The Most Valuable Skill that Nobody Teaches: How to Listen

Ten Levels of Intimacy in Communications
Although most of us acknowledge the importance of listening to improve our understanding, learn new things, we fall short of that ambition. In social settings and in business, the act itself is often more akin to monitoring conversations for opportunities to jump in and/or to store information.

Rather than a muscle we can build through practice, it becomes a way to keep score. The reason why is that listening is hard because it involves several steps, including the ability to think critically.

Adding to the difficulty is that written words do a lot of heavy lifting for us these days, not to mention message length, the nature of the online tools and networks we use as well as the shifting context. Listening is hard, yet successful communication depends on it.

Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City Works, the B-to-B arm of the world-renowned improvisational comedy theater and improvisation school, The Second City says listening is paramount to business:

Listening is critical in life, in business and certainly in our work on the stage. We can’t create something if we’re not paying attention to all the cues going on around us. And for all the energy and time that we spend practicing our writing skills and our speaking skills, we do none of that. There’s no practice at all for listening and listening is paramount in business.

The importance of practice

You have to work at listening. You have to practice it. I think the biggest thing about all of our stuff with improvisation is it’s the idea of being in practice and not just taking it for granted. And so for listening every conversation you have whether it’s on the phone or a conference call or a meeting, any of those things, those are opportunities to build the muscle and to get better at the craft of listening. It’s not just the monologue that you put out. It’s the ability to create opportunities for a productive dialogue. And looking for and welcoming the contributions of others.

Listening to understand

If you want to become a better listener probably the single most important thing you can do, or the best thing you can do, is adopt this idea and that is to listen to understand as opposed to just listening merely to respond. Often in our communication, whether it’s our personal or professional communication, it’s almost like a game show. Halfway through what another person’s saying we’ve got our hand on the buzzer ready to complete the answer. We know where they’re going. We’re done listening to them. We want to come in with our own response usually to redirect or control a conversation. And often at that point, that halfway and beyond point we lose vital information. We lose the chance to truly understand what that person’s saying.

Try this at home/work

So at Second City we do a lot of work honing listening skills and we do a lot of work with our corporate clients around listening skills. And one of the exercises that we have used very successfully is an exercise that we call Last Word Response. And Last Word Response is really fun and simple.

We instruct people to pair up. We tell them to have a conversation about anything at all business related or not. And the only rule we attach to the conversation is that a person’s first word of their response has to be the last word of what their partner said. So it might go something like this:

"Hey Jim, I just had a great cup of coffee this morning."

The other person would say "Morning is my favorite time of day."

And back and forth. The other person would say "Day is better than night." You get the idea.

The conversation goes on and on and we let it go for a while. Then we instruct people – we call a stop to it and we ask them what it took to be successful in the exercise.

Invariably we hear things like well I had to listen all the way through. Well I had to really pay attention and usually I don’t pay attention all the way through when people are talking. And what we talk about in Second City and we talk about in improvisation is this idea that you have to listen all the way through to get the full intent of what someone is saying. You have to listen to understand, not just respond.

Yorton and The Second City Kelly Leonard co-authored a book, Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration. In addition to improving creativity and a host of other benefits, improvisation trains out listening muscle. They say:

Many of us believe that we are good listeners, but there is a huge difference between listening to understand and listening while waiting for a chance to respond. One enriches and broadens our perspective; the other feeds our need to be right and in control of the conversation.


most of the world operates in the listening-to-respond mode. 


When people no longer feel limited to saying what is right or polite — when they are given freedom to express themselves in public, without inhibition or fear — that's when the funny happens.

We can also work on improving how we talk so that people want to listen.



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