Listening Exercises Part 2

Before we talk about exercises for Listening with your Brain and your Gut, it would be a good idea to strengthen the focus of our Bonus Brain Time. Follow the link and read that post if you’re not sure what I’m talking about. In short, it’s the ability we humans have to think about our listening while we’re listening.

During your next three conversations ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is my facial expression saying to the person who’s talking?
  2. What is my body language saying to the person who’s talking?
  3. What is the person who’s talking trying to accomplish with this conversation?

Ask yourself those questions while still listening to the person who’s speaking. You actually do this automatically most of the time because of the nature of Bonus Brain Time, but we want to sharpen the focus of this skill so we can harness it to become Super-Power Listeners. After each conversation, write down the answers to your questions. Then decide to do something different with your facial expressions, and body language during the next conversation and add the question, “What differences do I notice in this conversation?”

This exercise has the double benefit of helping focus your Bonus Brain Time (BBT) and improving your overall listening as well. The improved BBT focus will be helpful for the next exercises.

Listening with your Brain

This is a little like putting together the pieces of a puzzle until you get the full picture of what’s being said. The more pieces you have the better your understanding. So, it’s a good idea to constantly broaden your exposure to different things through reading, travel, and interaction with a variety of people. But, I digress. Let’s look at some exercises.

Attend a festival of a culture with which you’re not familiar. Read a little about the culture before you go to pick up a few puzzle pieces ahead of time. Then attend and observe, talk to people, ask yourself questions about the culture and find the answers. Ask questions like, “Why do they greet each other that way?” or, “What does that expression mean?” or, “Why is this food part of their cuisine?”

My family recently attended a festival put on by the local Greek Orthodox Church. There was Greek food, beverages, cultural dancing, and a market. We took a tour of the church and listened with fascination to the history of the denomination and the local congregation.

This kind of activity helps open your mind to how differently people see and understand things and how different does not equal wrong. This expanded capacity allows you to listen with more openness. The more open you are when you listen, the better you will hear what the other person is trying to say.

If you want to take the exercise to the next level, try attending a festival or event where everything is done in language you don’t understand. Learning to “negotiate for meaning” is another good way to grow your ability to listen with your brain.

Listening with your Gut

Some have said that your “gut” is like a second brain so I put these two together in this post. When you listen with your brain you’re paying attention to your thinking. When you listen with your gut you’re paying attention to your body and how it responds to what’s going on around you.

There are two components of listening with your gut. One is identifying your “triggers.” What kinds of things cause you to feel that heat rise up the back of your neck and set your ears on fire? Or, What are the events that give you butterflies in your stomach or goosebumps? An exercise for these is to keep track of your physical/emotional responses to different situations and catalog them. When you can name the responses (fear, anger, excitement, joy, etc) and identify the triggers, you can learn to anticipate them and control them so they don’t create static that prevents you from listening well.

The second component is paying attention to those unexplained flashes of “a sense about something.” It’s those moments, for example, that alert you that you should switch from Empathize to Evaluate in your listening approach. He doesn’t call it your “gut,” but Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in his book, Blink: The Art of Thinking without Thinking. He helps his readers understand how it is we often make accurate assessments of people and situations in the blink of an eye. Gladwell goes on to argue that this ability can be developed.

An exercise for developing this component is similar to the last. Whether you call it your “gut,” your “adaptive unconscious,” your “intuition,” or your “spidey sense,” pay attention to it. Take note (literally) of those times when you get a gut feeling about something. Write it down and compare it to what you learn over time and with experience. For example, in his book, Gladwell tells of an experiment where students watched as little as 2 seconds of video with no volume of different teachers. Their assessments of each teacher’s effectiveness were almost exactly what was given by different students who took the class with that teacher for a semester.

Puzzle pieces and Spidey Sense are powerful allies in Super Power Listening. It’s worth the time to develop them.

Listening Exercises Part 1

Have you ever played a sport or a musical instrument? If you have, you know what practice means. It means you learn a new skill. At first, it seems awkward and unnatural because you haven’t done it before. But you practice it. You do it over and over until it starts to get easier. Eventually it becomes second nature and you are able to incorporate it into your performance without thinking about it. It has become your habit.

One cool thing about Super-Power Listening is that you can learn skills that will make you better at it and practice them until they become second nature. You will be an habitual Super-Power Listener. In this post I want to suggest a practice drill or two for each of the previous posts on listening.

Listening with your Ears

Ears are the most obvious listening body part. But, we take in so much more with our ears than just words. Try these drills to develop this listening sense.

One drill is to “watch” a TV show without the picture. In older televisions you used to be able to turn down the brightness until the screen was black. If you can’t do that, close the TV cabinet door or close your eyes or wear a blindfold. This works especially well if you “watch” a show you don’t normally watch so you’re not familiar with the characters and story lines.

