The Art of Listening

The Art of Listening

Listen more, speak less and control your anger

Listening actively is one of the most powerful TIPS you will ever need to manage difficult conversations. Use these six TIPS when listening:

Look interested
Inquire with questions
Stay on target
Test your understanding
Evaluate the whole message
Neutralise or control your feelings

Look Interested

During a difficult conversation, show the other person that they are the most important person in the world. Treat them as you would the Queen or King of your country. Sit up, turn off the phone, stop using the computer and make an effort to treat them as royalty. Maintain eye contact, nod your head, give acknowledging responses and smile where necessary. Supposing you were chosen to accompany the royal family, to represent your country or company before the world press. During the Queen’s response to you, your phone rang and you answered it. What do you think the press would report about you, your company or country?

Inquire With Questions

The quality of your learning is determined by the quality of the questions that you ask. You cannot make wise decisions with poor information. General Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State in the United States said, “Don’t take action if you have only enough information to give you less than a 40% chance of being right, but don’t wait until you have enough facts to be 100% sure, because by then it is almost always too late. Today, excessive delay in the name of information-gathering breeds ‘analysis paralysis’. Procrastination in the name of reducing risk actually increases risk.”

The most important part of a tree is not the fruit it produces but the underground element, the root. If you cut down the part of the tree that produces the fruit or the trunk, it could still grow back. However, if you destroy the root you destroy the tree completely. The arrows in the above diagram represent your questions. Ask as many questions as you feel are necessary. Never give advice or make a decision until you believe you have got to the “root of the matter.” To give an answer before you fully understand the whole matter is foolish and could cause much harm. The art of asking questions is a skill that is worth developing. Ask open, closed, probing, fact based and leading questions. Operate like a judge. Never send out the jury until both prosecution and defence have finished their questioning. In most cases you are the prosecution, defence, jury and judge.

Stay On Target

During a difficult conversation never allow yourself to be manipulated or sidetracked, stay focused. If you have three agenda items to discuss and the other person introduces two more, note them. Then get back to your agenda and deal with each item one at a time. Be assertive, confident, firm, empathic and friendly. It is tempting to go from one agenda item to another, wasting time and taking longer to make decisions. Time is money, invest it wisely.

Test Your Understanding

Imagine spending weeks on a task, only to discover you completed the wrong task, because you did not test your understanding. Never make the assumption that you understand what is said to you. Assumption is the mother of most conflicts. Conflict often increases in the workplace or home because of misunderstanding. Test your understanding and the other person’s in order to guarantee that you are both on the same page. Failure to do so could lead to misunderstanding, confusion and conflict. Repeat what you have heard in your own language, verbally or by email. Never be afraid or intimidated to test, test, test.

Evaluate The Whole Message

During a difficult conversation there are only three channels through which the whole message is communicated. They are:

1. Body language 55%
2. Tone of voice 38%
3. Words 7%

The above research of Albert Mehrabian shows the order of priority and the percentage of information gathered from each channel. Most people when communicating focus more on what is said, the 7%, rather than how it is said, the 93%. However, 93% of the information gathered is sent subconsciously. Most of the time we are unaware what our body or tone of voice is saying to the other person. When you are on the phone the percentage changes to, tone of voice 86% and words 14%.

Always remember that your body is always speaking. People’s thoughts and feelings are often conveyed through their body language and tone of voice. Therefore, always observe and evaluate the whole message that is sent by you and the other person. When considering body language here are the six areas to watch out for:

  • Mouth
  • Appearance
  • Gestures
  • Posture
  • Voice
  • Eye movement

When you speak, how is your facial expression? Are you smiling, is your jaw too tight or relaxed? Always check your appearance in a mirror and ask yourself, “what impression do I give dressed this way?” Does the movement of your body, especially your hands, support what you say? Is your posture straight, upright or are you slouched, too near, too far, slumped or positioned higher or lower than the other person? Do you mumble, complain, criticise, beat around the bush, or do you get straight to the point, clearly, directly and specifically? Is your tone acceptable with the right Rhythm, Speed, Volume and Pitch (RSVP)? Do you vary the rhythm to make it interesting? Do you speak at the right pace (e.g., 100 words per minute) to arrest your listener’s attention? Do you project your voice and vary your pitch in order to be understood? Do you look confidently into other people’s eyes, or do you gaze at the ceiling, floor or other objects? Be wise, support what you say by how you say it. Finally, stay far from words that stir up strife, anger and confusion. Speak warm, friendly and easy words that your audience understands.

