How to Listen so People Will Talk, and Talk so People Will Listen

Being rude at work.. What happens then?

It’s a complaint as old as time – “you don’t listen to me!”

And it’s as common in work relationships as it is personal and romantic relationships.

The consequences range from the recipient getting annoyed, through to catastrophic events that could have been quite different if there was careful listening.

And yet, we still do it. Most of us. Quite a lot.

The Stats

This article indicates that: “the normal, untrained listener is likely to understand and retain only about 50 percent of a conversation. This relatively poor percentage drops to an even less impressive 25 percent retention rate 48 hours later.”


In part, it’s lack of time. In part, perhaps, a lack of interest. Sometimes it’s about being busy. Sometimes, it’s a habit. From time to time there are personal dynamics that take precedence over the courtesy of listening, such as if you’re in the middle of a nasty dispute with someone. Or, if you have a strongly held belief about the person. Sometimes, it’s because we think we know what they are going to say or that we know what the issue is without fully hearing the whole story.

Whatever the reason – at the end of the day – it reflects poorly on the person who is not doing the listening if it happens repeatedly.

Daniel Goleman, the founder of the concept of Emotional Intelligence, penned this post recently, which is replicated in full below.

I thought his example of the doctor was interesting. I recently took my daughter to the doctor. The doctor asked my view on the issue, then completely ignored it, suggesting a diagnosis that was both lazy and unhelpful. The outcome – I have moved our family to a new doctor’s practice.

Goleman says this:

“How to Listen so People Will Talk, and Talk so People Will Listen

“She said, ‘If you cut off what I’m saying one more time, I’m done,’ the CEO of a small tech firm told me about his wife. That was a wake-up call: the CEO realized this was a habit not just in his marriage, but with his direct reports.

“I feel pressured by all the demands on my time,” the CEO explained. “Yet I can see things would go better if I took a few moments to listen, not just take over the conversation.”

Being a poor listener is an all-too-common part of any relationship where one person has more power than the other. 

A classic study of patients and doctors at the University of Rochester found, for example, that while patients were waiting to see the doctor they had an average of four questions in mind to ask. After their visit with the doctor, they had actually been able to ask, on average, just one-and-a-half.

Why? After about 18 seconds of listening to the patient, physicians interrupted and took over the rest of the conversation.  And that pattern happens all too often at work, with the more powerful person talking, not listening.

More recent research at the University of California finds that when two people talk, the more powerful person pays less attention than does the less powerful one.  The person with the power looks at the other person less, interrupts more, and takes over the conversation.

There’s a better way to listen and to speak:

  • Be present. A classic article in the Harvard Business Review, called “The Human Moment at Work,” advises us to turn away from our screens, turn off our inner monologue and pay full attention to the person in front of us.
  • Let them say what they need to. That is, don’t cut the other person off. Give them the air time they need.
  • Be sure you understand. You can use “reflective listening,” where you repeat back in your own words what you hear the other person saying. Include how they feel. Let them clarify, until you get it right.
  • Say what you think. Express what’s true for you. Here it helps to tune into yourself, being mindful of your feelings and giving yourself time to let your thoughts take shape.

Finally, express yourself honestly. There are four parts to this:

  1. What you observe – a neutral restatement of what’s going on
  2. Your feelings
  3. What you want or need – what’s important to you
  4. A request that would help fulfill your need.

Here’s an example taken from a website about “non-violent communication,” the method developed by the late Marshall Rosenberg:

Feeling: “I feel irritated…

Observation: …when I see you’ve returned my car with an empty gas tank.

Request: Would you fill it up by tonight?

Your Need: I want to trust that I can get to work tomorrow.”

Give it a try.” – With thanks to Daniel Goleman


If you’re hearing this in your personal life from a significant other, it’s possible that it’s a more prevalent habit than just in the home. It’s worth taking some time to get to grips with it. It’s one of those habits than eventually ends up tripping you up in one or other parts of your life.



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Tammy Tansley
I am a coffee loving, energetic human who loves words, bright colours and spots, silly t'shirts and good champagne. Mum to two beautiful mischiefs. Long time wanderer around the world. Author. Blogger. Speaker.

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