Rick Brandon on Listening

Today’s work world demands world-class listening skills–– to avoid costly errors, reduce wasted time, surface new ideas, gather data for solving problems, build trust, and defuse conflict. It’s even more important given our migration towards remote work. Unfortunately, many of us are guilty of six common listening mistakes.

Today’s remote workers are accustomed to working virtually, but do you still suffer what the State of Remote Work study reports as greater loneliness and lower collaboration? Anxiety, depression, drug abuse, and suicide rates have skyrocketed since COVID. The virtual volcano has erupted into more disconnected, depersonalized work relationships. Remote work isn’t the only cause, but social isolation is a factor.

Stellar interpersonal skills–– especially listening––eases the pain of separation at work. They constitute a remote worker’s superpower. You’ll become “interpersonally invulnerable” by avoiding six common listening mistakes whether face-to-face, in virtual meetings, on the phone, or in emails and texts.


Consider the self-absorbed actor: “But enough talking about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think of my latest movie?” Self-focus also means too rarely giving others airtime, or half-listening–– enough to get the gist of what someone’s saying before stealing the focus with our own story or opinion. Heed the adage, “God gave us two ears and only one mouth, so we can listen twice as much as we speak.”


Do you take virtual listening mental vacations (“Wonder if I should go with US Coin or Bitcoin…”), check emails, or respond to a ping? You can’t do two things at once if one of them is listening. Antidotes are:

Focus Your Mind– Consciously decide to really listen. Image a traffic signal turning red for your speaking turn and green for your listening turn. Mentally hear or see the word “LISTEN.”

Focus Physically- Olivia Newton John sang it: “Let’s Get Physical!” Face the person squarely, raise your computer to eye level, look right into your computer camera, lean forward, look interested, and nod your head. Attentive body language is common sense, but not common practice. Use listening body language even on the phone, since your mind focuses if your body focuses. Picture the person right in front of you or put up a mirror, to see how well you’re attending.


Real listening isn’t merely silently hearing the other person attentively. It takes more. You may think you understand the other’s message, but prove it, by paraphrasing in your own words (not just parroting) (e.g. “Joe, you sound skeptical about this investment over the long haul…am I tracking?”) Paraphrasing checks for understanding and conveys empathy.


Besides paraphrasing content, show empathy for emotions, too. “Joanne, you’re obviously ticked at me for not replying sooner to your email.” She at least feels heard. In the classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter, “Scout, to really understand another man, you’ve got to get in his shoes and walk around in them for a day.”


Are you paraphrasing with the right feeling word? For anger, is the person mildly just bothered or are they outraged? A colleague screams, “I can’t believe Jorge! He hijacked my agenda during the virtual meeting. Who the hell does he think he is?!” Don’t undershoot by paraphrasing, “You sound a little perturbed….,” or you’ll break rapport instead of building it. But don’t overshoot. A peer confides, “I’m trying to figure out which guy to hire. Jamal is a whiz with the software but being from outside, he doesn’t understand our culture. Tammy knows the politics and culture but will have a technology learning curve.”  If you paraphrase, “You’re totally immobilized and devastated by this heavy-duty decision…” they’re thinking, “Whoa, back off, Freud!”


Like bicycle training wheels, listening’s “training wheels” are lead-in phrases like, “Seems like you feel ___ about ___…,” “In other words, you…,” “You sound…” They help prevent “falling off” of listening into instead prematurely spouting with our reaction. But an adult riding a bike with training wheels looks unnatural. Avoid the same lead-in stem repetitively: “Sounds like you’re saying…sounds like you’re saying…sounds like you’re saying…” It sounds too “technique-y” and screams that you just read a blog about listening!  Also, don’t cram in too many: “Sounds like you saying, if I’m hearing you right, that in other words, it seems like you feel…” Easy does it! Occasionally, just omit the listening lead- in phrase and say whatever would come after the stem: “How frustrating…she totally ignored your input after asking for it.”

Winston Churchill once said, “Courage means being willing to stand up and speak. It also means being willing to sit down and listen.” Hopefully, avoiding these common listening errors will help you to exercise that courage with world-class listening.

For more information on powerful communication please refer to the IMS February 21st blog on Communicating with Impact.


Rick Brandon, Ph. D., is CEO of Brandon Partners, offering flagship workshops on Organizational Savvy and Interpersonal Savvy. His new book is  Straight Talk: Influencing Skills for Collaboration and Commitment, which comes after his Wall Street Journal bestselling Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company SuccessWith thirty years of performance improvement experience, Rick has trained tens of thousands at companies worldwide, including scores of Fortune 500 companies. 

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