3 Steps to Listening Better and Hearing More

by  Susan Mazza  |  Self Leadership

When it comes to teaching people to communicate we have historically focused a lot more on effective speaking, writing and presenting than on effective listening. Yet what has you trust someone more: the ability to speak eloquently or the ability to listen so that people actually feel heard? Too much of the former and not enough of the latter is all too often what causes us to label someone that 10 letter word “politician”.

If you buy into the belief that successful leaders engender a high degree of trust, I would argue that listening is a critical skill. It may even be more important than speaking skills. I’ll even suggest that by learning to listen better you will actually become a better speaker, presenter and writer.


1. Prepare for What You Want to Learn, Not Just What You Want to Say

We spend a lot of time preparing for meetings by putting together speaking notes and PowerPoint presentations. Our focus is all too often entirely on us. Whether the meeting is small or very large it is as though we were preparing for a performance with our attention on what we want to say. Yet how many PowerPoint presentations have you fidgeted or even slept through? I don’t sit still well so these are particularly painful for me!

Whether you are preparing for a one on one meeting or a meeting of 100, I suggest you prepare for a conversation not a presentation.

Think first about your audience. What can you contribute to them? What are their burning questions? Then think about how to engage your audience not just talk at them. Consider what you want to learn from the conversation, not just what you want to communicate. Prepare a thought provoking question or two. Great questions have the power to turn a presentation into a great and memorable conversation. When people are engaged their energy rises and attention sharpens.

TIP: Make one of the goals of your next meeting to learn more than the person or people with whom you are speaking.

2. Ask Questions AND Give People Enough Time to Answer

To be effective at asking questions we have to become comfortable with what I call the “pregnant pause”. When you are asking a question it can feel like an eternity waiting for someone to answer. The bigger the group the longer that pause can be. It is uncomfortable and our tendency is to want to jump in and fill the space.

Remember that people may need a few minutes to think about your question so they can formulate an answer. And as group size increases the discomfort for many people to actually answer your question also increases. They may need even a little more time to muster up the courage or to formulate their answer so they can speak confidently.

Prepare a question other than “do you have any questions?” for the end of what you have to say or present.

Focus on taking 3-5 slow deep breaths after you ask a question (remember to keep eye contact though or you can get so relaxed people think you checked out!).

3. Ensure People Know You Heard Them (and that you hear more)

Nodding your head is a helpful way to let someone know you are listening, but unfortunately we can nod and not hear a thing they said. And they know it, or at least they feel it. You actually have to speak before someone really knows you were listening. You can do that with phrases like “I understand”, “uh huh”, etc. You know the drill. But if you really want someone to know you heard them, try giving them back what you heard.

This is not about being a parrot. It’s about saying in your own words what you got out of what they said, or what you will do as a result of what they said, or asking a relevant question. That is the only way we can ever be sure that we actually understood what was said.

Do we hear what people say or do we hear what we think they said?

We are interpretation machines. We listen through the filters of our personal beliefs, knowledge and experience. All too often we don’t hear what people have actually said, or tried to communicate anyway, even though we think we did. This is a significant cause of mis-communication. Practice this and not only will people feel heard by you, but you will actually start hearing more of what they are saying. I can guarantee you will have fewer communications breakdowns all around if you get really good at this.

TIP: If you don’t feel like you are being heard you are probably not listening.

Any questions?

,,,just kidding!

What other suggestions do you have for listening better and hear more?


This post is reprinted with permission from the blog Random Acts of Leadership.

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

About The Author

Articles By susan-mazza
Susan Mazza works with leaders and their organizations to transform their performance from solid to exceptional as a business consultant, leadership coach and motivational speaker. CEO of Clarus-WORKS, Founder/Author of Random Acts of Leadership™, and Co-Author of The Character-Based Leader, Susan was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders by Trust Across America in 2013.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Kelly Ketelboeter  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Excellent post Susan!

Often times we do forget that a critical component of effective communication is listening. You offer solid tips that can be immediately implemented.

One thing I find that a lot of leaders do is interrupt others when they are speaking. This definitely communicates that the speakers input, opinion and voice doesn’t matter. What really matters is the leader saying what they want or need to say. That pregnant pause, as you pointed out is critical. Leaders can increase their effectiveness by giving their employees a voice and then actually listening.

Thanks for so many great tips, I will be sharing it!

Susan Mazza  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Thanks Kelly. Great point about interrupting. That tendency is often a sign of impatience and the act of interrupting is an attempt to deal with being uncomfortable. The “valid” excuse is that we were just “trying to move the conversation along”. The problem with just trying not to interrupt is that even if we resist the urge the speaker will feel our impatience.This is one I know all too well personally and have had to work really hard at changing. What I have discovered is taking a slow deep breath is also a way that releases the internal tension of impatience.

Deborah Costello  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Your second point is a good reminder for me. Teachers ask thousands of questions, but we often forget about “wait time.” We ask a question and if the kids don’t respond in 2 seconds, we answer it ourselves. I need to remember to wait until they have processed the question and decided on n answer. This is crucial for effective learning. I am guessing it would be important for adults as well.. :)

Thanks Susan.


