You Don't Need 15 Tips To Be A Better Listener

If you’ve seen all of the tips for how to communicate effectively, you’ve likely seen a gem like “Ten Tips To Listen Better Than Ever” before. With tips like “repeat back what the person said”, “give visual clues that you’re listening” and “ask interesting follow up questions even if you think you understand”, it is like the writer is purposefully trying to get his or her adherents to annoy the you-know-what out of everyone around them.

Nobody wants to simply feel like they are being heard, they want you to actually have listened to what they said. If you are focusing on the correct body language or repeating statements back to make it seem like you are listening but you still aren’t, I don’t care if you nod your head at key points or can repeat what I said.

There is only one tip you need to use in order to be a better listener:

Shut Up

This week, Joe Wilson (left) and Kanye West (center) both demonstrated how not to shut up. Here's a secret: it is as much about timing as it is the message. (Image sources: AFP)

This week, Joe Wilson (left) and Kanye West (center) both demonstrated how not to shut up. Here's a hint guys: it is as much about timing as it is the message. (Image sources: AFP)

You got that Joe Wilson and Kanye West?

It is too simple, right? Of course it is. That doesn’t mean shutting up isn’t difficult. In fact, it may be the most difficult thing you ever do. If you spend time in Corporate America long enough, you eventually become programmed to think about what you’re going to say next, not what the other person is saying. If we all focused on not saying a damn thing, we wouldn’t need lists of three, five, or fifteen tips to be successful.

Shutting Up Versus Corporate Norms

Regular readers know how I feel about corporate norms so this will come of no surprise. The idea you have to keep your mouth moving to be a valuable contributor in a corporate setting is just plain wrong. Yet this is the norm in too many organizations. It has something I actually have been coached on as an employee too. If you don’t jump in right after someone says something that involves your department, you’re obviously not paying attention. People that interrupt others in meetings are often seen as “smart”, “quick witted” and “cutting straight to the chase” rather than “rude”, “inconsiderate” and “poor listeners”.

If you are being a good listener, if you are focused on what the other person is saying and not how you will respond, you’re not going to be able to jump right in there with a comment as the person takes their first breath. We had a consultant come in at a previous job who paused after we answered his questions and he actually ended up replying thoughtfully each time. People notorious for interrupting meetings themselves were understandably annoyed at this thinking that the guy wasn’t too bright because he collected his thoughts for a mere three to five seconds after our answers.

That’s why I said shutting up is actually very difficult. Corporate culture actively discourages solid listening skills. Which means those 15 tips aren’t going to get you anywhere because it doesn’t shift the cause of poor listening skills.

Shutting Up Makes You A Better Interviewer

Where this concept really sunk in for me was in the interview process. When I first became one of the lead interviewers at my first job out of college, I had an experience with a manager I won’t forget. We interviewed a young woman for a position and after the interview I led, the manager said I was an idiot for talking so much. I was adamant that the interview went well. In fact, I thought she really nailed it.

As the manager pointed out, I felt that way because she responded positively to all of my talking. When we ended the interview, we knew basically nothing about her. Since then, I’ve been on countless interviews where the interviewers spent more time talking than I did.

While giving people an idea of your culture by presenting a solid picture of the company is good, doing it at the expense of learning about the interviewee is bad. The best tip I learned is to wait for the person to finish their thought and give them an extra five seconds to think if they want anything to add. You’d be amazed the information you’ll get going this route (good and bad) all because you focused on shutting up and not worrying about the next question.

How Do We Change The Status Quo?

I don’t know if we can. At least not as single individuals. People in diverse areas of your company have to be on board with the idea for it to really take hold. Here’s what I’ve tried to do though:

  1. Don’t be a part of the problem
  2. Call out those that are part of the problem
  3. Teach real listening skills to people that you influence

What are your ideas? How do you effectively beat back corporate norms that are counter-productive?


  1. If we change the status quo, we become the status quo. We need to be careful what we wish for… it might come true.

  2. @Lance, it’s amazing what you learn when you stop trying to show people how much you know. Excellent post.

    @Laurie, let’s just strive to never settle. Deal? :-)

  3. Corporate norms are like glaciers – inexorable and mighty. The best way to change them short of walking away is to practice a Ghandi like passive rebellion. This can and often does work in small ways at first, but can build if enough people are successful at it.

    Start now!

  4. This is a great topic –
    So many times I observe people in interviews and other interactions “waiting to talk” versus listening , and they miss what the other is trying to convey- I have learned to write down my thoughts or questions while they pop into my head. More often than not, most of them will come up or be addressed around the table anyway in conversation, if , when there is a pause, and time for questions, and my question remains open, I will ask it- (Does not always work in practice, but this is what I try).

  5. Good post. My manager teaches me to develop a random filler sentence like “That’s an interesting question” or “There’s a couple of ways that I can answer that” instead of pausing. This avoids the negative of the pause.

    Through this advice, I also discovered why many speakers will says, “That’s an interesting question, ” when there was nothing interesting at all about the question.

  6. I think we need to slow down here. I need to be entertained at work. If it wasn’t for people speaking without listening, inserting feet into mouths, and behaving rudely, I would have no reason to come to work. I think instead of encouraging listening, we need to encourage everyone to down a bottle of Hennesey before meetings, and have an unnatural fascination with someone else (Kanye called Beyonce, so everyone needs to pick someone else, I call Lebron).

  7. Just make sure whatever you say after a pause is brilliant. People are generally more concerned with being heard than with you saying something. People will think you’re awesome if you demonstrate you understand what they said.

    I pause for a couple of seconds before responding frequently and have never been accuse of not paying attention. If nothing else, put a thoughtful expression on your face instead of a blank one.

    And shutting up definitely makes you a better interviewer and salesperson, among other things.

  8. reading the opening of this post reminded me of the time i tried paraphrasing feelings as a form of active listening on my then 5 year old. she responded (as any intelligent being should): i don’t *feel* angry. i am angry!



  9. Very interesting post, I’d like to think that shutting up could actually happen, but the fact is that most of corporate America have such big egos to fuel that they couldn’t shut up even if they tried really hard! Great advice for interviewers though, always give the interviewee plently of time to talk, not only does it help you learn about them, but it also demonstrates their ability to perform under pressure and think on their feet.

  10. Great post. You hit it on the head about active listening. Just because your mouth isn’t moving doesn’t mean that your brain isn’t going 100 miles per hour- waiting for the other person to “be done” so that you can show your value.

    In fact , most folks aren’t “done” they have just taken a breathe, and you have shown what a poor listener you are.

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