African-american leader lecturing his employees in office, small training class
ATD Blog

Listening Between the Lines

Friday, April 7, 2023

Have you gotten an email or note saying one thing, but you suspected more was going on? When you read between the lines, something in the written words suggests the author’s message was incomplete or possibly even the opposite of what was written. You can apply the same type of thinking to listening. Here’s an example:

Erik: Hey, look what I just bought! A new monitor!
Anne: I thought we agreed to not spend money for a bit. No unnecessary purchases?
Erik: Yeah, but won’t it be great?
Anne: Fine. Keep it then.
Erik: Um, it doesn’t sound like you mean fine. You sure?
Anne: Whatever. Keep it. Do what you want.
Erik: OK. I’ll return it.

“Fine. Keep it then. Whatever. Keep it. Do what you want.” This is absolute approval. But something about the way the words were said suggested disapproval. Listening between the lines captured the feeling behind the words.

As managers and trainers, we must listen between the lines. Returning to the in-person world from the virtual world, we may need to sharpen our skills. In the digital world, we had different signals for disconnect—the camera-off image thumbnail or the mute button. Reading between the lines, maybe those individuals aren’t engaged. In person, employees can’t turn their video off. They say the right things when we ask questions. But do we listen between the lines?

Consider a trainer asking, “Is everyone clear about this?” One person says yes while thinking, “I don’t want to appear dumb. Everyone else seems to have gotten it.” Another person says yes while thinking, “It’s almost lunchtime. They’ll hate me if I ask a question and delay the break.” Yet another nods yes while thinking, “I don’t care.” If the trainer hears “Yes,” she may move on to the next step of the process without true comprehension.

Consider a manager asking the same question. One employee says yes while thinking, “I want to be thought of as competent, and saying no will make me look bad.” Another nods yes, thinking, “I don’t get it, but I don’t think it affects my job.” The manager heard confirmation, so she moved on to the next item on the agenda. Both the trainer and manager failed to read the room correctly, and they weren’t successful in imparting the message they wanted everyone to receive.


Letting people give a simple answer is a common mistake. All too often, we check for understanding with “OK?” or “Got it?” or “Ready to move on?” We can sometimes hear the tentativeness of a spoken “Yes,” but it is difficult to surface true feelings. (Astute trainers can read faces and see confusion, but “looking between the lines” is a topic for another day.)

Three Ways to Listen Between the Lines

1. Ask open-ended questions. Remove the blame from the attendees. “What could I explain better to make this clear?” makes it the trainer’s fault if some listeners don’t understand.


2. Check for understanding with a prompt such as “In one sentence, tell me the most important way this impacts your job.” A reply phrased as a question suggests uncertainty and perhaps the need to reinforce learning.

3. Listen for clues. Was there a hesitation before responses? Were answers to your questions confidently given? Did all attendees chime in? Tone and delivery help you discover what the words may be hiding.

Attendees are also listening between the lines. Your tone of voice matters. Supposedly, there are no dumb questions, but we know there are. Even so, it is important not to reveal when you think you just got a great example of one. Sometimes a rehearsed “Well, that’s a good question” makes it clear that you mean the opposite. And many trainers tasked with repeating the same topic multiple times can slip into conveying “I am so over this” if they aren’t careful. How you speak matters.

What people say—learners and trainers—may not be what they mean. Always be vigilant about listening for clues that reveal the hidden meaning. Learn to listen between the lines.

About the Author

Erik Palmer is an author and consultant from Colorado. In his previous careers, he spent time as a floor trader on a Chicago commodity exchange and managed a commodity trading office for a major Chicago brokerage firm, becoming the company’s national sales leader. Palmer moved into the classroom and became an educator. He was the teacher of the year in one of the nation’s top school districts. Now in his third career, Palmer brings his unique experiences to his work as a consultant, speaker, and author. He is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences for educators, educational leaders, and training professionals. He has led workshops across the United States and around the world. Palmer focuses on communication skills. He shows adults how to communicate well in business and social situations with an emphasis on teaching leaders how to become more effective speakers.

Palmer’s most recent book is Own Any Occasion: Mastering the Art of Speaking & Presenting. Other book include Well-Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students; Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology; Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking; Researching in a Digital World; and Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning. Palmer is a program consultant on Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Into Reading and Into Literature language arts programs.
You can follow Erik on Twitter (@erik_palmer) or contact him through his website

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