Listening: The Foundation of Communication

By Diane DiResta

Listening is the #1 communication skill for leadership, selling, customer service, and even romance! The problem is, most of us don't listen very well. We're not trained to listen and we don't even realize that listening is a skill. People have lost jobs, customers, employees, and relationships because of an inability to listen. In this issue we'll examine ways to become a better listener.

Listening Means Peace

Sheng jen is the Chinese word for wise person. It literally means "one who listens."

Joanna Rogers Macy, a peace activist, said listening is "the most powerful tool in peacemaking and any other kind of social change work." I wonder what would have happened if students, teachers, and parents were really listening in Columbine? Someone, somewhere missed the distress signals that the two young killers were sending out.

Just Be

When I was a volunteer on a suicide crisis intervention line, we were taught to take all threats of suicide seriously. How often have we told young people, "You're too young to be depressed." Or "You they're just going through a phase." Suicide is anger turned in against the self. How did we miss their anger? Why wasn't it taken seriously? The mistake we make is to talk, advise, and debate instead of listening. We don't have to have words of wisdom. We just have to lend an ear. Most times people can solve their own problems. They just want to be heard. Take the case of my friend. She had a problem she wanted to discuss. I listened as she thought through alternatives and discussed how she felt. She came to a decision. She thanked me for helping her to decide. I never did anything. She did it all. I just listened. Sometimes all you have to do is be. Be there. Be present for another.

Soothing the Savage Beast

Did you know that talking actually reduces stress and anxiety? That's right. Talking, confessing, getting it off your chest, will feel like a weight has been lifted. But if people are jumping in with their own opinions, the person never gets the opportunity to vent and the anxiety continues to build.

Let's consider customers. Customers may be external people who pay us, or they may be people we serve internally- co-workers and other departments.

When a customer is irate, why doesn't the person immediately calm down when you present a solution? Because the customer is in an emotional state. Solutions or problem-solving are intellectual exercises. The person isn't there yet. To calm the emotions, you must have a meeting of the minds. Acknowledge the feeling. "I can understand why you're upset." "Waiting on line for an hour must have been so frustrating." Until you acknowledge the feeling, the conversation will go nowhere. People need to be heard. It's a form of validation. Respecting the feeling doesn't mean you agree with their opinion. It means you understand.


Communication breaks down when people ignore what they see in favor of what they hear. The body doesn't lie. Visual communication is more than half the message. When you hear a mixed message it's because you are giving too much power to the spoken word. Watch the body language for the real message and tune into the tone of voice. People use words to conceal. What words conceal the body will reveal. If a customer or co-worker says, "Sure, no problem" and doesn't make eye contact, seems distracted and curt, don't trust the message.

Listening is Spiritual

What are your fondest memories as a child? Is it the person who bought you expensive gifts or the person who told you stories? In our materialistic society, we think that providing for physical needs is the measure of success. We work two and three jobs to give children things "we never had." In the frenzy, we may rob them of the riches we did have-time and attention. I've never heard anyone be accused of listening too much. When I was an adolescent, I could sound off on all sorts of topics to my Aunt Gloria and she would listen. We were never judged. So all the nieces and nephews confided in her.

Listening is a spiritual act. You must suspend you own ego in order to really listen to another. Listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give another. It lasts a lifetime in our hearts.

Listening to Ourselves

While we're busy trying to listen to others, how well do we listen to ourselves? How do we really feel about that customer, accepting that new job, going out with that friend? We don't take enough time to listen to ourselves. What is your body telling you? According to Louise Hay, author of You Can Heal Your Life, the body gives off messages. Different parts of the body signify different issues that are going on in your life.

Are you getting a lot of colds? You have too much going on. Slow down and smell the roses. Lower back pain? You may feel a lack of financial support. Money problems need to be addressed. To be a better listener of others, we need to listen to ourselves, our intuition. Meditation is a form of self-listening. Is your head cluttered with mind chatter? Is the TV going all the time? You can't hear inner messages unless you have quiet time.

Tips for Better Listening

  • Take all threats seriously. Listen when people speak about harming themselves or others.
  • Be present. Let people talk. Talking relieves anxiety.
  • Respect feelings. You may not agree but you can acknowledge their right to their feelings. Empathizing will calm an irate customer.
  • Believe the visual message over the words. The great lie detector is the body. Tune into the nonverbals and you will hear the real message.
  • Trust your intuition. Take time to meditate. One day a week, sit under a tree during lunch, or go into a room by yourself and tune into your thoughts, and body. Quiet your mind. When you get a "gut feeling" don't dismiss it.
  • Listen to children. Spend time hearing their ideas, dreams, troubles, and success. They are our future.
  • Practice shen jen. Be a wise person. Listen.

Copyright Diane DiResta 2001. All rights reserved.

Diane DiResta is President of DiResta Communicaitons, Inc. a New York-based consultancy. She is an International speaker, coach, and author of Knockout Presentations: How to Deliver Your Message with Power, Punch, and Pizzazz.(Chandler House Press) and Conversations on Success (Insight Publishing)

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