Mining for gold

In our last post, we talked about how an open, humble, curious attitude is fundamental to getting into “listening position.” But when we are interacting with someone, we do not simply listen passively. There is an active, verbal component as well. What does an active listener with this ideal attitude say and how do they say it?

Think of a manager, coach, mentor, or even a parent or friend you know who is an exceptional listener. Imagine how you feel when you are in their presence. In your mind, hear their voice, see the way they look at you, and hear the kinds of questions and statements they make. What do you notice?

Deep listeners behaviors tend to be:

  • Patient. Sometimes people need time and space to think and reflect before speaking. Good listeners generously protect these pauses, and they avoid rushing in to fill the space with their own words.
  • Aligning. They tend to adopt similar pacing and tone of voice to show that they are “with you” and to create rapport so that you feel safe and positively regarded.
  • Open. Instead of using closed-ended questions (e.g., “Did that work?”) they use open-ended questions (e.g., “What were some things that worked or things that worked less well?”)
  • Observant. They attend to your emotions, non-verbal behavior, and language and reflect back what seems meaningful (e.g., “I can tell you are excited about this!” or “You sound like this decision might make you a little anxious” or “I noticed you used the word ‘overwhelmed’ a few times…”).
  • Curious. When they come across something that feels meaningful, they show interest in knowing more (e.g., “Is there something else there to explore?” or “What else can you tell me about that?” or “What happened next?”).
  • Non-judgmental. When you talk to a great listener, you feel safe saying what you need to say, however it comes out, because you know they aren’t judging you. The job of a great listener is to solicit, not impart opinions (e.g., “How do you feel about that?” vs. “That’s great/awful!”).

I’ve been focusing on deepening my listening as part of my own development. Despite thinking I was well-versed in what it means to be a good listener, I was surprised to observe that I frequently asked close-ended questions, and have been delighted to see what happens when I try to ask a different way. For example, at the end of the day I often ask my kids, “How was your day?” and often get a terse “fine” in reply. Asking something like “What were some things that happened today?” elicits a much more interesting response, which, if I’m thoughtful about my follow-on responses, yields a much richer conversation.

I’ve also tried to really take as much judgment as possible out of my comments and again seen how the conversational space really expands in response. In another  example, a friend was relaying a challenging situation and how it was resolved. Instead of saying what was on the tip of my tongue (an emphatic “Oh that’s good!”), I observed that despite the stated resolution, her demeanor was still subdued, so instead I asked, “How did you feel about that?” and her response revealed that she continued to have concerns. I am sure that had I gushed (misaligned) that I felt it was a positive thing (judgment), her response would have been something like, “Yeah, it is.” Instead, we were able to take the conversation in a direction that was more beneficial for her.

These are just two small snippets from the countless conversations I have each day. Imagine the long-term impact of this quality of conversation can have on both our personal and professional interactions if we mutually commit to listening more deeply. As a leader, manager, or coach – what can you do differently to deepen your conversations?


“It is the province of knowledge to speak. And it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” –Oliver Wendell Holmes

“There’s a big difference between showing interest and really taking interest.” — Michael P. Nichols,The Lost Art of Listening