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Secrets for powerful listening
Secrets for powerful listening

Nov 01 2022 / Round the Table Magazine

Secrets for powerful listening

We can hear, but do we really listen?

By Julian Treasure

Topics Covered

Organizations that are rated high for listening capability have better morale, more customer loyalty and staff retention, higher productivity among all their employees and better reputations. Organizations rated at the low end for listening capability have more criticism and more crises to deal with. Listening well can affect both your personal success and your organization’s success.

I define listening as making meaning from sound. This is a mental process that’s distinct from hearing: First you select some of what you hear, and then you interpret it to make it mean something. Your listening is as unique as your fingerprint, your voice print or your irises, because we all listen through a set of filters that we accumulate through our lives. Yours are different from anyone else’s: You’re born into a culture; you speak a language that affects the way you listen; and you have accrued values, attitudes and beliefs along the way from your parents, friends, role models, teachers and others, taking on board those you like and disregarding the rest. Those beliefs include assumptions about how people receive you, what they think and how the world works in general. Finally, you may have expectations or intentions for a particular conversation, and emotions may also come into play.

So, each person’s listening is unique, and it changes over time. If you’re meeting with somebody who just received terrible news, they’re listening to you very differently compared with a person who had fantastic news and is in a great mood. Your filters shape your unique experience of the world, which means that listening actually creates your reality. By becoming conscious in your listening, it is therefore possible to improve your life experience.

Below are a couple of exercises that can improve your listening.


This is a great acronym to remember when you’re in conversation.

  • Receive — pay full attention, look at the speaker, put everything else down
  • Appreciate — show that you’re paying attention with little sounds or gestures
  • Summarize — “So, what we’ve said is this. Now we can move on to that.” Or “So, what I understand is this; is this correct?” Really important in a sales conversation, closing the doors in the long corridor of a conversation so you can move on in confidence
  • Ask questions — open-ended questions are very powerful for creating connection


Taste the sounds around you, as you would food. You may discover a hidden choir, because even mundane sounds can be quite interesting. Many sounds have life and movement, even something as mundane as a kettle or tumble dryer. At the same time, some sounds may be doing you harm even though you’re not aware of them. If you practice savoring, you can be more discerning and take responsibility for the sound you consume, which can be great for your well-being. For example, research shows that biophilic sound like wind, water and birdsong is very good for you. It’s anti-disease, anti-aging and anti-stress as well as being a productive noise masker when you’re trying to work. The great outdoors is the place to go if you want healthy sound.


Give yourself a few minutes of silence every day to recalibrate your ears. The world is noisy, and we can go numb to what is happening around us. Reset with a few minutes of silence, or at least tranquility, in a quiet place like your bedroom or close the door to your office. Get someplace where you can sit in silence for a couple of minutes, and then you’ll listen afresh.

Listening positions

This is a metaphor for different ways or styles of listening. For example, active listening starts with reflection — a phrase like: “What I heard you say is …” followed by repeating exactly what the person said. It then moves on to validation, where you confirm the other’s perspective by saying something like: “I can see why you believe/said that.” The final stage is synthesis, where you can discuss a resolution that works for both of you.

Active listening is very useful in the counselling professions, in negotiation, or even with unruly children, because the other person feels like they’ve been heard and understood. If your teenage child says, “I wish you were dead!” and you respond with “What I heard you say is you wish I was dead. I can see that you’re feeling very angry. Tell me more about that,” you’re likely to get a response like: “Sorry, I didn’t really mean that,” which is a very different outcome from the one you’ll get from the knee-jerk response of “How dare you; go to your room!”

Critical listening is a very useful listening position in education and business, as it constantly assesses and judges, seeking value and discarding irrelevance. But it isn’t the best listening position to take home; there, it might be better to move into empathic listening where you go on the other person’s island and use compassion to really appreciate their feelings.