Jo White

By Jo White

The easiest way to improve the quality of your relationships is to listen. Sounds simple right? (No pun intended!) In reality, it is a skill that takes self-control and practice.

Hearing vs. listening

We all understand that there is a big difference between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’.

One is passive. You ‘hear’ that siren going past as you sit and watch tv.

The other is active. If you are ‘listening’ your brain is engaged as you look to make sense of the words and the sounds you hear.

It goes without saying that if you genuinely want to have a conversation with someone that hearing alone isn’t going to cut it. You need to be in the listening camp.

Once you’ve made your way there, then comes a further distinction. You can be doing one of two things. You can be listening to respond or listening to understand.

If you want to have a meaningful conversation 'hearing' what is being said isn’t going to cut it.

Listening to respond vs. listening to understand

  • If you are listening to respond, your brain will be whirring as the other person speaks. You’ll be processing their words, formulating your response and waiting for a pause so you can start speaking
  • If you are listening to understand you’ll be totally focussed on what the other person is saying without being distracted by thoughts or judgements.

We’ve all been guilty of doing the first one. Often out of excitement, or anger. But no one likes talking to someone who is distracted, or worse being interrupted. The impact can range from mildly annoying to majorly antagonistic.

Zipping it, and not speaking until the other person has finished, is a good way to show you are ‘listening to understand’. It has other benefits too:

  • Letting the other person get everything they want to say out will make them more receptive to what you have to say when it is your turn to speak
  • The more you let them speak the more time, and the more information, you get. You can use those to formulate the best response.

This is especially important if you are about to disagree with what is being said. When we train teams on conflict resolution our mantra is: Listen first. Respond second.

Listen first. Respond second.

Active listening

But how does your colleague / friend / kid know that you are listening? Sitting in silence is not enough to make them feel fully heard. You need to show them you are part of the conversation. You need to deploy your active listening skills.

Here are six techniques you can use use to demonstrate you are fully invested in listening to, and understanding, what is being said:

  1. Paraphrase what the other person has said (do NOT repeat verbatim). If you repeat word for word the last thing they said it shows you’ve ‘heard’. To demonstrate you’ve listened and understood you can paraphrase the details of what they have shared. For example, “You told him everything last Tuesday”
  2. Reflect back the impact of what they are saying is having on them and how they’re feeling. Picking up on the other person’s emotion and showing empathy demonstrates you understand what they have said. “You sound really excited / angry about this” 
  3. Validate them (never make them wrong). This is especially important if, when it is your turn to speak, you will be offering a different point of view. “You felt I shouldn’t have stepped in and answered the question”
  4. Encourage them to keep talking. They need to have said everything that is on their mind before they can listen to you. Invite them to say as much as they can. This is super easy to do by using phrases such as, “Go on”, “tell me more”
  5. Grunt, nod, say uh huh. A great way of showing you are listening, without interrupting and stopping someone’s flow, is simply to nod or make small noises of acknowledgement. Research into nodding concluded that it increases how much people like you by 30%! It also increases how approachable they think you are by 40%. Talk about a quick win.
  6. Ask exploratory questions. Questions that can be answered with a yes / no won’t help in terms of getting everything out on the table. Open-ended questions allow the other person to really explore and share what they are thinking. Anything that starts with;‘How’, ‘What’, ‘When’ or ‘Who’ is a winner.

Using these skills to show that you are listening to understand can be hard, especially if you are having a difficult conversation. It is always worth remembering that you don’t have to agree with everything that is being said. However, if you want resolution you do need to listen and understand others point of view.

Giving someone your undivided attention and focussing on nothing other than what they are saying will make them feel great. Active listening will make them feel like a total rock star. It takes practice but once you’ve got the hang of it you’ll quickly see the difference and the positive impact it will have on all your relationships.

Photos by Mimi Thian and Cherrydeck on Unsplash

Giving someone your undivided attention and focussing on nothing other than what they are saying will make them feel great.

The power of positive feedback

Improve the morale and engagement of your team by providing the correct balance of positive feedback and constructive criticism.

Let it go: Reframing to build resilience

Building and maintaining strong relationships is fundamental...

How Team Sterka makes learning work

Different people like to learn in different ways.  At Team ...

Get in touch

Get in touch with Trenton, our Head Coach

We’d love to hear from you! Let us know what you need and we’ll get right back to you.

Learn now

We’ll email you every week for 5 weeks with a tip you can put into practice immediately.

You’ll also get updates on our latest thinking.





    You can unsubscribe at any time

    Thanks for subscribing

    You’ll hear from us very soon.
    We’ve sent a confirmation email to

    Research‌ ‌carried‌ ‌out‌ ‌by‌ ‌Harvard‌ ‌University,‌ ‌the‌ ‌Carnegie‌ ‌Foundation‌ ‌and‌ Stanford‌ ‌Research‌ ‌Center‌ ‌found‌ ‌that‌ ‌85%‌ ‌of‌ ‌job‌ ‌success‌ ‌comes‌ ‌from‌ ‌having‌ well‐developed‌ ‌soft‌ ‌and‌ ‌people‌ ‌skills.‌