Three Ways to Improve your Capacity to Listen

Knowledge speaks. Wisdom listens.


We know this, and yet, we have habits which prevent us from wholeheartedly listening. Here are three areas to explore that may support you to become a better listener, and a better leader.

1. Make a Promise

Think back to the last time you were interrupted. What did it feel like? What were you in the middle of? What was lost as a result of your thinking being run off course?

Nancy Kline, author of ‘The Promise That Changes Everything: I Won’t Interrupt You,’ asserts that the brain registers interruption as a physical assault. Strong words.

She explains: ‘our fear response is invoked and we temporarily lose access to the cortex which is now bathed in adrenaline and cortisol… and our thinking shrivels.’

We are constantly interrupted and we constantly interrupt. As a result, seamless, sustained thinking is rare.

Bill Gates knows this. Twice a year he retreats to a third space, away from home and work, a secret clapboard cabin in a cedar forest. As a result of this quality of thinking Microsoft launched Internet Explorer in 1995.

But while Gates is absorbed in his umpteenth Microsoft research paper, he is missing something that could further enhance, even catalyse his thinking. He is missing the presence of someone else’s full attention. Kline knows that an attentive, wholehearted presence which says, I see you, you matter, I’m listening, I won’t interrupt you, elevates the quality of our thinking.

And imagine for yourself what it could be like? Can you sense a spaciousness and ease opening up because there’s no need to tense against challenge, nostalgic advice, well-meaning suggestions or simply being talked over?

So stop interrupting; make a promise. It’s useful to share this promise with your conversation partner. I won’t interrupt you. I’m interested. I will listen.

2. Observe Your Impulses

In our coaching training at MSB, we talk about three listening levels. In level 1, we are preoccupied by our own thoughts: what does this mean to me? This is like an experience I had! I can help them with this!

Each of these thoughts can be an impulse to interrupt. Others that Kline mentions are: ‘I must clarify, I must correct; I must look smart right now; I must enrich; I must follow my own curiosity; I know where you are going with this; I need to take you elsewhere; your unformed thought is less valuable than my formed one; I am more important than you are; I look stupid not talking; no-one needs to listen this long; you will never stop.’

Which is your default?

You can see that behind your default impulse lies a story that gets to the heart of your identity and therefore the crux of your fears. If I don’t say anything, people won’t think I’m of value. If I don’t interrupt, this person will be out of control and I can’t handle that.

Here’s an experiment. In a meeting or conversation, don’t interrupt, but observe your impulses when you want to and make a note. What’s the pattern? What are you learning about yourself and your stories, your beliefs, your fears? What is more important than those?

If you are ready to let your impulses pass by, now focus on the quality of your attention, and again, observe what happens.

3. Prepare with Compassion

Conversations at work can be tough. It’s something we all struggle with, especially early in our careers. I can only imagine the hours of torment that would be saved if, across an organisation there was a shared language and structure for how to be with each other in the face of conflict. Conflict is generative and yet we run from it.

I digress. But one way we can improve outcomes of difficult conversations is through preparation in how we choose to be. I have adapted this exercise from Doug Silsbee’s excellent book, ‘Presence Based Coaching.’

I invite you to think of a conversation that is coming up. One that you are not looking forward to.

Before the interaction, take a few quiet minutes and set aside your mind’s chatter. Now drop your attention to your heart – it might help to place your hand there. You are connecting with your compassion. From here, seek to understand your conversation partner’s point of view, what they might be struggling with, what might be invisible to you, the qualities you admire in them. Now ask yourself what you have in common, what you both care about, the characteristics in them that you have too.

Now extend your feelings of compassion towards that person.

Maintaining some awareness of this feeling and your enhanced presence, have the conversation and enjoy your connection to the person, whether they respond or not to the qualities you are extending.

Notice what was different in the conversation. What was unexpected or different?

We are at a stage in our civilisation and relationship with our planet where we must improve the quality of our thinking in order to innovate and solve problems we have never faced. Our listening, the quality of our attention and capacity to connect is essential to our success. We all have a role to play.

Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

T.S. Eliot – Little Gidding


If you are curious about listening, here are some further resources to explore: Tara Brach, The Sacred Art of Listening

Orlando Bishop, talking about the concept of Sawubona, roughly translated as ‘I see you; I see you too.’

Time to Think, Listening to Ignite the Human Mind by Nancy Kline. In Kline’s most influential book, she outlines the ten components of ‘A Thinking Environment, ‘