Listening is a colour palette. What colours do you listen to?
Most people listen in monochrome — black and white – few listen to across the range of technicolour. Rarely do they explore red, yellow or blue or know that they can blend colours together. This makes sense because listening is a skill — but it’s not a skill many people have been taught.
Great listeners listen in technicolour; ablaze with meaning. They listen to the unsaid. They make people feel truly heard.
● Listening is contextual, relational, and situational
● How you listen matters more than listening exclusively to what people say
● Great listeners change the way people speak
I’ve listened to some of the world’s most diverse listeners, across continents, cultures and communities — air traffic controllers, blind educators, body language experts, deaf interpreters, death doulas, doctors, emergency medics, foreign language interpreters, global experts in emotions, journalists, judges, parenting experts, spies, world champion military snipers, and many more.
Over 100 interviews on the Apple Award-winning podcast Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words, I’ve been challenged and changed; surprised and stirred.
The world needs more technicolour listeners — but where to start?
Here are 10 powerful ways to improve your listening.
1. Men and women listen differently
When I ask people to tell me about the best listener they know, they often talk about a woman. When men and women listen, different parts of the brain fire up, and women are generally perceived by speakers as better listeners.
We’re talking in broad brushstrokes,
● Women listen to feel, and tend to focus on context and relationships
● Men listen to fix, and tend to focus on problems, progress and solutions
This data shows men are 23.6 per cent higher than women on the ‘shrewd’ scale — anticipating and problem solving. Women skew 3.2 per cent higher for the ‘dramatic’ scale, aligned with listening into emotion. While it’s not statistically significant, it’s enough to be noticeable. This mirrors a global research study by Zenger & Folkman highlighting a 6.8 per cent difference in how female and male listening is perceived by the speaker. The study also hints that your listening improves with age.
These are general observations and are not useful in every situation. I have interviewed brilliant, technicolour listeners who are female and male. It’s important to remember that listening is contextual, relational and situational.
2. Good listeners elegantly interrupt
Listening isn’t therapy. Therapy is therapy.
Listening is about them, and it’s about you — the best listening happens in the space where the speaker and listeners conversation overlap.
A good listener makes sense of what someone says. A great listener helps someone make sense of what they think.
Sometimes people get stuck talking in circles, to increase their clarity, you need to skillfully interrupt.
Timing matters — wait in when they pause, rather than mid-sentence. Then ask a question, rather than making a statement.
A metaphor is a great mental shortcut to help them get to the point faster. You might ask the speaker:
● If this was a movie, what would it be?
● If this was a book, what would be on the cover?
● If this was an animal, what animal would it be?
● If this was the sticker on the bumper of a car, what would it say?
● What colour does that feel like for you right now?
Asking different types of questions helps the speaker think about what they’re saying in a new way, which can unlock understanding and help them to clarify their meaning. Paradoxically, conversations move faster and are more effective when your interrupt professionally and thoughtfully.
3. Make the implicit explicit
It’s easy to assume you’re coming at a conversation from the same place as everyone else; that you both know the rules of the conversation. We all look at the world in our unique way. I was reminded of this when listening to Jennifer Grau and her son Christopher discuss how to listen for autism.
Jennifer explained that when Chris was three, he proudly announced: “Mum! Half of three is eight!”
Wait, what? Jennifer put her ‘mum hat’ on. She took eight M&Ms, put them on a table, and said, “Chris, show me how three is half of eight.”
“He looked up at me with the most loving eyes, and he said, ‘Oh mummy, you will never see it that way!” she recalled. Chris grabbed a piece of paper, and drew the figure eight.
“He did a vertical bisection of the number. He showed me the right-hand half,” Jennifer said. “I realised that the whole world was about to change for me because this kid was going to open my eyes to all kinds of things that I had not seen.”
Jennifer said Chris has made her a better listener, a million times over. What they’ve learned about broaching conversations is useful whether you’re around a boardroom table or a dinner table.
Chris put it well: “Meta-communicate. Communicate about your communications.”
“If you’re heading into a roadblock, and you don’t think the conversation is going anywhere, say as much,” Chris explained. “It really helps when someone tells me I’m not getting through to them or something I’m saying doesn’t make sense. I often stop a conversation and express the same thing.”
4. Paying and giving attention
Paying attention feels like it’s your duty, an obligation, and a type of taxation you need to pay to the speaker. Giving your attention feels like an act of curiosity, generosity, and connection.
Neither is right or wrong — it’s about your intention and how the speaker experiences your listening presence.
