RE:learning how to listen

by Patrick Goh, John Kingsley Martin

“Let the person who has ears listen!”  Matthew 11:15 (ISV version)

The bible  also teaches us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1.19).

If there is such a thing as the ‘secret’ to successful leadership and change management, this is probably it.

Speaking and listening are the ‘yin and yang’ of communication. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two. Sadly, the world today privileges speaking over listening.  Just take a look at job adverts. You’ll be forgiven to conclude that organisations only want people with “excellent written and oratory skills.” But what of listening? Job descriptions hardly ever list listening skills as essential! And yet, without listening, there can be no genuine communication.

By genuine, we mean conversations that result in mutual understanding, learning, enrichment, collaboration, growth and change.

The traditional Western approach is based on the notion of ‘debating’. In the House of Commons at Westminster, front bench politicians are required to speak from behind a red line drawn on the floor. It’s calculated to keep them at a distance beyond a sword’s length from their opponents. This strange tradition is a somewhat trivial example of the adversarial basis of politics in the UK. Another notorious example is Prime Ministers’ Question Time which has achieved a huge following among television audiences worldwide. Apparently people love to witness the spectacle of leaders tearing into each other.

The scandal over Parliamentary expenses has prompted many to wonder if there is a better way to conduct our public life. So far very few fresh ideas have even been tried. A series of televised debates between the party leaders was an opportunity to break new ground. But it was largely business as usual: a test of ability to engage in gladiatorial debate rather than on content. A requirement to demonstrate ability to work collaboratively might indeed have changed the face of British politics!

The Japanese theologian Masao Takenaka[i] likened the Western concept of debating to ‘ya-ya chambara’ – a form of Japanese sword-fencing where combatants say their name, shout “ya-ya” and then proceed to do battle. He noticed that in theology, this is an approach based on deductive metaphysics rather than inductive learning. It is an approach of confrontation rather than mutual sharing.

We believe that it is only by recovering the art of listening can we communicate in a way that avoids polarization and genuinely harness the intelligence and power of groups, networks or communities of people. To do this we need to learn how to listen in a way that creates a “common sense”.  Without deep listening, we are not able to ‘think together in relationship’.

Thinking together implies that we no longer take our own position as final. We relax our grip on certainty and listen to the possibilities that result simply from being in a relationship with others – possibilities that might not otherwise have occurred.

“I do not know if you have ever examined how you listen, it doesn’t matter to what, whether to a bird, to the wind in the leaves, to the rushing waters, or how you listen in a dialogue with yourself, to your conversation in various relationships with your intimate friends, your wife or husband. If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate, we hardly listen at all to what is being said. In that state there is no value at all. One listens and therefore learns, only in a state of attention, a state of silence, in which this whole background is in abeyance, then it seems to me, it is possible to communicate.”


Here are some suggestions for recovering the art of listening.

“Valuing” Listening

Healthy and productive relationships come from “valuing listening” not “adversarial listening”. In our competitive world, listening is often times adversarial! We listen in order to debate, so we look out for what we don’t like, for weaknesses, to identify problems. Instead of focusing on what’s good about what the other person is saying we spend listening moments to marshal our next move to “win”.

A ‘valuing’ approach, on the other hand, looks out for what makes positive contributions.

To begin with we need to ask ourselves how – what the other person is saying – is helpful, creative, and significant? In this way their positive contribution can be woven into social reality that is being created in the conversation.

The following is great advice from Harlene Anderson of the Taos Institute, New Mexico, on ‘authentic listening’:

“How can you invite another person to talk with you? In our experience, it involves authentically living what we desire for ourselves, that we are trusted as a worthwhile human beings no matter what our life circumstances might be; that others accept us no matter how nonsensical our words and actions may seem; and that we have a safe and ample opportunity for full expression”

“Listen, hear, and speak respectfully. Respect is a relational activity; it is not an individual internal characteristic. Respect is having and showing regard and consideration for the worthiness of the other. It is communicated by attitude, tone, posture, gestures, eyes, words, and surroundings”.

“Listen, hear, and speak as a learner. Be genuinely curious about the other and sincerely believe that you can learn something from them”.

“Listen and respond with sincere interest in what the other person is talking about – their experiences, their words, their feelings and so forth. Listen, hear, and speak to understand. Do not understand too quickly. Understanding is never-ending”.

“Be reflective about what you think you know. Knowing interferes with dialogue. It can preclude learning about the other, being inspired by them, and the spontaneity intrinsic to genuine dialogue. Knowing also risks maintaining or increasing power differences”.

“Listen, hear, and speak with care. Pauses are important. Pause before you speak. Give the other person time to finish. And give yourself a moment to think about what you are going to say and how you will say it”.

“Listen, hear, and speak in a self-reflective manner. Do not minimize the complexity of a dialogue by reducing it or its process to techniques. Listening, hearing and speaking are not techniques. They are relational activities and processes.”

All this can readily be summed up in words of Jesus known as The Golden Rule, “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

A few years ago, I (Patrick) had the privilege of spending some time with the Director of the Public Conversations Project in the US, Sallyann Roth. She  offers a very useful guide on how to have fruitful conversations: ‘Listening to Connect’.

We invite you to try the useful suggestions on the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ for constructive conversations devised by Sallyann. They can be used as a framework or as ground rules for facilitating difficult, struck or important conversations.

Happy listening!

Listening to Connect – a Useful Guide 


 Masao Takenaka, God is Rice, Geneva : World Council of Churches, ©1986

[ii] Krishnamurti: Reflections on the Self, J. Krishnamurti & Raymond Martin (Editor), 1997

Author: gohbyname

A Chartered Fellow of the CIPD, I am a systemic Personnel practitioner. I've worked in the private (British Airways), public (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore), and most recently in the third sector (International charity). My current work involves delivering HR and OD at a strategic level. Operationally, I have a working knowledge of all aspects of HR & OD, including employee engagement, talent and diversity retention, employment and immigration law, TUPE, learning & development and recruitment both in a UK and international setting.

2 thoughts on “RE:learning how to listen”

  1. Great stuff. Listening is key and your advice is challenging for me, especially about “Do not understand too quickly!” I think there are some mistakes on your site. The last four rows in the table have no content in the “avoid” cell and the “strive for” cells have things that I don’t think oyu would want to embrace to be a good listener!

    Thanks again, I look forward to reading some more, Nick

    1. Hey Nick – thank you for your kind comments and for your spotting the mistakes! Goes to show how many people read my blogg!
      I’ve made the amendments by posting the pdf table.

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