ATD Blog

How to Be a Conscious Listener

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I first became aware of how important listening is to our success in business, as well as in our personal lives, while studying for my coaching certification at the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program, a rigorous eight months of learning and practice. The very first morning, after each of the 29 in our cohort introduced ourselves, explained our backgrounds, and why we enrolled, our accomplished faculty members, Julie Shows and Kate Ebner, described the journey ahead and discussed the very key quality of listening.

Shows and Ebner were passionate about how important our focus is on what a person is saying—and not saying—and how to sense what the other person is feeling during a conversation. They how few people are really accomplished listeners, because most of us have problem-solving minds. We may think ahead to what we’ll say, judge the other person, or be partially thinking of our to-do list, and on and on.

Well, I am guilty as charged. I know my mind is too busy and that I could and should be more present when listening, and that I wanted to commit to learning how to improve.

As a group, we discussed training ourselves to be present—to let our thoughts float out of our minds as if they were clouds. I absolutely agreed with this message. I remember thinking at the time, “This is so true, listening is a critically important skill! So why am I only learning this now? Why wasn’t this discussed in school, or by the companies for whom I worked?”

That night, I went online and Googled “listening books.” Interestingly, there are thousands of books about management and leadership, but just a few about listening!

So, I read the books that were available. Some were stories about business people who became successful, highly effective leaders because of their attentive listening. I also read about the people who worked for them, who felt appreciated and motivated to work hard for them. And I read about people who were not good listeners, and how disconnected people felt in their presence, how ineffective these managers were in sustaining their results.

My favorite was Listening Leaders: The Ten Golden Rules To Listen, Lead & Succeed. It definitely motivated me. I also found Active Listening, 32-page booklet published by the Center for Creative Leadership, especially informative as it’s packed with good tips.

As I like to emphasize, every business is a people business—our relationships matter greatly.


Solid relationships help us gain the respect and trust of others, our clients, and our colleagues. It is important to be easy to work with, to have productive working relationships.  People must sense that we genuinely care about them; this is how they feel inspired to work with and even follow us.

Case in point

Recently, I facilitated an attentive listening workshop for Billy Casper Golf, the leader in the field of golf course management. One of the regional general managers shared, “Good listening is what our regional senior vice president, Joel Gohlmann, does. He is the very best listener I know.” Many in the room joined in with agreement. It was high testimony!

Clearly, Joel’s conscious listening skills are a big reason his team members have such high regard for him. They said they’re always ready to make sacrifices and go the extra mile, as they sense Joel truly cares about them.

I asked Joel for his thoughts about effective listening and what he tries to do. Here’s what he shared:

  • A lack of patience leads to the lost art of good listening.
  • Follow up is critically important.
  • We must put the other person’s interest ahead of our own while in conversation, or at least put ours on hold.

Listening Tips

Here are a few helpful practices to becoming an accomplished listener.

  • First, our attitude: we must commit to listen to understand and learn.
  • Put the other person at ease, maybe sit side by side rather than across a desk.
  • Lean forward, comfortable eye contact, a slight smile.
  • Quiet our minds—and stay fully present.
  • Give affirmations, “Okay,” “I see,” and “Makes sense.”
  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Maybe ask if we may repeat what we’ve heard to assure we have it right.
  • Use silence, don’t rush to fill the space, likely the person will then continue, and we’ll deepen our learning. It is said, “Let silence do the heavy lifting.”
  • Take notes, it will help us remember, and even more important, it is a sign of respect to the other person and will be appreciated.

Please remember, it all begins with our willingness to understand and learn, and our effort to be patient and fully present. Conscious listening is difficult, especially in our crazy busy world today with so many urgencies and distractions. As author Leo Babauta says, “The information coming at us is like trying to drink from a fire hose.”
Bottom line: Practice, practice, practice. That’s what I learned during the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program. I knew my listening was just okay and that I wanted and needed to improve.

My practice was to make it a point at least once a day to go into a conversation mindfully intent on listening attentively and patiently. I did this during the week in business conversations, at home at dinner, and I even practiced in checkout lines while doing errands, when I’d ask “How is your day?” Well, I actually stopped and listened, to let the person know that I was genuinely interested.

I kept a notebook, and right after these selected daily conversations, I briefly rated how I did and noted what I observed about the other person, what they were saying and how they might have been feeling. Sometimes I was pleased with my listening, other times I wasn’t.

But I believe what gets measured gets improved, and over time my listening definitely improved. And I continue to work on my listening, staying quiet and patient, trying not to jump ahead to conclusions, staying fully present.

Let’s just remember, conscious listening takes our commitment and practice, but our improvement will definitely increase our effectiveness as leaders. It will also deepen our relationships, and that greatly benefits our quality of life!

About the Author

John Keyser is the founder and principal of Common Sense Leadership. He works with executives, helping them to develop organizational cultures that will produce outstanding financial results year after year, as well as ongoing employee and organizational improvement; [email protected].

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