Listen Hear


Do you practice listening?  If you don’t then you probably aren’t listening very well, unless you are one of those strange and wonderful creatures born with the natural propensity to listen actively to what others are saying.  For most of us frail humans active listening is a chore.  It is easier by far to listen to the sage wisdom that spews from our own consciousness.

However, brilliant though you may be, there is only one of you.  The collected wisdom of mankind does not reside in your head, so from time to time make the effort to listen to others.  They may be saying something important.

To help you here are some techniques for turning people on, and for turning people off.

1.  Active listening body language

Just the way you sit or stand can encourage, or discourage the person who is speaking.  To be an active listener you need to monitor your body language to make sure your posture is open and welcoming.  You should make good eye contact.  Lean forward, angle your head slightly.  Avoid folding your arms and crossing your legs as these are physical barriers.  Don’t lean or sit back (seems like you are in judgement), and avoid rubbing your chin or steepling your fingers.

2.  Non-vocalised encouragement

Nodding is good, you are saying “Yes!  Go on!”  Shaking your head in appropriate places is also powerful, as you can be saying “so sad” or “how unbelievable” etc.  More difficult to gauge is making physical contact, as it is highly cultural, contextual and personal.  In the right situation holding a hand, touching a shoulder or giving a hug can engender great empathy, trust and an outpouring of emotion.  In the wrong situation it will rapidly shut down communication and cause offense.  It could even get you arrested.

3.  Vocalised encouragement

A far safer area of encouragement than tactile reinforcement is verbal reinforcement.  This can range from simply making encouraging noises (Ah Ha, Um, Oh), through actual words (Yes, I see, and then?) to full blown sentences (So what did you say to him then?)

4.  Driving the narrative

Part of active listening is allowing the other person to tell their story.  Very often we hear the beginning of a story, which reminds us of something that happened to us, and we launch into telling our story.  The original story is lost along the way.  The active listener is focused on hearing the whole story.  To help it along they may drive the narrative forward.  I find the best way to do this, without changing the story, is to repeat the last sentence you heard.  Try it, it is very powerful.  It reinforces to the narrator that you are paying attention, you are interested and you want to hear more.

5.  Colouring in the narrative

Some people tell a great story, and others need help.  If a story is very dry, it may be because it is devoid of adjective, descriptor, emotional context etc.  You can help the narrator to build the story with some well-placed cues to colour in the landscape.  Examples might be along the lines of:  Who was with you?  How did that make you feel at the time?  What was your first reaction?  Did they seem to be under pressure?  Did you have a meal in the café? Etc.

If you want them to build and build, then preface these cues with the words “Yes, And…”

6.  Killing the narrative

The opposite of “Yes, And…”  is “Yes, but…”.  When you use the word “but” everything positive that you just said is cancelled out.  If you want to stop someone speaking there are many ways to do it.  Disinterested body language, absent eye contact, tell them they are wrong, laugh inappropriately in the wrong place.  Some can be subtle and others are obvious.  But sometimes you need to keep someone quiet.  If you are actively listening and someone else tries to interrupt you generally get the message across with a blocking gesture, hand up, palm out towards the interruption.  A slow, loose handed version acts as a “Shhhhh” whereas a firm, flat handed version, held for a second, with full eye contact, is an emphatic “shut up”.  This can then be reinforced by turning to the original speaker, and saying “Go on, you said”….and repeat their last sentence.

In group situations (focus groups, meetings etc) when one person becomes annoying and will not allow anyone else to speak it is perfectly acceptable to be very straight with them along the lines of  “We know your opinion, now we want to hear the opinions of others, can you be quiet and listen for a while now please?”

Come to think of it, people are always saying that to me.  I wonder why?

Trumpet Player; by Langston Hughes

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes
where the smoldering memory
of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
about thighs

The negro
with the trumpet at his lips
has a head of vibrant hair
tamed down,
patent-leathered now
until it gleams
like jet—
were jet a crown

the music
from the trumpet at his lips
is honey
mixed with liquid fire
the rhythm
from the trumpet at his lips
is ecstasy
distilled from old desire—

that is longing for the moon
where the moonlight’s but a spotlight
in his eyes,
that is longing for the sea
where the sea’s a bar-glass
sucker size

The Negro
with the trumpet at his lips
whose jacket
Has a fine one-button roll,
does not know
upon what riff the music slips

It’s hypodermic needle
to his soul
but softly
as the tune comes from his throat
mellows to a golden note