Two Powerful Listening Practices

It’s extraordinary how we learn shortcuts and habits in everything we do in order to be more efficient. It’s pretty cool. Of course, our practices and habits cause us not only to repeat good shortcuts but also to repeat mistakes. Mistakes we’re not even aware of.

That’s why a great coach – in tennis, guitar, or leadership – can help you identify bad habits and practice new ones. They have you practice – to the point of creating new habits.

Self-taught players, artists, and leaders are most prone to miss the fundamentals and therefore to create sub-optimal practices, the reinforcing them until they become habits. My littlest brother Jim who learned the fundamentals from a tennis pro would yell at my “natural athletic self,” to “get your racket back,” “get your racket back,” “get your racket back.”  Jim, you’re permanently in my head!

When it comes to one of the most essential practices of leadership, almost all of us were entirely self-taught. I’m referring to the skill of true listening.

I offer a two-part practice.

Part one of the practice is to gain awareness of an enormously widespread sub-optimal practice of listening.

In two speeches last week, I drew people’s attention to how many things were going on in their minds as I spoke, causing them to lose track of what I was saying. I suggested some typical versions of those thoughts: “I’m hungry.” “That’s a dumb idea.” “I know what he means, because I had an experience like that myself.” “This guy is so boring.” “Shoot. I forgot to answer that email.” “Where’s my phone?”

After calling attention to the way their minds had already been drifting, I invited them to just observe their minds as I spoke on a random topic for about 1 minute. To be more attentive and aware, I invited them to hold a pencil in their hand and simply make a tick mark every time that they noticed they weren’t listening to me but were instead listening to their own thoughts. Even though I had alerted them to this natural tendency for their minds to wander, everyone still made tick marks. The average was about 4-5 tick marks made during my 1-minute verbal ramble.  So, this is practice one that I offer to you.

At your next one-on-one, group meeting or conference call, just pick up a pen or pencil and make those tick marks. It’s a way to create a new awareness. And as I tell my students, awareness creates choices.

The second practice that I offered to them and now to you is this: each time you note a distraction with the tick mark, simply return to listening. I liken this “return to listening,” to forms of meditation, where one simply notices – without self-judgment – that their mind has wandered, and then returns to their breath or mantra. Make the tick mark, then return to listening to the other(s).  (By the way, practicing meditation is more than a metaphor, but is also a powerful way to practice attentiveness which you can easily translate in improving your listening to others.)

I think you’ll find this conscious, intentional practice of making the tick mark and returning to listening will help you greatly in both personal and professional relationships,

Leading with your best self

  • Dan

    Perfect timing. I’ve been very distracted by outside work issues the past few months and just returned to work after a ten day vacation. My vow was to be more present and engaged and less distracted in meetings and presentations.

    This sounds like the perfect tool-going into a two hour meeting now and taking my funniest pencil with me.


  • Dan, what’s interesting is how many times our brain wanders doing anything, like reading a blog post for instance! I tried your exercise while reading the blog and it was an impressive # of ticks. This does NOT speak to the engaging quality of your blog, but to our attention spans and how we have to work to focus. I use to myself reading an article and when i’d be done not being able to remember any key details. Now i really focus on the article and i find i am much more

  • My father gave me a “business” card that reads: “Say one Hail Mary.” I do it frequently, silently, or whispering, and particularly every time I notice the statue of Mary in my back yard. I have said thousands of Hail Mary’s. By try as I might, I have never been able to get through a complete Hail Mary without another thought intruding at some point. No “perfect” Hail Mary, but I still keep trying. Try it yourself!

  • Dan you hit the nail on the head here. Since I took 157, I have employed several of the leadership frameworks and lessons I learned in class towards extracurriculars, summer internships, and volunteer work with kids. I am really excited to take 155 this Spring to reflect on my development since sophomore year and prepare for the next chapter in my life after graduation.

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