During this drill, pay careful attention to what you hear. What words do the characters use and what impressions do those words give you about them? What else do you hear? What about their tone of voice? What about other sounds in the scene? Do they tell you anything?

Another drill for listening with your ears is to close your eyes in a crowd and pick out the sounds and conversations around you. Try it in a crowded coffee shop sometime. Try to be inconspicuous so people don’t ask you if you’re alright. But, close your eyes. What do you hear? Over there someone is ordering a drink. Behind the counter a barista is steaming milk for someone’s drink. On the other side of your table there is a casual conversation. Are they friends? Have they just met? What are they discussing? Don’t listen too long or your just eavesdropping. What about the people behind you? You get the idea.

Listening with your Eyes

This drill is the opposite of the last one. This time watch an unfamiliar TV show with no sound. No cheating, don’t use closed caption during this drill. Keep it on mute for the entire show. Pay careful attention to what you see. What can you gather about dialogue from the facial expressions and body language of the characters? What else do you learn about the story line from the setting and the props?

For both of the TV show drills it would be fun to record each show before doing the drill (use a different show for each drill). That way you can go back with the sound on or actually watch the show to see how accurately you understood the story line and the relationship between characters.

Here’s another drill to strengthen your eye listening. First, watch this video.

Once a day, make it a point to observe everything you can in the first 30 seconds of entering a space. It may be an office, someone’s home, or a store. Later, write your observations down in a journal. What did you notice? Also write down what you learned about the person whose space it was.

I live in California and we have to have our cars “smogged” every couple of years before we can get the registration renewal. I took my car into a local smog shop last time and instantly learned that the owner loves pugs. He had a bookcase in his waiting room with pictures and figurines of pugs all over it. That one was pretty easy. But, If you get really good at this, people might even think your psychic.

Watch for the next couple posts. I’ll be sharing some exercises for listening with the rest of your body!

Listening With Your Hands and Feet

The other day my wife, Suzi, and I were in the car. She said something to me about how she was feeling. I was thinking about something else at the moment and it took me too long to acknowledge her comment. I had heard her and was thinking about how to respond, but how would she know that? Even a simple “Hmm” would have sufficed in the interim until I could ask an appropriate question. Instead, she had to ask, “Did you hear me?” Not my best moment. By not responding to what she said, I had sent a message that I either wasn’t paying attention or didn’t care. Neither is the message I wanted to send. But it’s not about intention. It’s about action.

Take Notes

Taking notes is one way to listen with your hands. This is a great use of that bonus brain time we talked about in another post. It’s also a great way to capture those words that so often vanish once they’ve been spoken. Taking notes also sends a signal to the other person that what they’re saying is important to you.

I have a colleague who works in Human Resources. Whenever she talks with employees she is always writing. Her notes are very detailed and she has a library of notebooks. Frankly, I don’t know how she finds her notes later, but she knows where everything is. You don’t have to go that far to make excellent use of this tool.

Try jotting down key words or phrases to jog your memory of the conversation. Another suggestion is to divide your note paper in half. On one side write the main idea(s) or concerns that are being discussed. On the other side record facts and details that support those ideas. Don’t get so lost in taking notes, though, that you forget to make eye contact and to pay attention to body language and other clues.

Take Action

When someone says, “I just don’t feel heard,” they usually don’t mean they are uncertain their voice has caused the other person’s eardrums to record sound. They usually mean the person hasn’t done anything in response to what they’ve said (like me in my opening example). People say, “No one ever listens” at work because they believe no one follows up, nothing ever gets done. Are they right?

While serving as the interim director of an international school in China it was brought to my attention that our local Chinese staff felt they were not being treated fairly in their compensation. I met with the staff members and decided to do some research. I met with local government agencies, a local attorney, business leaders of Chinese companies in the city and other Chinese educators to find out what the compensation packages were like for their employees. I learned that our packages were competitive. With the exception of one adjustment regarding housing allowance for married couples where both worked at the school, we made no changes to the compensation.

When I met with the staff to discuss my findings they accepted the outcome. What was interesting to me was not that they accepted the outcome but they accepted it with gratitude. They expressed appreciation that I had listened to them. Though it wasn’t the outcome they may have hoped for, they felt respected because I had listened and taken the time to research their concern. The reason they knew I had listened was because I had taken action and followed up with them.

Close the Loop

The important part of that story is that I went back to the staff and shared what I had learned and how it affected my decision. If I had not done that, the staff would have felt unheard and frustrated. They may have felt that the foreign director didn’t care about the local staff. That was the opposite of the truth.

