You’ve likely heard before that listening is the most important communication skill.

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” wrote the philosopher Epictetus.

In the clamorous world we live in, the opposite is often true. Signals become lost in the noise. People complain that their message doesn’t get through.

Complaints from spouses that their other halves don’t listen.

Complaints from employees that their managers don’t listen.

Complaints from voters that politics is polarised and other constituents don’t listen.

In response, people clamour louder, determined to strengthen their signal.

But the result is often the creation of more noise. Vocal brinkmanship rewarding the loudest rather than the best. The office meetings and thanksgiving dinners become slanging matches. Signals are attenuated into oblivion.

The only solution is to reduce the noise. The only way to reduce the noise is to listen.

The perks of listening

When the noise subsides, the signal comes through. When the signal comes through, we learn.

Former US President Lyndon B. Johnson said “If you’re not listening, you’re not learning.” Talking a lot gives us the impression that we know enough. But the sharpest people know there is always more to learn.

Listening gives us the space to receive learning. Then we can better proceed as informed individuals.

This has value in leadership too. Some of the most astute leaders practice ‘servant leadership’. They focus on what they can do for employees rather than what employees can do for them.

Teacher and author Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar notes research showing that the number one quality of servant leaders is their ability to listen. Understanding your employees through effective listening is key to bringing the best out of them. An organisation is only as good as its people—the word ‘corporation’ comes from the Latin ‘corpus’ meaning body. When you bring the best out of your employees, the organisation cannot help but excel. After all, there are plenty more employees than leaders.

Listening amplifies clarity of shared thoughts. Misunderstandings are the cause of so many problems in society. People who otherwise could be on the same wavelength aren’t. Good listening helps us interpret what another person is saying and feeling, achieving understanding with greater fidelity.

Listening Servant Leadership

Hearing vs Active listening vs Real listening

‘Listen’ and ‘Silent’ have the same letters—they’re conjoined at the hip. Being a good listener means first being silent.

But silence alone does not guarantee successful listening. As the author Krista Tippett notes: “Listening is more than being quiet while the other person speaks until you can say what you have to say.”

Holding the ulterior motive of wanting to speak when silent in a conversation is ‘hearing’ not listening.

Hearing is passive processing of information. When we hear, we take in sound.

In contrast, listening is intentional processing. When we listen, we process the words, tone, meaning and other rich qualities of what someone is saying to us.

In this sense, hearing is body exclusive involving our ears. Listening is mind and body inclusive involving both our ears and our brains to give our interlocutor’s speech the respect of our full attention.

Mind and body inclusive listening is often referred to as ‘active listening’. As the name implies, the listener demonstrates active involvement in the conversation rather than passive participation.

Active listening is a step forward in the communication process. It seeks to use the body and mind to find the intent and meaning behind a person’s words and in the process make that person feel valued.

Since active listening involves taking action, the practice uses many techniques to attempt to improve understanding and show your engagement in a conversation. These include good eye contact, asking open-ended questions, using non-verbal cues and reflecting what you hear.

While some of these techniques are useful, there are others which do not generate intentional processing.

Many proponents of active listening champion using non-verbal cues to ‘show’ the person you’re speaking to that you understand them. Many business communication workshops are filled with orienters who extol body language ‘necessities’ such as nodding at the right times or using filler sounds to indicate you’re following what the person’s saying.

The problem with such cues is that if you’re truly listening, you wouldn’t be in your head thinking about when to perform a body language technique, you’d be naturally engaged.

When it comes to reflecting what you hear, using every opportunity to parrot what a person has said back to them is a surefire path to irritation, paraphrasing or not. In many contexts, a person doesn’t want you to summarise what they’ve said, they want you to lend an authentic ear.

Herein lie the drawbacks of active listening. It contains top-down components in an attempt to force a person to listen. Whether you’re trying or forcing yourself to listen, you’re not really listening at all, you’re posturing.

For this reason, I believe active listening is semi-intentional processing. It has much value to offer as a practice for improving the understanding half of communication. But much of its focus is on techniques that simulate listening rather than facilitating actual listening.

What if there was a practice for achieving true intentional processing as a listener? This is where ‘real listening’ comes in.

Real listening

Real listening is a full commitment to understanding your interlocutor in a conversation.

Like active listening it’s mind and body inclusive but it’s more of a bottom-up approach to engaging with others.

Instead of worrying about how you come across in a conversation, real listening will show your interlocutor that you’re naturally paying attention to what they’re saying.

