Active Listening

A colleague is talking. Their case is important and the more they say, the more I’m eager to add to their point or present arguments against. At some point, they need to take a breath and I feel like it’s my turn with all these things I wanted to say. I shoot and feel like something is not right.

Listening is Hard

In our culture, the opposite of talking is more like waiting to interrupt.

Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion

There are many problems with the waiting to interrupt approach, for example:

  • People are not great at expressing themselves and often don’t say what they mean so replying to what they say is pointless because they don’t mean it.
  • Our brain stack is limited, we can barely remember last 2-3 things we wanted to say and if we don’t get the chance, we might feel frustration or other negative emotions. This is especially true if it’s a group discussion and 2-3 people are more vocal than others and better in interrupting.
  • We are biased when interrupting and don’t give equal chance to everyone to speak.

Verify What We Heard

The main takeaway from Verbal Judo is that we need to listen with the goal to understand the meaning first, not with the goal to say these 3 or 5 things that came to our minds. We need to verify the meaning and an easy way to do that is by paraphrasing and asking for confirmation or clarification. “So you say (paraphrase here)?”. Note that according to other sources, this will not lead to the best outcome if we expect a tip 🙂 In that case paraphrasing should be more like a direct repetition of what we heard.

My ex-boss 8 years ago loved to stop by my desk and start asking for immediate changes to the e-commerce website we were developing. He usually had a point for these changes but it was super critical to understand what result he wanted, not what change he wanted. What he said might be “move this text from here to here”, while what he meant would be “users don’t see this cool new feature, we need a way to promote it”. Knowing the service better I was often able to suggest other approaches to achieve that same result that worked better if I managed to decode the intent of the request.

Hangouts and Meetings

Radical Candor has an entire chapter dedicated to how we can survive hangouts with the best possible outcome, which would be that all ideas are heard, challenged, and discussed, and decisions are made. The main takeaway for me is:

Give the quiet ones a voice.

— Kim Scott, Radical Candor

Without that, we’ll only listen to those 3-4 loudest people over and over, not that they’re not good. But others might be better. I’ve experienced a situation in which the two loudest people reached a quick agreement for a decision for which other people had important information but had not expressed it. Challenging a decision instead of an idea can be taken personally and hard words started flying. That’s a failure in communication that could’ve been avoided early by listening.

If all goes well, we listen, we verify and clarify the meaning of what is said. It’s our turn now to talk.

Our Turn

Chris Voss thinks that we should push for our beliefs and I somewhat agree.

Remember, pushing hard for what you believe is not selfish. It is not bullying. It is not just helping you. Your amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear, will try to convince you to give up, to flee, because the other guy is right, or you’re being cruel.

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.

I’ve seen so many times how a single person with a voice and a good idea can change, well, almost anything.


Some of the best thoughts on listening I’ve read come from Fantasy. The author is Ursula Le Guin and the quotes are said by her characters Ged and Ogion.

For a word to be spoken, there must be silence. Before, and after.

To hear, one must be silent.

Thanks for reading!


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