Practical Developmental Ideas #4 July 2003

This issue is about listening. Listening is one the most valuable, rare and underrated social skill there is. We need more of it, especially in troubled times.

“I think she/he needs a good listening to!”,don’t we all?

When someone listens to you well, and you feel very safe, you start to express the thoughts and feelings that are inside you. Your thinking becomes clearer and more powerful and you feel energised because someone has shown you that you are worth listening. So, you are valuable.

When you listen to someone else, as well as helping that person, you also start to understand what he or she needs and what makes her or him tick. This will make them much easier to work with in any role or setting. Effective listening is essential for effective communication.


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How to have more listening in organisations?


The really difficult things about listening well are not technical. Sitting still, paying attention, giving warm eye contact, asking good questions, not interrupting or talking about yourself are not difficult in the sense of requiring years of study. If you “watch people”, you will notice very young women, particularly, taking turns doing this effortlessly and with evident enjoyment for hours on end.

The difficult thing about listening is to decide to do it and to give up, temporarily, what most of us want to do a lot, which is to talk! This need can be so strong that we interrupt, compete, switch off, jump to conclusions, finish people’s sentences as we rush to speak. When we do the other people are also doing the same so dialogue becomes very difficult. This is much worse when people have strong feelings or raise thoughts that challenge our way of thinking.


One way time

Consultants, coaches, mentors, counsellors are all in effect selling their time and attention and offering one-way listening to another person in exchange for money or another reward. This can be very helpful, especially for senior people who find it hard to be open inside their organisation or to be seen not to know the answers. It is useful in career and other crises where people are preoccupied with their own situation and feelings and need outside support and challenge and have nothing left to give anyone else.

In it’s purest form, one-way time can sometimes leave the person with the issue (the client) feeling a bit low. He or she may imagine that their helper has no problems or issues and that their life is perfect. I prefer to let my client know a bit more about me than that when working this way.

In organisations, one way time is easy, acceptable and rather expensive. It is not a very efficient way to pass on listening skills to people.

Two way time

In its simplest form, people take turns listening to each other for perhaps half an hour each way. This simple process will help both parties think more clearly and act more powerfully. It also has some advantages over one way time. It is very easy to build in feedback so, after each half session the person in the client role tells the helper what she or he did that was helpful and how the helper could be more effective next time. You can discuss client skills too, if you like. Thus, learning and improvement is built into the process. People get closer and more able to trust each other as both parties start to open up to each other.

There are many ways, see coconsulting and cocounselling, you can use this simple process to improve communication and commitment. It is an excellent way to get helping and listening skills embedded into the organisation. I have been surprised how helpful people find to talk to their colleagues, when their colleagues are concentrating awarely on listening. They might get further with a counsellor with twenty years experience but they do get a long way with a colleague on a course.

I once asked a group of people to talk, in pairs, about a real problem for ten minutes to a colleague. I asked him or her to listen, with delight, but not say anything. Astonishingly, more than half of the group reported they had made real progress with their issue!

Working in groups

I referred to the “go round” in June‘s issue. This is a very nice way to increase the amount of listening in the organisation too. There is more in Nancy Kline’s book. Very busy organisations seem to find organising the sessions a bit difficult. I have a friend who does a lot with “Action Learning”, which uses similar methods, in the public sector.

How to increase you own ability to listen, if you wish?

My experience suggests that learning techniques will help a bit. It does help to know how to reflect back, summarise and ask open questions. You may find feedback from people you listen to and seeing yourself on CCTV helpful too. However, nothing is as useful as being a client where you have time to be listened to. This is the only way of shifting the feelings from your life experiences that otherwise get in the way of hearing what other people are saying.

For example, some years ago I was working with a couple but wasn’t making any progress with the man. He was very successful at work and was having an affair with his secretary. It was only when I talked to my counsellor that I realised I was jealous as hell, I was having a bad time at work and we had just had our first child.

I get listened to very regularly in two-way settings. This is very effective and only costs time and travelling.

Feedback please

So, I hope you have found this information interesting and in a useable form. The subjects I might cover in the next issues are : –

Developing your people

Eliminating unnecessary work

Improving working relationships

Stimulating creative thinking

Thinking tools and processes

Influencing skills

Are these important to you?

I am sure there are many ways to make this more useful to you. Please let me know what you think of it, if you have time. If you have any particular developmental interests you would like me to cover, please let me know. I will try and respond if I can and if I don’t know anything about the subject, I will tell you.


I spend quite a lot of my client contact time working one to one. People often use this time to think out loud. They are functioning perfectly well but when they are both supported and challenged, their thinking and their determination both go up a gear. One of the reasons this goes well is because I have regular sessions myself. So I am always stretching and learning and never forget what it is like to be a client. People sometimes think that being listened to warmly and with attention and being asked to think is “easy”. It is not, when it works it is sometimes stretching and uncomfortable but the benefits of new insights can be huge, even life changing.

I also work with people in career or personal crisis and those requiring coaching to learn new skills, like presentation or influencing.

I have done some work to help people learn how to help each other through listening to each other and would love to do some more.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick