Listening with (the right) attitude

In this TED Talk about how to have better conversations, Celeste Headlee makes a point that deserves to be echoed: you can’t pretend to be a good listener while actually being a good listener. Because if you are actually paying attention and listening, you don’t have to worry about managing your non-verbal behavior to convey interest or asking the right kinds of questions – you’ll naturally do it because you are actually  curious and engaged! If you are busy monitoring the impression you’re making, you can’t give your full attention to the speaker.

Disclaimer: we do offer development content around how to be a more effective listener. We cover the hallmarks of effective listening, such as attentive body language and asking clarifying questions. As I’ve argued before, depending on where you’re starting, these tools can help you “fake it till you make it” while you grow as a listener. If you check in with yourself in conversations and realize you don’t do those things, that’s a sign that you could go deeper.

Because ideally we want to go even deeper – that’s where things get really good! There are different levels of listening: listening to respond, listening to understand, and listening for meaning.

  • When we listen to respond, we only listen for the tidbits that allow us to say what we wanted to say next – while ostensibly listening, we are also attending to our own thoughts in order to situate our next remarks to best effect. This means we are applying heavy filters to what we hear and perceive, and we miss out on a lot.
  • When we listen to understand, we relinquish the need to direct the conversation, which allows us to get a better understanding of what the speaker wants to communicate.
  • When we listen for meaning, however, we don’t just capture the words being conveyed – we also listen for context. What emotional or mental state is the person also conveying with their pitch and tone of voice? What aren’t they saying? What does their word choice suggest about why this is important to them?

The difference between these levels is a matter of attitude. To listen deeply requires genuine curiosity and goodwill toward others. It also demands a level of openness and humility that don’t necessarily come naturally. Leaders and managers often get where they are because they have a good deal of confidence in their own perspective and spend much of their time controlling situations and directing other people. It takes thoughtfulness and practice to cultivate this attitude.

But there are good reasons to try. This depth of listening, of being present for another person, conveys so much more than “this person has good listening skills.” When people feel heard, they feel respected and valued. Relationships are improved and trust and cohesion are enhanced.  Listening – really listening – to one another influences everything from coaching to culture. You don’t have to learn any complicated skills to do it – simply practice being present, open, and deeply interested in the people around you.


“Effective listeners remember that “words have no meaning – people have meaning.” The assignment of meaning to a term is an internal process; meaning comes from inside us. And although our experiences, knowledge and attitudes differ, we often misinterpret each other’s messages while under the illusion that a common understanding has been achieved.” –Larry Barker