Listening with Big Ears

I’ve been thinking a lot about listening these days. Mostly because I’ve had to do quite a bit of it. I’m working on a new project that involves a number of stakeholders with very different opinions about the planned outcomes. Wending our way to agreement involves some pretty serious listening.

So, I’ve been asking myself, what makes for good listening?  When you think about good listeners you’ve come across, what qualities do they have?  What makes them a good listener and how do they do it?  (please add your thoughts to the comments here, as I would love to expand this topic). As I usually do when chewing on something, I ask my trusted friends and colleagues what they think (they always come up with much savvier ideas than I can on my own).

Sure enough, they came up with all kinds of good stuff. And, as with any big, meaty question there is never one tidy answer. There are a number of listening approaches that work and a range of qualities that make different people good listeners. But it seems to me that a prime quality is the importance of listening without an agenda. As my friend, Chalon Bridges, told me listening is all about genuine curiosity, an interest in understanding others, a willingness to absorb new information, and a desire to grapple with colliding ideas and ambiguity – to not know the answer. 

Hmm…yes.  I think that “not knowing the answer” part is really important. I would refer to that as listening without an agenda. In conversations I often find that the listeners are not really listening, rather they are trolling for a shard of information that just might support their own point which they are so eager to make. They are listening, with an agenda, expecting (and then finding!) what they need to torque the conversation their way. Unfortunately this kind of listening ignores all the other information that comes in. When we listen this way, we filter and prevent ourselves from learning anything new or surprising. Listening well, without anticipating the answer, or when we’re careful to not creative ourselves too specific a map, we can leave ourselves open to new interpretations and information.

My friend, Ilona Miko (who is a neuroscientist) reminded me that there is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing, of course, is a sensory process and listening is a cognitive translation of those hearing sensations.  She assures me that both are quite active processes, physiologically, but she went on to say that, for her, listening is also an active process consciously.  As in, when she listens, she finds that she needs to ask a lot of questions.  The questions help to clarify what is being said and adds to the information exchange. I know from being listened to by Ilona that her questions have the added benefit of reassuring the speaker that they are being carefully attended.

I also asked my friend, Josh Frost what he thinks and he came back with a favorite quote of his, from the movie, Pulp Fiction which I thought summed it all up beautifully.  It’s this exchange between Uma Thurman and John Travolta:

Pulp Fiction


UT:  “Do you listen, or do you wait to talk?”

JT, after thinking for a moment: “I have to confess that I wait to talk. But I’m working on it.”


1 Comment

Filed under Reflections

One response to “Listening with Big Ears

  1. Neil Heyden

    Yeah, too often waiting to talk, but on my better days working on it. Too many times I find it too uncomfortable to genuinely be–and admit publicly to being–without an answer.

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