When someone talks to you, listen for actions you can take to follow up on the conversation and take those actions. I just had a conversation with a guy who got the idea for his honeymoon from a passing comment his fiancee had made about something she always wanted to do. They did that, and the honeymoon was a huge success.

The action you take will not always be as obvious as a honeymoon based on a life-long wish. So, you will often have to make an effort to close the loop. Let the person or people know what you’ve done to follow up on your conversation. When you take action and close the loop, people know that you’ve listened.

Listening With Your Mouth

What? Isn’t that the opposite of listening? How can you “Listen” with your mouth? Didn’t you say that we should “hush” in order to listen? I hear the questions and I know it seems counter-intuitive. Let me put it another way. Awhile ago my wife and I were having a conversation with another couple who were friends of ours. At one point in the conversation the wife of the other couple said, “You guys are suckers!” Don’t be offended for us. She didn’t mean that we were gullible and easy to deceive. She went on to explain that she meant we “suck” information out of them like drinking through a straw. She meant it as a compliment and it was a way of saying we were good listeners.

Ask Questions

They way we “sucked” information out of our friends was by asking questions. It isn’t like an interrogation. It’s a natural way to find out more about what they’re saying. If they’re telling a story, we want to hear some of the details they may leave out to shorten the story. Or, we may ask clarifying questions about the setting or people in the story. How are they related to the main event? Did I get the sequence of those events and the cause and effect right? Then there are always the heart questions, “how did that make you feel?” “Was she angry?” You get the idea.

You can ask questions during almost any conversation. If you think about it, most conversations are a story of one kind or another. Even if a co-worker is giving you a report, the report is a story about whatever the information in the report is about. Asking questions is key to understanding the full story of the report. Questions help you find out more details behind the data in the report. They can also help you find out why the data is the way it is.


This is the “R” in H.E.A.R. You may have heard terms like “Active Listening” or “Reflective Listening.” Those terms are describing this process. Reflecting can be very useful, but it can also be very off-putting if not done well.

The idea here is to let the person who is talking know that you’re listening and understanding by repeating back to them what they have said. It gets awkward and off-putting if it goes like this:

Friend: “I went to the store yesterday.”
You: “So, you’re saying you went to the store yesterday.”

If you simply repeat the words the person has just said, it seems contrived and the other person may feel manipulated. That’s counterproductive to good listening. There needs to be a finesse to using this skill. Reflect back the essence or a nuance of what they said. That way you’re not only signaling that you are listening, but it’s also a way of checking your understanding.

Try this exercise. Read the following sentence several times out loud. Each time emphasize a different word and notice how the meaning of the sentence changes.

“I never said he stole money.”

There are six different nuances to this sentence depending on the emphasis. Reflecting is a great way to get closer to the speaker’s meaning. For example, you might say, “So, it wasn’t you who made the accusation.” or you might say, “So, you think he stole something else.” It depends on how the speaker emphasized the sentence.

Final Thoughts

Let me leave you with two final notes:

  1. Context is always important to good listening. Pay attention to the entire scope of what’s being said. The answers to questions you might have may already be there. It reflects the opposite of good listening to ask a question the speaker has already answered.
  2. Asking questions is a refined way of reflecting. In the first example I gave you might ask, “Oh, which store did you go to?” That lets the speaker know you were listening. It also adds detail to the story.

So, you see, it is possible (read with an emphasis on “is”) to listen with your mouth. In fact, using your mouth is a critical element to super-power listening.

Listening with Your Heart

You May be too young to remember Sergeant Joe Friday. He’s a character from a 1950’s police drama called “Dragnet.” He was a dry personality who was attributed the famous line “just the facts, ma’am” Sergeant Friday wasn’t interested in any speculation and he certainly didn’t care about how the witness felt about whatever had happened; Just the facts. Facts are very important when we listen and I’ll write about that in a later post. They are certainly important when we’re doing “Evaluative (critical)” listening like we discussed in last week’s post. Good listening, however, also involves the ability to Empathize. Remember, it is the original “E” in the “H.E.A.R.” acronym.

Word Nerd Alert

There is some debate over the difference between “Sympathy” and “Empathy,” You know the word nerd in me has to look into the difference. Both words have the Greek word πάθος (pathos) as their root. πάθος means “suffering or deep feeling.” Sympathy is combined with the Greek word σύν (sun) meaning “with, together with” while Empathy is combined with ἐν (en) meaning “in, on, at, or by.”

Sympathy means to feel emotion with someone, to enter into their feelings. “I feel angry when you feel angry or sad when you’re sad.” Empathy means to be alongside the person as they are feeling and to understand their emotion. “I understand why you would be angry or sad in that situation.” I believe empathy is the better word because we want to remain objective as listeners while we fully listen to the other person.

