.”

People want to talk. The simple act of listening to and showing interest in what people have to say may get them talking. If you provide a safe environment and listen with an open heart and mind, people are likely to begin to tell you what’s going on. And if they don’t, you might look at the Level 3 issues that are getting in the way. Something is making it risky for them to tell you truth as they see it. They may not trust you or who you represent. Perhaps management has let them down repeatedly in ways that left them wounded.

Warning: Active Listening Isn’t Enough

Many management and communication courses teach active listening. People learn to paraphrase and summarize showing that we understand the words and feelings of what they are hearing. It is a skill that can be taught and learned. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it can be used as a cover as we go through the motions of listening. We can reflect back what we heard and act like we empathize with the other person without ever shifting our positions – without ever being influenced. When we use active listening in this way, we are treating the other person as an It that can have no influence on us.

Exploring differences can only work effectively if we are willing to be influenced by what we hear. If your mind is already made up and there is nothing the other person can say to change it, put this book down, it won’t help you. Acting like you care when you don’t is manipulation. In fact, using these techniques without a willingness to be influenced may anger people and make matters worse.


Dialogue is an exchange which allows all parties to be influenced by each other. It even allows us to learn things about ourselves and each other that none of us knew before. Dialogue goes deep allowing us to examine fears, hopes, assumptions, and beliefs.

If people who are on opposite sides of such a strong Level 3 divide can use dialogue to find common ground, surely there are few situations that can’t benefit from this approach.

Guidelines for Effective Dialogue

Here are some guidelines that support effective dialogue.

  • Maintain confidentiality
  • Avoid inflammatory comments
  • Avoid trying to convert others to your point of view
  • Respect others by listening attentively and responding appropriately

Things You Can Do

Once the conditions are in place for effective conversation or dialogue, there are a few prompts that might help you get started. Just as you might have used training wheels to learn to ride a bike, these tools are just meant to get you rolling.

  • State your intent. Don’t start asking questions without first setting the stage. People need to know why you’re digging beneath the surface. Remember, the reason you are digging is so you can find out what they fear so that you can see if that concern can be addressed in a way where both of you can meet your goals.
  • Acknowledge good points that they make.
  • Accept responsibility for your actions. If you need to offer a mea culpa or a full-blown apology, do it.
  • Express your surprise. It’s OK to state the differences between you, but once you state them, ask questions. “I think this project plan is very strong and I’m surprised that you seem to think it’s awful. Am I right, do you think its awful?” The next step is the hardest – shut up and listen! Our tendency is to keep talking and tell them why they are wrong. We want to use force of reason to beat them into submission. Sit on your hands and avoid this trap.
  • Make guesses based on your assumptions. Treat these guesses as speculative – as mere possibilities. “If I were a middle manager right now, I’d be worried that this ERP might cost me my job.” He can respond however he wants. She may confirm your assumption or dismiss it. Either way, you’ve learned something.
  • Stay open to what you are hearing and ask for more. My colleague, Edwin Nevis says, “Isn’t it interesting that they think that?” This allows him to explore the differences with a sense of curiosity. Imagine thinking, “Isn’t it interesting that she sees things so differently? Isn’t it interesting that he really dislikes my leadership of this team?” If we can keep a spirit of curiosity alive, we have a much better chance of staying open to what the other person is saying. But, the moment we begin to judge what we are hearing, we are likely to respond defensively with a knee-jerk reaction. Carl Rogers wrote, “the major barrier to mutual interpersonal communication is our very natural tendency to judge, to evaluate, to approve or disapprove the statement of the other person, or the other group. Thinking “Isn’t that interesting” in our minds can help keep judgment at bay, at least temporarily.
  • Use brackets. If you hear something that demands a response – for example, a strong counter argument or a personal attack aimed at you – put brackets around it in your mind and allow the conversation to continue. You can always come back to that statement later on.
  • Move gently. This exploration could feel too personal and risky for either of you. Pay attention to signals that indicate you are moving too far too fast. If this occurs, back off. This would be a bad time to put pressure on.
  • Keep resistance low. If differences are Level 2 or Level 3, you can expect some resistance on both sides. Just be mindful of this and take care not to escalate the situation. One thing you might do: acknowledge that this may be a challenging conversation.


  • This book focuses on ways to stay excited about your own idea while staying engaged with the other person. I have been stating throughout that it is important to keep in mind the dual goals of staying excited about your idea and staying connected to the other person at the same time. Exploring differences is an exception. When engaged in exploring differences you may find that you’ll do better if you put your goal for your new idea on hold temporarily.

If we hang onto our goals for something too tightly, we will be unable to explore differences deeply. Once we have an idea in our heads, we tend to become advocates whenever someone argues against it. This limits our ability to remain open to what the other person is saying. People who run dialogue groups often create a ground rule that no decisions can be made during the dialogue session itself. They know that once we move into problem solving or decision making mode, we tend to quit listening fully and become advocates for our positions.

Listening to the other person – no matter how strong their comments – does not demand that you give up anything. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t make you wrong and them right. Of course you can give in to the pressure of their resistance (the knee-jerk reaction of Moving Away). You can use the information you get as you explore deeply against the other person (another knee-jerk response, Moving Against). You can give in and accept their idea in an effort to show you are a good person (Moving Toward). Or, you can allow yourself to be influenced in a way that creates a mutual win.

To avoid the trap of the knee-jerk reactions, give yourself a short-term goal of simply listening and exploring. Actors choose objectives for each moment in a scene, and once that objective is met, they move on to another objective. For example you might say to yourself, My objective is to explore our differences as fully as needed.

Once that objective is met, you can then move on to the next objective. This objective should be based on what you learned when you were exploring differences. You might select to seek mutual gain or to cut your losses or to rethink the idea depending on what occurs during the exploration phase.

i Rogers, Carl. On Becoming a Person. Mariner Books. 1995.
ii Gestalt psychology is a discipline that works in the present moment with a belief that working with this immediate connection between practitioner and client is where growth occurs. Bracketing is a technique Gestalt practitioners use to stay connected to the other person and not getting distracted by tantalizing siren songs.


© 2009 Rick Maurer. Rick uses his Change without Migraines™ to advise organizations on how to lead change effectively. He is author of many books including Beyond the Wall of Resistance. Recently, he created the Change Management Open Source Project, a free resource for people interested in change in organizations.