Are You a Good Listener?

None of us need to be reminded that active listening is absolutely essential to better communication. But the unfortunate fact is that very few people have truly mastered the complicated skill of listening. It requires practice and patience.

Our sector is filled with intelligent, well-intentioned and hard-working people. But poor listening habits can derail even the most educated, most committed and even most visionary leaders. Better listening can make or break major gifts, large grants, sponsorships, and even whole careers. Remember that we probably have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

Something about the recent, disastrous wrangling on the debt ceiling and spending cuts in Washington makes one wonder whether anyone in public life is listening to anyone else. Once again, too much emphasis has been placed on outbound communication (were we really supposed to take those simultaneous “dueling press conferences” seriously?).

Meanwhile, there is so much emphasis in nonprofit professional development on public speaking and being persuasive, it is easy to forget that your best strategy is listening rather than talking. When you are meeting with a foundation person, corporate decision-maker, or donor, always let them talk first so that you know what they’re interested in. The same is true with interviewing new board members–don’t talk to them about the organization first, but ask about their backgrounds, interests, and passions. People love to talk about themselves . . . so let them.

“Good listening skills will get you farther than all of your most interesting experiences and stories ever will,” writes Cecelia Cooper on Here’s a checklist worth considering:

  1. Listen for what a person is feeling, not just what they’re saying. See if you can hear the unspoken fears, concerns, or aspirations. Try to enter the speaker’s world for a few minutes.
  2. Give your undivided attention. Most interruptions can be controlled, and if they can’t, find a better place to have your conversation.
  3. Encourage the speaker with both verbal         (“I see,” Go on,” “Uh-huh,” “I understand”) and nonverbal cues (facing the person directly, making appropriate eye contact, and nodding).
  4. Our minds work faster than another person can speak. (This phenomenon is true for nearly everyone–sorry, this doesn’t make you gifted!) Stay in the moment. Do not let your mind wander toward you what you are going to say next.
  5. Resist the temptation to “hijack” a story and make it yours. There is a false empathy in saying, “I know how you feel.” In fact, you likely do not–and besides, the story isn’t about you. Meanwhile, avoid joining a one-up-manship where people start competing for the floor or the best example.
  6. Hold your body still, controlling your hands and limbs from needless movement. Being still will help you focus your attention and slow down your racing mind. Stay in the moment of listening instead of moving on to developing your response.
  7. Practice not forming opinions or making a judgment while a person is speaking. Recognize–and work to set aside–your own emotions and biases. Give the speaker sufficient time to explain his or her point of view.
  8. Resist imagining a “quick fix.” If there were an easy answer, the speaker would likely already know it. Besides, you are being asked to listen. Brainstorming solutions together might be appropriate later.
  9. Don’t minimize what the speaker is saying or seems to be feeling. You may mean to sound comforting with a response such as, “You shouldn’t worry about things like that,” but it may come across as if you are dismissing their response.
  10. Finally, notice how often you give unsolicited advice. It so often sounds like criticism. Your counsel may be sought, but wait to be asked.

1 Comment

  1. Antoinette Stillwell
    August 04, 2011

    Your advice is just what I needed to start my day!

    Antoinette Stillwell
    Development Coordinator
    Learning Disabilities Association of Hawaii

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