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Jenny Davidow
Communication and Personal Coach
Seattle, Washington
Extraordinarily helpful
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How Well Do You Listen?

Listening well is an essential communication skill. “If we were meant to talk more than we listen, we would have two mouths and one ear.” ~ Mark Twain
Written Aug 04, 2011, read 3387 times since then.


How often do you find yourself complaining, “I told you, but you just weren't listening?” And let's face it, how often have you (and I) been guilty of hearing someone talk, but then you had to say, “I'm sorry, I have no idea what you just said. My mind was somewhere else.”

Many of my clients know they're missing something because they're losing customers, business opportunities, and meaningful connections. They ask me, “What should I be doing to listen well?”

Listening is quite different from hearing, isn't it? We were given two ears and one mouth for a reason: the ratio suggests that we should listen twice as much as we speak. Mark Twain put a humorous spin on this when he said, “If we were meant to talk more than we listen, we would have two mouths and one ear.”

Do you remember the Gary Larson cartoon,'What Dogs Hear'? Ginger the dog is listening to her master talking to her. The talk balloon shows what Ginger hears:Blah-blah-blah Ginger, blah-blah-blah Ginger.”


Listening well is called active listening because y ou are actively involved. You are tracking what is said well enough to remember what the points were or to ask a question. You are listening to the message, not just hearing blah-blah-blah.

I met someone the other day who talked almost non-stop. During the pauses I said a few things, and he answered with his point of view. He told me later, “Usually I have to force myself to stop talking.” In Twain's model, this man had two mouths and one ear.


Unfortunately, most people are quite passive when it comes to listening. Many are just waiting for “their turn” and not even hearing what is said because they are planning their own clever response. Come on, admit it. We've all been guilty of that.


When we keep talking and don't listen, we aren't communicating so much as performing a monologue. (And when we're preoccupied with talking to ourselves instead of listening to the other person, the same is true!)


Communication – speaking and listening – involves an exchange of energy, a give and take of interest and response. We take in what the other person says, see and feel it in our minds and bodies, and give back signals: We nod, smile or frown, and then perhaps ask a question or make a comment that shows we have followed along.


But we don't listen with only our ears, do we?

The best listening results in the other person “feeling heard.” When we are good listeners, we are actively pursuing an understanding of the feelings beneath the words.

We are listening with our eyes and other senses: taking in the body language and facial expressions of the person speaking.

When we 'listen between the lines,' we pick up on what the words aren't saying. Many times people don't say what they really mean or feel, but you can sense there is more going on. You may get a gut feeling or intuition about what is really going on, what is implied, or what is being avoided. You may feel your own stomach tightening or your chest getting heavier. This is a natural form of empathy: You listen with your heart and body as well as your ears.


What signals are you sending?

In our Western culture the common reasons why people have so much trouble listening are: too much chatter in your head, boredom, distraction, or not being interested in a point of view that is different from your own.


We know there are a thousand ways to stop listening and break the enjoyment and connection that is possible with two-way communication. We can sense when someone has stopped listening to us, is distracted or checking email while we're talking to them on the phone. We can tell the difference between a casual or mechanical paraphrase of what we said and a caring response that lets us “feel heard.”

Real listening asks us to make room to take in what another person is saying. We need to welcome each other's communication, consider what is said with interest, be willing to feel it inside ourselves as if it were our own.


We listen with our eyes as well as our ears, our hearts as well as our intellects. We send signals that we're listening through our eyes, body language, and our degree of attentiveness. When we are willing to go beneath the words, to read the feelings and needs that are implied but not said, we can offer a deeper understanding that gives the other person the unforgettable sensation of “feeling heard.”


To 'tune up' your listening skills, notice the signals you're receiving from the other person:

Listen with your ears:

  • Take in the tone of voice (energized, happy, sad, tense, etc.)

  • Take in the pace of the person talking (fast, slow, excited, reflective)

  • Remember to tune in with interest and curiosity to learn more about this person, to take in the main ideas being expressed – so you can build a connection

Listen with your eyes: The body language and facial expressions of the person speaking will often tell you more than their words.

  • Notice how the person is standing or sitting: is s/he tense or relaxed, energized or subdued?

  • Are the arms crossed across the chest (closed off)? Are the hands clenched in front of the body (nervous and defensive)?

  • Does he or she reach out to you with a friendly expression in his or her eyes and a smile?

  Signal your genuine interest in listening:

  • Respond with nonverbal signals such as head nods and a look of interest in your eyes and facial expression.

  • Ask open-ended, friendly questions that show the other person you've listened and understood, such as “What happened then?” or “I'm wondering what attracted you to this kind of work.” (Draw the other person out, rather than stop the flow of communication with your point of view or a judgment.)

  • Look for feelings and needs that might not be said in words by the other person, but rather through voice tone and body language. (You may also register sympathetic tension or energy from the other person in your own body!) You don't need to comment on these – but when you actively listen to both words and nonverbal signals, the other person is likely to sense the quality of your attention and “feel heard.”


Take the Psychology Today “Listening” self-test:

See the Gary Larson cartoon at:








Learn more about the author, Jenny Davidow.

Comment on this article

  • Owner/Manager 
Bellingham, Washington 
Greg Aanes
    Posted by Greg Aanes, Bellingham, Washington | Aug 04, 2011

    A bulls eye on my weak spot! With so much going on I have trouble keeping 100% of my attention on the speaker, and this is a powerful reminder to say "the heck with the rest of the world and focus 100% on the other person". And as a proponent of "90% of communication is nonverbal" I really can't articulate what to look for. Jenny clarifies and maps it out making this subject more accessible.

  • Structural Engineer 
Bellingham, Washington 
Charles Waugh
    Posted by Charles Waugh, Bellingham, Washington | Aug 04, 2011

    This is exactly right, and Jenny has done a great job of making her points clear and easy to follow.

    Lest we forget, building business is about building relationships -- through trust with clients. To do that, we must all listen to our clients, and listen well.

    We should all re-read this article from time to time. It all seems so clear - but how often do we achieve this clarity?

  • writer 
Van Nuys, California 
Cheryl Phillips
    Posted by Cheryl Phillips, Van Nuys, California | Aug 05, 2011

    An amazing article! Jenny hits home with concepts about listening that I have always thought about but never quite articulated. It would do people (in all walks of life) a world of good to read the article. There's nothing worse for the ego than talking to someone who you know is not listening. Good work Jenny, I'm listening.

  • Tax Professional and IRS Representation 
Blaine, Washington 
Bill Bradfield, EA
    Posted by Bill Bradfield, EA, Blaine, Washington | Aug 05, 2011


    Great job. I've heard this same message many times before, but unless we actively focus on listening we quickly forget what it actually takes to have a two-way communication. Thank you for reminding all of us how to listen.

    You are so right about the non-verbal aspects of communicating. Many times that says far more than the actual words.


  • Business coaching services 
Portland, Oregon 
Kaya Singer
    Posted by Kaya Singer, Portland, Oregon | Aug 05, 2011

    Excellent article Jenny.

    You did a really good job of describing the exact issues around listening. I was a counselor/therapist for 20 years so I learned to do all the things you mention. It takes huge practice. So I have the ability, however when I am excited or feeling insecure, I will fall into the traps you mention above. ugh.

    I find that paraphrasing to be the best listening tool. I use that with my present clients all the time so I can be sure I am hearing what they are wanting to share.

    Repeating back what you think you heard allows the other person to clarify, add more or say, "Yes, you got it!" Sometimes people don't realize they haven't said it all accurately until they hear you play it back. As you said- listening is the most important part of communication.

  • Principal CTO On Demand 
Cyberjaya Malaysia 
Thomas Cheah
    Posted by Thomas Cheah, Cyberjaya Malaysia | Aug 18, 2011

    Nice article Jenny! A really good one. Not trying to be sexist here, but I guess men generally will find listening more challenging than women. I guess it is due to the way we socialize with people. For example, John Gray (author of "Men from Mars, Women from Venus") said that men are generally problem solver, whereas women tend to be emphatic listener.

    There are people who listen (or pretend listening), but in their mind, they are thinking about what's the next thing to say, or how to turn the conversation around to their interests. This is exactly like what you mentioned above, "Many are just waiting for 'their turn' and not even hearing what is said because they are planning their own clever response."

    As for me, my challenges is often forgetting about the real points of discussion, especially after a long session of active listening. This leads to respond like, "I thought of something just now, but I can't really recall it right now." This does not send out a good impression, isn't it?

    Would love to hear some of your advice. Thank again for this great article!

  • Communication and Personal Coach  
Seattle, Washington 
Jenny Davidow
    Posted by Jenny Davidow, Seattle, Washington | Aug 18, 2011

    Hi, Thomas - Thanks for your sharing. You bring up a good point, which involves the need to balance when you respond with nods and when you respond with words. If you're listening for so long that you've forgotten what you wanted to say, you might want to try jumping in sooner and reflecting back a point that you heard, then share how it sparked an idea. Active listening is really about keeping the exchange going between you and the other person. You're not just receiving, you're participating. How much you do that depends a lot on the situation and the person, which is why there is so much challenge in this area for most people. Listening well is an art and a work in progress for us all.

  • Communication and Personal Coach  
Seattle, Washington 
Jenny Davidow
    Posted by Jenny Davidow, Seattle, Washington | Aug 18, 2011

    Thank you, Greg, Charles, Cheryl, Bill and Kaya for your comments and sharing!

    What I'm gathering from your responses and from other people is how much everyone wants to "feel heard." And also what a challenge it is to focus enough to take in what another person is saying, while also staying aware of oneself and sharing a meaningful or effective response. Listening well involves such a fine balance of awareness of self and other! Yet that's what makes communication so potentially creative and satisfying.

  • Principal CTO On Demand 
Cyberjaya Malaysia 
Thomas Cheah
    Posted by Thomas Cheah, Cyberjaya Malaysia | Aug 19, 2011

    Jenny, thanks for the tip. I think you are right, but there are certain people also said that when you listen, you should really listen, i.e. let them empty their "bucket" of thoughts first. So meaning that, your mind is entirely focusing on them, you don't think of anything else, i.e. your opinions, what to reply, etc. That way, you can "feel" better of what they are talking to you.

    Does this make sense to you? It sounds quite challenging though.