Susan Mazza  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

I can imaging the pressure to move on quickly is ever present – when we lock our learning into specified segments of time it can be hard to allow that space. I find the same is true of meetings when I feel like we are racing the clock to get through the “agenda”. Thanks Deb!

Linda Faust  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Great article Susan! A favorite quote of mine, I’ve forgotten who said it, “There’s a reason God gave us two ears and only one mouth.” The “pregnant pause” is a much needed element. Too often I find myself starting to respond only to have the other person talking over me. I wonder if we have grown so accustomed to “noise” that we have become uncomfortable around moments of silence?

Susan Mazza  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

It is a great quote Linda. I think you are right on – we have become uncomfortable with silence. The funny thing is that the more people we are speaking with the more uncomfortable that silence seems to become, yet the silence often needs to be longer to be effective because some of that silence is from people mustering up the courage to speak in front of other people!

Mike Henry  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

I love your last tip, if you don’t feel like you’re being heard, you’re probably not listening. Great advice. Another for me is to evaluate which one of us is more aware of our environment. If I know who’s behind them or who else is in the area, I’m not focused on them and what they’re saying.

Susan Mazza  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Thanks Mike. That tip was the best advice I have even been given when it comes to listening. You also point to the importance of being responsible for creating a good environment for listening. When we notice we are distracted it is helpful to call ourselves on it and apologize – chances are they knew it anyway so owning it in the moment can actually help to build trust.

Mike Ramer  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Susan, An excellent piece.

Listening skills are critical in our business and personal lives. In fact, I’d think listening is a core ability that determines the depth of relationship-building and, ultmately, life success. As a natural talker and speaker in my industry, I continually remind myself to listen more in conversations and to my audiences.

I love your tips after your three steps. I, too, nod in acknowledgement, wait for the pregnant pause, and often say “I understand.” These techniques focus on the other person and compel me to listen better.

Again, great job. Mike

Susan Mazza  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Thank you for your kind works Mike. Great point that our ability to listen determines the depth of, and I’ll add strength of, a relationship.

Chad Balthrop  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Hey Susan,

Thanks for a great post. You’re right about our presentations. So often we spend so much time preparing what ‘we want to say’ we’re not really mindful of what the group has to say or needs to hear.

There is a an art to communication. It’s listening and speaking. It’s knowing what to say, how to say it and when to shut up and listen. Expertise and experience may tell you what to say, but effective listening will insure that when you finally say it people receive it.

I’m wondering if it was hard for you to resist the temptation to put somewhere in your article the phrase, “Can you hear me now?” :)

God Bless,

Susan Mazza  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Very funny Chad!

Your points about the art of communication are right on. Thank you for sharing them.

Sonia Di Maulo  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply


Love this post. The topic is very important to me and something I work very intently on every day as I lead myself and others.

Step 3 is so critical! I call it MAGIC. Repeating what was just said (in your own words):

1. Conveys that you heard what they said (builds trust)
2. Gives you a chance to really understand what is being said (as a result of repeating) and to internalize the thought
3. Gives the person a chance to correct misinterpretation by you and further the dialogue of trust and collaboration

Misinterpretation is such a common occurrence and your three steps can go a long way to reducing it.

I am a BIG fan of “Paraphrasing” and “Repeating” and use often especially with my kids! If I can make it work at home, then it truly is MAGIC!


PS: Great list post, Susan! Quality content as usual!

Susan Mazza  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Thanks for expanding on the “MAGIC” step Sonia. It ensures you hear what was actually said vs. what you think was said – something I find particularly important with my daughter except in reverse (i will ask her to repeat what she heard…funny how those filters work!)

Yes this was a “list” post….think this may have been my first attempt at writing one (this is a re-post) although I seem to remember grumbling about it the whole time.

Connie McKnight  |  27 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Really excellent suggestions – I especially liked “Prepare for what you want to learn”. I think will really help to open up the mind for new information. Thank you.

Susan Mazza  |  28 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Thanks Connie!

Christine Kominiak  |  28 Jan 2011  |  Reply

I’ve always found that I listen better when I take notes on what the other person is saying…not too detailed, but just enough that I’m being engaged and not letting my mind wander off into my own filters or thoughts.

Ada Gonzalez  |  31 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Hi Susan,

Great article! As you and others have mentioned, the pauses are important, not only to give people time to respond, but also because all of us need to learn to reflect a bit more before we speak. What I have noticed working with groups is that as people learn to dialogue better, and to trust each other more, then you hear more pauses that do not feel uncomfortable. More like a collective deep thinking that usually is followed by some good insights.

Another tip I follow is to check for assumptions. If I find myself not listening well, usually it’s because I’m busy making assumptions, and therefore preparing an answer. When I force myself to let the assumptions go, or to check them before speaking, things go much more smoothly.

Thanks for sparking a good conversation here.

Peter E. Friedes  |  09 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Great post. An additional idea concerns the rush to judge where the speaker is going or to finish what the speaker is saying or solve the problem that one thinks is being raised. The more the listener can view his or her role as “solely trying to understand,” the better listener (and follow up asker of questions) he or she becomes.

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