Neutralise Or Control Your Feelings

For some it is easier to fly an aircraft, go to the moon, build a mobile phone, automobile or a mansion than it is to control their feelings. This is one of the hardest things for human beings to do. If you want people to talk to you, listen more, talk less and control your anger. Becoming angry will discourage people from communicating with you. Those who have no control over their anger make it difficult for others to talk to them. You must always be in control of your thoughts, words and actions.

Listen to others when they wish to express their feelings. Often the feelings of the speaker are more important than the spoken word. Imagine that you have three very important things to tell your manager. The second and third things are the worst, so you decide to start with the easiest one. During the conversation about the first item, your manager immediately becomes angry and abusive. He starts to shout and accuse you and throws his chair across the desk. Would you at that time raise the second and third items? Do you know someone that you have never been able to share items two and three with? You may be working with colleagues or living with people who have never shared items two and three with you. Are you preventing people from talking to you? Are you bringing pain or pleasure to your conversations? Whoever or whatever brings pain or discomfort, we tend to avoid. On the other hand we gravitate towards pleasure like bees to honey.

Many years ago I told my darling wife that she could never upset me again. I did not say that I would never become angry or upset again. What I meant was this: if I do become angry I would take total responsibility for my feelings and actions. I would tell myself that I made myself angry and upset. Are you blaming others for your thoughts, feelings, words and actions because of how they are behaving? It is not what happens to you in life that matters most, it is how you respond to what happens. Do not reduce yourself to other people’s dysfunction. Picture yourself being excited and overwhelmed with joy after your manager gives you an excellent report of yourself. A few weeks later he reprimands you unfairly and you break down in tears and end up having to take tablets for depression. If this continues time after time, who is in control of you?

Never give control of who you are to any other person. If you do you may pay a great price. Here is a simple tip to help calm yourself down. Create a playlist of your five favourite songs, then play them to yourself when you are feeling low. Music is one of the most powerful ways to calm down an angry person. Listening to music can reduce chronic pain by up to 21% and depression by up to 25%, according to an article in the UK based Journal of Advanced Nursing.

Barriers To Listening

Most barriers to effective listening can be placed under the following headings:

Roaming mind
External and internal distractions

Your interpretation and distortion
Unclear speaker


Impatient listeners spend a great deal of time interrupting and finishing off other people’s sentences. Presumptuous listeners feel that they know better and that the views of others are an interruption of their own. They think only of themselves and are good at faking attention. They are always preoccupied with what to say next when they are listening to others. They miss the true feelings that are being experienced and the nonverbal signals which can reveal more than the spoken word. Before you begin a difficult conversation never assume the worst.

Roaming Mind

The brain has the ability to wander off aimlessly while listening to others. A roaming and uncontrolled mind will find it hard to concentrate and stay on target. If a subject is boring, poor listeners will allow their minds to drift, then return their attention to the speaker. While a person is talking, a roaming mind will dwell on the past, present problems or future dreams. This pattern could continue throughout a person’s entire life if they fail to master the art of listening.

External And Internal Distractions

Interruptions, noise, movement, the telephone, discomfort and an unpleasant atmosphere are some of the external distractions one can experience. Unhealthiness, sickness, hearing difficulties, tiredness and pain are some of the internal distractions that stop us from listening effectively. Unless these distractions are minimised or controlled, listening will always be affected.

Your Interpretation And Distortion

One of the greatest barriers to effective listening is interpretation and distortion. Because words mean different things to different people, it is easy to misunderstand a sentence, let alone a whole message. Many conflicts in the workplace could be avoided if people listened actively to each other. Poor listeners often fail to ask the right questions to aid their understanding. Their preconceived ideas about the speaker’s beliefs, views, opinions, lifestyle, personality and background affect how they listen and distort the message. In many situations our past experiences have affected the way we listen to others. How are you interpreting what is said to you? Are you 100% certain that you fully understand what is said to you?


Many people become oversensitive because of what they hear, see or experience. They are easily able to close their minds, completely switch off and ultimately stop listening. They become angry, frustrated, are quick tempered and get annoyed very easily. They do not know how to neutralise or control their feelings. In this state of confusion, the speaker and listener will find it very difficult to continue communicating effectively. When you become oversensitive and angry you are making a difficult conversation more difficult.

Unclear Speaker

Unclear speakers make it very difficult and painful for their listeners to listen. Often they speak too slowly or too fast. Some speakers use words that are hard to understand and long sentences. Their accent, style, poor presentation and mannerisms help to block effective listening, wasting time, energy and money. Those who have speech impediments, or for whom English is a second language, will have to work harder at being understood.