Neuroscientist Alison J. Barker has spent years listening to naked mole-rats. They’re fascinating creatures: cold-blooded, hairless mammals who survive in some of the harshest conditions on earth. They have a queen, like bees and ants, and they live in colonies.
During her two-year research project, there were times where she had to pay attention to the colony and give attention to an individual rat, when her curiosity was piqued by a difference or change in a language pattern.
Listening to their bird-like chirping, Alison wondered: what are they communicating? She approached the question with patience, honing her listening until she could pick up the subtle nuances. “Now, I know a lot of the animals very well and I can recognise them by voice,” she said.
She realised that the different colonies (which she bestowed with names inspired by Game of Thrones) had different dialects, which were influenced by the queen. There were patterns in how and why the rodents were communicating; dialects were a vital element in survival.
Humans speak in patterns — and noticing the nuances requires your attention.
● Where does the gravity of the conversation settle?
● Are they speaking in patterns about the past, the present or the future?
● Are they using a particular jargon?
● Do they speak with an internal focus, or are they looking outside?
● Do they speak in stories or do they speak in detail?
5.The difference between hearing and listening is action
Listening happens before, during and after a conversation. The ‘before’ is all about being open to having your mind changed. The ‘after’ is about the willingness to take action.
Many people correlate memory and action with better listeners. People in the workplace get very frustrated in regular meetings when someone returns a week later and they forget to complete the task — or worse, they complete a different task to what the speaker requested.
Evelyn Glennie gave me a beautiful example of being truly listened to. Evelyn is an internationally renowned percussionist — remarkably, she has been profoundly Deaf since she was 12.
She told me about a childhood music teacher who realised how frustrated she was, and asked: “Would you be able to hear more if you took your hearing aids off?”
“Now, of course, I thought he landed from Mars. I mean, what a question to ask. Of course, I’m not going to hear more!” Evelyn recalled.
But she gave it a go. The hearing aids came off, and her teacher struck a drum. To Eyelyn’s surprise, the resonance seeped through her body. “It was a huge revelation for me. It completely changed my life,” she said.
Evelyn’s music teacher didn’t just hear her — he listened. The difference is in the action you take.
6. Listen for the capital letters
Anthony Weeks is a visual scribe, who listens to conversations and makes visuals of what he hears. He introduced me to the idea of listening for capital letters, a technique he learned from a cultural anthropologist who was studying families in Silicon Valley.
It involves listening beyond the words themselves, to how they are said — those points of inflection or points of emphasis where, if you could visualise it in your mind, they would be saying them with capital letters.
Anthony said it’s about listening for that moment when you can say, “‘Ah, that’s it. That’s what they really mean to say’. Or, ‘that’s important to them’. I’m going to write that in capital letters because that sounds like it’s a big deal.”
To notice the capital letters, you need to stay focused.
Sarah Manley, another visual scribe, shared a cautionary tale about a time she was scribing a session for a Dutch client. She didn’t think he was really saying anything, so she started drawing some landscapes: people on bicycles, little canal boats, little Dutch houses.
“All of a sudden, the speaker said, ‘And that’s how we solve … this seemingly insurmountable problem!’ And I was like, ‘Oh no, I missed it!” Sarah recalled.
People tend to repeat important points — these tend to be the capital letters. Luckily for Sarah, the speaker did indeed repeat their ‘hook’, so she was able to get back into the conversation.
“It really is easy to let yourself slip, and think ‘This isn’t that important, it’s just chit-chat’, and often there’s something there that you need to be paying attention to,” she said.
7. Listen TO and FOR difference
Our default listening orientation is to listen for similarities — to seek out what’s common and familiar. Great listeners acknowledge, explore and appreciate differences.
Paul Nadeau, a former police detective, hostage negotiator and international peacekeeper, told a chilling story that illuminated the importance of this. For Paul, the cost of not listening is measured in people’s lives — including his own.
He was sent to Jordan to help to train Iraqi police officers — and terrorists had infiltrated the academy under the guise of being police. Unbeknownst to Paul, he built a rapport with a cell leader, who would hang back after class to talk to him.
About a month later, the training academy was attacked by around 40 cadet insurgents. “They started beating us and we were fighting and we were fighting for our lives,” Paul recalled.
Suddenly, a voice rang out in Arabic and everything stopped. His former student, the cell leader, “had just given an order not to kill us, and he let us go free that day”. Paul is alive today because a terrorist saved his life. He attributes that to the fact that he really listened to the man, and treated him with dignity and respect, despite differences in their backgrounds and values.
