Guest Columnist Brad Rex and “Active Listening”

Written by Brad Rex on March 18, 2013

Brad Rex photo

In today’s post, our frequent guest columnist Brad Rex, weighs in on the importance of listening. . .REALLY listening. . .to friends, family, spouses, and coworkers.

Now I don’t know about you, but often as I am “listening” to someone speak, I’m really thinking about far different things. Often it’s the next question I’ll pose to them; sometimes it’s a diverse as what I’m going to make for dinner.

So The New York Times Test, an excerpted chapter from Brad’s first book, “The Surpassing! Life: 52 Practical Ways to Achieve Personal Excellence,” is sure to help all of us deal with how best to listen when we interact with friends, family, and coworkers.

Listening, not imitation, may be the sincerest form of flattery.–Dr. Joyce Brothers

A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he gets to know something.–Wilson Mizner

If you listened hard enough the first time, you might have heard what I meant to say.–Unknown

Opportunities are often missed because we are broadcasting when we should be listening.–Unknown

I am often asked “What is the most important skill required for a leader?” While there are many potential answers—financial acumen, negotiations, planning, time management—my vote is “active listening.”

Being an active listener is critical in all interpersonal relationships. Husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, politicians and constituents—all benefit from active listening. As Ernest Hemingway said, “Most people never listen,” which is why most people have poor relationships. The active listener is unique, especially in today’s world, and this uniqueness translates into personal and professional excellence, with many strong relationships.

At employee roundtables, I would frequently hear the criticism, “My manager doesn’t listen to me.” When employees would come to see me with an issue, they would often say, “You really listened to me” at the end of our session. What was the difference between the interaction with their manager and the time with me? Active listening.

With active listening, you focus entirely on the other person, without distractions. The cell phone is put away, e-mail notification is turned off, the computer screen is facing another direction and the door is shut. You have a note pad and pen, and are taking notes while the person talks.
You paraphrase back to the speaker what they are saying to you: “So what I hear you telling me is . . .” “You are angry because . . .” “You believe your leader told you this, but did that.” You encourage the person to speak, especially about their feelings: “Tell me more about this.” “How did it make you feel when this happened?”

During the entire time, you are watching their body language to pick up non-verbal cues. Your body language is open and accepting (no crossed arms or peaked hands). You don’t immediately jump into problem solving mode, but rather let the person fully explain the situation and how they feel about it. When the person is done, you paraphrase back the entire story using the notes that you took while they were speaking, and asking them whether you heard them correctly. After all that is complete, then you are ready to take the next step.

If the issue involves a conflict with a peer, your first question should be, “Have you discussed this with the person directly—one on one?” If they say no, then you direct them to do that first, or you will be put into the middle of the situation unnecessarily. Don’t “take the monkey on your back” by agreeing to talk to the other person individually. If they say yes, then tell them to set up a meeting with the three of you together, so you get to hear both sides at once. Oftentimes, the person will go back and resolve the issue, rather than set up a follow-on meeting.

If the issue involves conflict with someone else (their leader, for example) realize that there are always two sides to every story. I frequently made the mistake early in my life and career of only hearing one side and jumping to conclusions. After a few embarrassments, I’ve learned to seek the other side, usually finding truth is somewhere in the middle. Frank Tyger made the very accurate statement: “Listening to both sides of a story will convince you that there is more to a story than both sides.” A good question to ask is: “What would the other person say if I asked him or her about what happened?”

You should determine if the person wants your help in solving the problem, or just wanted you to listen to them. Men in particular are often guilty of trying to solve a problem, when their spouse just wanted them to listen. Sometimes the speaker will tell you “Thank you for listening to me. I feel much better now” and there is no further action required.

If the person is looking for a solution, a good place to start is to ask the person, “What do you think should happen in this situation?” This teaches people to try to solve problems for themselves rather than coming to you on every issue. He or she may already have a good solution, and just need your help or encouragement to make it happen. Sometimes their proposed solution is impractical, and you need to explain why, and help them think of other options. While there are some things you will have to handle, the best solution is always one that the person can do himself. They get the satisfaction of solving a problem, and you don’t get one more thing on your to-do list.

At the end of the meeting, you should restate any agreements and the agreed deadline. Then, document the agreement with a brief e-mail that you complete while you are together, if possible. This ensures accountability for both of you.

The difference between passive and active listening is dramatic, and is as frustrating as a poor cell phone connection. Passive listeners are distracted, thinking about other things or planning their response before they have even heard the problem. Passive listeners don’t repeat back what they hear and often misunderstand the speaker. Passive listeners don’t take notes, so they appear uninterested and don’t have a record of the meeting. They jump in to solve a problem they don’t understand and create confusion and misunderstandings.

Active listeners focus on the problem and the person, picking up significant non-verbal cues. They listen to understand and confirm that their understanding is correct. They carefully document the conversation and refer back to their notes, enhancing their credibility with the speaker. They hold back on solving the problem, acting as a sounding board so the speaker can learn to solve their own problems. Their ultimate solutions are well grounded, thoughtful and tested, and of immense help to the speaker. Active listeners are considered respectful and wise, and people want to meet and know them. Their relationships are bountiful and rich, an excellent measure of a surpassing life.

Listen actively this week, and experience a new level of effective communication.

Action Points

• Be an active listener.

• Remove distractions so you can focus on the person.

• Take notes.

• Paraphrase back.

• Show open body language.

• Hear both sides.

• Don’t solve the problem unless asked.

• Document the meeting.


Great understanding, more effectiveness, rich relationships!