People love to talk but hate to listen

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The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.
— Ralph G. Nichols

In business today people are so busy and so pushed to deliver results that, with important customers or important family members, they talk more than listen. People will rarely listen to you if they don’t feel that you have listened and understood them. Listening is important.

A few weeks ago with an IT executive, we discussed some implementation challenges with his strategy. When we finished, he said, “Thanks, I enjoyed our meeting, it was just like talking to a rubber plant.” 

On seeing my puzzled look, he explained a favourite trick of programmers was explaining a problem to an inanimate object like a rubber plant or a rubber duck. As they explained the problem programmers often discovered solutions. 

Claude Sammut of Deloitte digital explains more in a blog, Rubber Duck Debugging,


Your rubber duck (cat or plant) does not know how to solve your problem. But explaining your code to your duck will help you slow down, be more precise and thoughtful while going through the code.


After I understood him, I realised the IT executive was paying me a compliment: I had listened well, he could think through an important problem.

Apart from the IT executive, two recent books reminded me about the importance of listening.

Try Extreme Listening

I recommend former McKinsey consultant’s Caroline Webb’s excellent and practical book, How to Have A Good Day, and have given several executives copies. Caroline has a chapter called, Bringing The Best Out in Others that includes the idea of Extreme Listening. For most managers and executives, used to offering immediate solutions and solving problems instantly, this a tough technique to try.

Caroline explains Extreme Listening,

“Instead of racking your brain to come up with solutions and ideas, you create the best possible space for the other person to think about the problem.”

How? Aim for them talking for at least five minutes

  1. Don’t make comments or suggest solutions; encourage and give your time

  2. Ask, “What would you find helpful to talk through?

  3. Don’t interrupt. Nod, listen and make encouraging noises.

  4. Keep your eyes on them, even when they turn away.

  5. When they go quiet, ask, “what else?” Then wait.

  6. When they say “that’s all”. Ask, “So what do you think you’ll do now?”

And why might the talker enjoy Extreme Listening? Because “the rapt attention of the other person makes them feel interesting and smart.”

If you want to try something other than Extreme Listening, try using summaries.  Explore summaries in the ebook: Persuading Customers You Can’t Afford To Lose - Focus on Them.


Use Summaries

Most people won’t listen to your arguments because they don’t feel you understand their arguments. Just read that sentence again, they won’t listen to you because they don’t feel you have listened to them. Most people are not listening but getting ready to say their point. Convincing them you understand is much easier than you think: use summaries.

Try summarising what they said and how they feel. Ask, “have I got that right?”  If they say no, try summarising again and ask if you have understood them.  Keep summarising until they say yes. When they believe you’ve listened to them, they will be more willing to listen to you. 

Typically, it will take two summaries before they say yes. In emotional situations, it takes more. However, keep summarising until you get a yes.

You can practise summarising when people express different opinions. Before you argue with them, summarise their opinions and ask them if you have it right. Notice when they believe you understand their position, how much more receptive they are to your arguments. 

Strategic Listening

Another recent book by Justin Lee, Talking across the divide, in our polarised culture aims to give people tools to talk across the many divides in politics. Justin talks about strategic listening to “help you reach someone with a different perspective of the world.” In brief, listen for answers to these questions:

  • What do they want?

  • What do they believe?

  • What do they think you want?

  • What are their sources of information

  • What language do they use?

  • What are they worried about?

  • What do you have in common?

Some of the most effective executives I know are excellent listeners; some of the most ineffective executives I know are appalling listeners. Are you listening?

Listen now. When people talk, listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen.
— Ernest Hemingway