How do you listen to and for difference? I set aside two hours each Sunday morning, to listen to people with completely different perspectives from me — be it through podcasts, social media or catch up TV.
I listen to opinions that I know I will probably disagree with. But if we only listen for what is similar, our impact will be limited to what we know.
“Listening is the willingness to have your mind changed” Carl Rogers
8. ‘Why’ questions may trigger judgement
When it comes to truly hearing someone’s story, at the beginning of an issue or relationship, ask ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions. I’ve learned to use ‘why’ sparingly — not because they aren’t helpful or because they’re wrong, but because they can be loaded with judgement.
‘Why’ questions can make someone feel talked at, interrogated or accused. They can activate a time the person was asked:
“Why didn’t you do this?”
“Why did you do that?!”
They can bring back memories of being scolded by a parent!
Alan Stokes, a journalist and Lifeline counsellor, explained that because ‘why’ questions have “an implied negativity”, ‘what’ or ‘how’ is a more positive and empathetic starting point.
“What’s going on?”
“How does that feel for you?”
“What would you like to see happen next?”
Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss also suggests made a similar observation, instead of asking a question. “An observation would be, ‘You sound angry’, or ‘you sound certain’, or ‘you seem upset’,” he explained. “That’s a really powerful way to get through to people really quickly.”
Great listeners save any why questions in the second part of a conversation — after you have explored what, how, who, where and when. This gives you time to build rapport with the speaker, and get some idea of what they are experiencing or thinking.
Do you notice anything else about all these questions? They’re all neutral — and really short. If your question is more than seven words long, some bias has probably crept in.
9. The deeper you breathe, the deeper you listen
You breathe 25,000 times a day – and for the most part, you do it without thinking. By bringing more awareness to your breath, you can become a better listener.
“Breathing is this wonderful anchor; this way of quickly listening to your body so that you can be a conduit to other knowledge out there in the world,” author James Nestor told me. “I don’t see a huge disconnect between listening and breathing because you are very closely tuning in to exactly how you’re feeling.”
James gave me three tips for taking control of your breath:
● Breathe slowly
● Breathe through the nose
● Breathe less than you think you need to
James also told me about Box Breathing, a technique used by the Navy Seals to achieve focus before and during missions.
You inhale to a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold for a count of four.
Try taking a few slow, deep breaths before you next listen to someone — it will help you clear your mind of everything else, so you can focus on them.
10. Understand the 125/400 rule
You listen to 400 words per minute, and they can only speak at 125 words per minute. This means it’s easy to get distracted during dialogue. Keep this simple maths in mind as you listen — it will help you to notice when you drift off during the discussion.
You can listen much faster than someone speaks
There is a very low likelihood that someone will express the idea in their head completely and effectively the very first time they speak. To help someone get to their meaning, try these three simple questions:
● What else?
● Tell me more?
That last one is the most powerful question you can ever ask someone: silence. — simply pause and say nothing the next time they take a breath. Sometimes it can take people a while to say what they think. I guarantee it will take their breath away when they do.
Silent and listen have the same letters
Jennifer MacLaughlin, an Auslan interpreter for the Deaf community, doesn’t just sign the words as they’re spoken – she waits until she can discern the meaning of what somebody is saying. The result is faster and more effective communication.
Jennifer said interpreting for people like politicians or managers of big companies can be really tough because they say a lot without really saying anything. There’s so much beating around the bush.
“Often people … tend to look over, like “Are you not meant to be signing right now?’ You just have to stand there, because obviously, you don’t want to insult anyone. They don’t realise that they haven’t said anything meaningful yet.”
Think of yourself as an intrepid explorer, rather than a problem solver or a sprinter in a race. Stay curious just a little longer.
The quest for 100 million deep listeners
Listening is a skill, a strategy, and a practice. It’s contextual, relational, and situational. You listen differently to an actor than to an accountant. You listen differently to a journalist than a judge. You listen differently to your parents than your siblings or your partner. But no matter whom you’re listening to, everyone deserves to feel heard.
Listening creates positive change in your home, workplace, and in the world. That’s why I am on a quest to create 100 million Deep Listeners. The first step in the quest, is taking The Listening Quiz.
I don’t know exactly who I’ll meet over the course of the next 100 interviews. I do know I’ll learn so much from their diverse thoughts, experiences, and perspectives.
Maybe you can suggest a great guest, maybe you can tag a great listener that I can interview for the next 100 episodes.
I’ll be listening — will you?