While active listening prioritises techniques, real listening focuses on principles that will lead to full engagement with another person. By following the principles, you’ll let true intentional processing take care of itself.

Start with curiosity

At the heart of a successful listener is curiosity.

Too often we enter conversations with loaded priors, armed and ready with what we want to say. We don’t listen with the intent to understand but to speak. 

Real listening involves vulnerability—leaving your assumptions at the door and stepping out barehanded to meet a person halfway with your ears.

Curiosity leads to absorption. When we’re truly curious about something, our entire being orients towards that which holds our interest. We experience a childlike wonder with what we’ve encountered.

There’s a saying that everyone we meet has something to teach us. Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

Either way, these sayings show that we can always be curious about a person, familiar or not.

Engage with people with the intention to find out more about them. Find out their positions and what makes them tick. Allow yourself the chance to be surprised. This way, you prime yourself to understand the humanity behind someone’s words.

Listening Curiosity

Following breadcrumbs

People leave hints about what they like to talk about in conversations. We can call these ‘breadcrumbs’.

When talking to people for the first time or starting a new conversation, following the breadcrumbs is a useful way to facilitate the conversation as a listener.

All conversation is topical—during conversation, some topic is touched upon however long or short it’s talked about. Following the breadcrumbs means listening out for what topic points your interlocutor brings up and allowing them to develop further through intentional listening.

Sometimes ‘breadcrumbs’ can be accentuated. This means that the person mentions multiple topics when speaking but highlights a certain one that indicates they’d prefer to talk about it over the others. A good listener knows how to spot these and allows for the conversation to flourish in this direction.

Asking open-ended questions is a good way for expanding ‘breadcrumbs’ that you’ve followed. Instead of throwing away a topic prematurely or worse, interrupting someone developing a topic (see below), you allow a person to advance something of importance to them and give them the gift of your attention.

Paying attention to hints dropped in conversation is the ultimate sign of intentional listening. If you’re worried about your body language or thinking about what to say, you’ll risk missing those hints. Follow the breadcrumbs and have conversations with real depth.

Conversation is sequential—be patient

One commonality that real listening and active listening share is patience.

Conversation is sequential. Only one person can speak at any time. We all know the pain of people trying to speak over each other at the same time—the result isn’t a whole greater than the sum of its parts, it’s a mess.

Since it’s sequential, the only way to have a good conversation is to allow the people in it to finish what they’re saying.

Wait until the person you’re talking to completes their thoughts. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t feel you always need to come in with a reply of your own during moments of silence.

Also be aware of changing the subject too soon, that signals boredom. As mentioned, if you have curiosity, you’ll allow a subject to flow.

In a world of (misguided) multitasking, paying attention to one train of thought is a superpower. Patience lets your conversation partner know that you value their train of thought regardless of whether you agree or disagree with it.

Listening Patience

Listening as a gateway to emotional catharsis

One of the most common life regrets is failure to express one’s feelings.

Self-expression is emboldening. But self-expression to a brick wall isn’t. We only achieve it in the presence of others. Real listening gives a person the space to open up and let their nuanced self shine.

Sometimes all a person needs is to talk to someone who truly understands. When we demonstrate respect and attention for their point of view regardless of whether we share that point of view ourselves, powerful things can happen.

For example, the journalist Cal Fussman managed to get half an hour of interview time with former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev despite an initial allotting of two and a half minutes. His secret? He started with the question ‘What’s the best lesson your father ever taught you?’ then listened to the resulting expression.

When done properly, real listening evokes the heart, not just the mind.


In a world saturated with noise, listening continues to be an underestimated tool. Listening gives us the space to learn, the ability to lead and the clarification for alignment.

Hearing is distinct from active listening, which in turn is distinct from real listening.

When we hear, we only process sounds through our ears. When we active listen, we somewhat process the qualities of a person’s words with our mind and body. But when we real listen, we achieve full intentional processing via our commitment to understanding the other person.

Active listening uses top-down techniques to supplement the listening process but the problem is that these techniques can keep a listener in their head rather than fully engaged.

Real listening is a principle-based way of orienting your body and mind to a conversation. When we follow the principles, true listening will occur as a by-product of this process.

At its best, real listening will help you achieve connections and understanding that few are privy to. The beauty of real listening is that it doesn’t require formal training, experience or the completion of certificates, you can embody it right now simply by deciding to. It’s not something you need to try to do—as discussed before, trying to listen isn’t really listening. Trying presupposes failure. Don’t try to listen—listen.