Listen, Proactively

If you’ve visited my 15 Axioms Page , you will remember the key part of the definition to the word proactive is taking the responsibility.

I think this is crucial to effectively listening. In fact, I would suggest that listening is not a part of good communication; rather good communication is a subset or part of listening with responsibility – proactively.

How does one do this – take responsibility to listen? There are books, seminars, and perhaps whole bodies of research devoted to listening. Yet it comes down to each of us finding our own ways to practice effective listening when we are in the heat of the frantic pace of our days. Here are 6 of mine that I try to keep in mind:

First, turn off the self-talk.

Did you ever find yourself in a conversation and all of a sudden you sensed the silence and you knew it was now your time to say something, but you have no idea what the other party to this conversation just said? Your mind had been occupied by thinking about other things. Maybe you were already thinking about what you were going to say next, or perhaps whatever had been said 5 minutes ago triggered a memory and the voice in your own mind was telling you other things – things about yourself completely unrelated to the discussion at hand. That’s self-talk. Turn it off – purposefully think about turning a switch off so that the only voice you hear is that of the other person you are engaged with.

Be There

We live in an age of distraction, from background noise to Blackberrys and iPhones. Being attentive means focusing and not thinking about where we need to be tomorrow, next week, or the next hour. It is putting aside our world to engage in the place the other speaker is trying to take us to.

While talking to someone, did you ever find yourself looking at the desktop to see what email just came in? Or the caller ID screen to see who is trying to get a hold of you on the phone? Or glancing behind the speaker in your office to see who is walking by?

All of these things keep us from being present with the conversation going on and with the person it is going on with. In today’s world being in the moment is hard work, very hard work.

Sit up straight

Your mother was right. We hear better when we are sitting up straight. Posture (“body language” ) is also about 70% of letting the other person know you care, are paying attention, and you “get it”.

Break down your own barriers

I am sure all of us have co-workers or others in our lives who cause us to put up barriers when we are engaged in dialogue with them. It may be a personality type, it may be bias we carry, it may be history of some other conflict we’ve had with this person.

When meeting with them, we lift high the barriers to listening with responsibility. All of our unwillingness to acknowledge a good idea or correct point coming from “this guy” is in high gear. We’ve flipped a switch in our head that lights up and flashes – INVALID PERSON:  DON”T BOTHER – and we don’t allow ourselves to listen.

Remember you are taking the responsibility – it’s up to you. There is a wonderful line in the Desiderata that reads:

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story.

It sums it up really well.


One of the best things we can do is re-phrase back to someone what they’ve just told us- in our own words. Start out with the phrase: “Let me see if I have this right…” You learn, they feel important because they feel heard.

Think about it, why did you take notes in school? -You put down in your words what a teacher or lecturer just taught. Often then we studied with others and shared those notes and understandingl this helped us make sure we got it right. Re-phrasing is the same principle. You are taking verbal notes, sharing them with the other person, letting that person add, refine, or correct your understanding.


Okay, so I think I can “hear” those who know me well rolling their eyes at all this post :).

Truth is, Listening Proactively is like playing an instrument. We need to practice or we lose it. And just like playing a difficult piece on an instrument, it must be broken down and repeated over and over again. Proactive listening must be employed most often, not with those who we easily get along with, relate to, or simply like a lot. It must be practiced time and again during the difficult and “crucial conversations” that take place in work, leadership, and life.

  1. Brad Eisenmann says:

    Great post! Listening seems to be a lost art that isn’t improving in this era of texting, tweeting, etc. All too often, dialogue is replaced with two mutually exclusive monologues–each watching for the other’s lips to stop moving, signaling their turn to expound. And I don’t seem to recall learning very much when I was talking… 🙂

  2. Loren Gerber says:

    This post really struck a cord with me. Listening seems to be an especially difficult task. A profound part of listening is body language as you have well stated. How many times do we talk to a friend or aquaintance and we are staring past them at something ” more interesting” in the background. Just a quote from my Grandpa who was what our society would term an ” unlearned man ” who also was probably the quietest man I ever met, ” It is impossible to learn when we are talking ” Perhaps Grandpa was a smarter man than we think!

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