Unforgiving is like drinking poison and hoping that the other person will die from it. To forgive is to set a prisoner free and actually discover the prisoner was YOU! If you fail to forgive others you are doing greater harm to yourself. Unforgiving can increase your stress levels and can lead to all kinds of sicknesses. Are you destroying your career, health and relationships with the poison of unforgiving?

It is emotionally draining to manage a difficult conversation with someone you will not forgive or who will not forgive you. If you have been offended by your manager, colleagues, customers or others it is vitally important that you decide to forgive. To forgive is to pardon, cease to hold anger or resentment against someone. If you have hurt someone, it is important to apologise and to mean it. The big question is, how does a person forgive another? Forgiving someone is not a feeling, it is simply a decision that you make. You must decide:

  • I will pardon
  • I will not hold anger or resentment

Only you can make the decision to forgive and you have the ability to do so.

The Secret Of Listening

My organisation was once badly affected by the mistake of another organisation. I was outraged as the receptionist answered the telephone. After introducing myself I said to the receptionist, “Your company is totally incompetent”, to which she replied, “I am sorry Mr Williams, we do take responsibility and will correct the situation immediately.” I responded angrily with, “I am sorry? Sorry is not good enough, I should never have done business with your company.” Again she replied, “I am sorry Mr Williams, I do understand, we do take responsibility and will correct the situation immediately.” Now I was fuming as I said angrily, “How do you mean you understand? You do not understand, if you understood I would not be in this mess.” She did not interrupt as she listened and calmly responded again with, “Mr Williams we do take responsibility and will correct the situation immediately.” Suddenly I realised how foolish I was behaving. Her self control, assertiveness, consistency and positive approach led me to realise how unprofessionally I was behaving.

Steve, a delegate on one of our Managing Difficult Conversation courses said, “Be so positive that you make it difficult for other people to be difficult to you.” Are you making it easy for people to be difficult to you?

Let me share one more story. As I was chairing a management meeting, a female voluntary worker stormed into the room and began to swear and shout. Her behaviour shocked everyone in the room. At the end of the meeting I sent for her and asked her to justify her actions. Within a matter of minutes we were able to resolve the situation. I listened with empathy, sought information by asking questions, summarised then paraphrased her response in my own words. I also targeted my conversation, evaluated the whole message, neutralised and controlled my feelings. My interpersonal skills, nonverbal communication and genuineness totally overwhelmed her. Several weeks later she was a delegate on one of our training programmes. At the end of running the listening skills session, I decided to do a role play. The purpose of the role play was to demonstrate how to listen more effectively. I called for a volunteer to do a role play with me but no one came forward. After a little while most delegates suggested that the same girl should volunteer. They felt that she would give me a greater challenge. She refused. I will never forget her response. “I am not doing anything with Errol Williams because he makes me look stupid.” “The other day”, she continued, “I walked into his office, shouting and behaving badly and he just sat there and listened to me.”

When you use this powerful listening skill you will:

  1. Cause others to take a good look at themselves
  2. Make friends very easily
  3. Save time, money and embarrassment
  4. Feel self-controlled, powerful and in charge
  5. Increase in knowledge, understanding and wisdom
  6. Be more compassionate towards others
  7. Grow in confidence
  8. Find that people will respect and admire you, because you know how to listen to them
  9. Love listening to others
  10. Find it easy to socialise with others
  11. Feel good about yourself

One of the greatest TIPS in listening:

  • Listen more
  • Speak less and
  • Control your anger

(The memory aid LISTEN is taken from Melrose Film Productions Limited)

About The Author

Errol A Williams

I am an International Management Trainer with over 36 years’ experience. I have trained thousands of directors, managers, leaders, supervisors, and unemployed people. My passion is to coach one million students to unleash their unlimited potential through personal growth. I was co-founder and Executive Chairman for one of Europe’s largest multi-million pound community complexes, launched by HRH the Prince of Wales in 1988. For over 25 years I have visited, counselled, and ran training courses for UK prisoners. Currently I am a Senior Pastor and Regional Overseer who sits on the National Executive Board for the Church of God of Prophecy UK Trust. I have taught Systematic Theology for over ten years. I am married and have six children and six grandchildren. I am the author of “Pursuing Excellence”, “The Temptation Trap”, “Sowing For A Blessing”, “TIPS For Dealing With Difficult Conversations” and “Building A Dream”. During the 2010 general election I stood as a Parliamentary Candidate. I am a professional photographer, graphics designer, virtual services provider, and web developer. My hobbies include chess, squash, backgammon, and domino. (My Profile)

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