Want to listen better? Stop thinking

Updated to Life, Speaking on June 16, 2023.

“We have a lot of new leaders and I’m hoping you can inspire them to speak their minds.” my client said on the zoom call. 

I feel my chest tighten, pupils dilate – I’m suddenly alert (my body loves the promise of a paycheck). “This sounds great!” I reply, having no idea what I just heard. “I have a great presentation all about habits and willpower.”

“Uh, okay, that’s great, but what does that have to do with speaking your mind?”


Google “listening” and you’ll discover it is one of the most popular topics in the arena of communication. After all, good listening is essential in all our relationships – especially in negotiations, mentoring, feedback, and coaching. But, the act of listening isn’t that easy.

“Contrary to popular opinion,” writes Chris Voss, in his excellent book Never Split the Difference, “listening is not a passive activity. It is the most active thing you can do.”  

And then there are the skills behind listening. 

Common advice includes eye contact, turning your phone off, mirroring behavior, and using short summary statements to prove you were listening. When done sincerely, these all work. I’ve taught them, practiced them, and experienced how they can improve a conversation – especially when the stakes are high. 

But wait, there’s more.

Level 3 listening

When I teach communication workshops I pair up participants and lead them through three levels of listening.

We start with Level 1 – cursory listening. This is like having coffee with a friend in a busy cafe. You’re there to enjoy their company; not do a deep dive on any one topic.

Next is Level 2 – focussed listening. This effort is more akin to a project meeting or coaching conversation. What helps is repeating back what you heard, asking questions, and clarifying key points. 

Finally, we move to Level 3the cone of silence. The basics of good listening are covered, now the focus is on empathy-building, acknowledging the other person, and being supportive in a nonjudgemental way.

The true measure of Level 3 listening is that nobody wants it to end. I’ve paired up VPs with receptionists, customer service staff with salespeople, and fleet managers with IT staff – the results are always the same. People love the feeling of being truly heard.  

When it comes to truly feeling heard, one skill is the Babe Ruth of listening skills.

Stop thinking

Great listening begins when you stop thinking.

Weird right? I mean, when did you last stop thinking? 

Your brain can process words and thoughts some four times faster than a person can speak. And when someone is speaking you are thinking a lot. It’s like taking a bite of that dreamy chocolate fudge dessert, once you start, you can’t stop.

I’m sittin’ on a chair just behind my ear

Playing dominoes and drinking some ice cold beer

When you get done talking I’ll come back downstairs

And assume the body of the person you presume who cares.

– John Prine, The Other Side of Town

You are thinking about what they are saying, how that relates to you and your experiences, and whether you agree with them. And you’re thinking about your response. 

If fact, you can’t wait to share your brilliant, insightful, carefully-crafted response – especially if it slams them with a Perry Mason-like rebuttal.

“You are ALWAYS coming home late and NEVER text to let me know! I have dinner ready and then…”

“That’s not true!” you interrupt “On Tuesday I sent you a text from the car.”

When you stop thinking you open your mind to hear what is most important. “You have to clear your mind of everything else,” writes Adam Bryant in his summary of communication insights from over 525 interviews of chief executives “so you can focus entirely on what the other person is saying.”

Make good relationships great

Relationships are complicated, sometimes messy, frequently confusing (men), and they are wonderful inventions. When they work well, a relationship is like one plus one equals one hundred. Work becomes fun, disagreements are rare, and overcoming challenges becomes of team sport.

Listening is the fuel that keeps our relationships on the right road. Great listening – when we stop thinking and give the gift of our full, undivided attention – opens us to new, unexpected destinations.

“When individuals feel listened to,” writes Voss “they tend to listen to themselves more carefully and to openly evaluate and clarify their own thoughts and feelings.”

The next time you’re stepping into an important conversation (or any conversation for that matter), try a different path: don’t think. Listen.

If you made it this far, you might enjoy these posts:
A Better Way to Win More Sales
The fastest way to get more consulting, speaking, or coaching work
21 Small Wins that can Lead to Big Wins in Your Life

– It turns out that any difficult mental activity, like listening, burns calories.
– Read the full article by Adam Bryant here.
– Read the full lyrics of The Other Side of Town (and have a good chuckle).