The Challenge

I’ve said that our listening goal is to see the world through the other person’s eyes. That’s what I’ve called “Super-power Listening.” Hearing and understanding the other person’s emotions is not as easy as it sounds. We have our own emotions that auto respond to certain things. When we’re having a strong emotional response in a conversation, it’s very difficult to hear, let alone understand the other person’s feelings.

People often warn that you shouldn’t talk about Religion and Politics. Those happen to be two of my favorite topics. But, both topics are often strong emotional triggers and people know how hard it is to have a meaningful conversation when both parties are in contrasting emotional charge. What are some of the topics that emotionally trigger you? What gets you really excited or angry or sad? It may be a certain person at work or a family member. It could be a place that holds an emotionally charged memory or maybe a situation like being in a crowd or a closed-in space that gets you going. If you’re trying to have a conversation with any of these elements present, it will be difficult to listen with your heart.


Remember the “H” from “H.E.A.R.?” Hush is about more than keeping our mouth closed. It’s also about the ability to quiet things inside us like our emotions or prejudices (which also stir up emotions). It’s hard but you can do it.

Try keeping track of your daily encounters for a week. Jot down how you felt in every encounter. Name the emotions (Anger, Fear, Excitement, Confusion, etc.). Look through your list at the end of each day and try to decipher the triggers for each of those emotions. What caused you to feel that way in each encounter? This exercise will help you become more aware of your emotional responses. Being more aware will help you take control.

Try this. Think of a red balloon. OK, now think of a green tree. How did you do? Were you able to think of those things? You can decide what you want to think about. That’s part of self-control. Now that you’ve made yourself aware of emotional triggers and responses, you can tell them to “hush” when they interfere with your listening and you can tell yourself to pay attention to the other persons feelings. A word of caution; this also requires courage. The other person may be expressing things that are difficult for you to hear. If you can see from their point of view (super-power listening) by empathizing with them, you will make a growth opportunity out of what might otherwise have made you mad. Who knows, you might even build a better relationship with that person.

Emotions tell us so much more than words alone can convey. Develop the ability to listen to people’s emotions, to listen with your heart, and you will be an advanced listener, well on your way to super-power status.

Listening With Your Gut

We’ve all had those times when we just know. We can’t necessarily explain how we know, we just know something about a situation is right or not right. Spider man might say, “My Spidey Senses are Tingling.” Others may call it intuition. It’s been called “Your compass and survival coach,” and “a barometer of risk.” Some scientists are calling it your “second brain.” I call it listening with your gut. About the “gut” used in this way, the online dictionary says,

“used in reference to a feeling or reaction based on an instinctive emotional response rather than considered thought.”

We use expressions like, “butterflies in my stomach,” or “a pit in my stomach.” Something can be “gut wrenching,” We may give it a “gut check.” We may “bust a gut,” or just have a “gut feeling.” These are all ways of saying we should pay attention to how our bodies react when we listen as well as to what we can see and hear and think.

In a previous post I wrote about the difference between Empathizing and Evaluating when you listen. Listening with your gut is what can signal you when you need to employ Evaluative listening.

The great grandfather of evaluative listening was Aristotle1. His famous Poetics established the basic components of rhetorical persuasion that we still use thousands of years later. His formula was that a persuasive message is a blend of ethos (the speaker’s credibility), logos (the logic of the argument), and pathos (its emotional force).


Ethos is a combination of initial credibility, what we know or believe about the speaker to begin with, and derived credibility, the impression s/he generates during their presentation. Take time before you listen to review what you know about the speaker. What are their credentials, their character, what have you heard or observed about them? Then, use critical skills while you’re listening to derive a fuller picture of their credibility:

  • Does s/he present a trustworthy impression?
  • Does s/he cite valid experience and credible sources?
  • Does s/he present pertinent facts and logical arguments?
  • Does the speaker know the topic and the audience and address them dynamically?

Trustworthiness, expertise, dynamism, these factors form our impression of a speaker’s credibility. The effect of a message is determined by our impression of who the speaker is, what s/he knows and how s/he presents it. Smart persuaders try to establish a strong personal connection with their audience. They know you’ll be more influenced by someone you perceive to be similar to you in some important way. As you listen critically for signs of credibility, notice whether the speaker is making an effort to show that she is a lot like you.


Pathos, emotional appeal, is a favorite device of politicians and propagandists, high tech ad agencies and hard-sell hucksters. Common emotional appeals include such popular propaganda tricks such as name calling and card stacking (presenting only those facts that support your argument), generalities and jumping on the band wagon.

Another popular trick of the persuasion trade is the testimonial. Be on guard against testimonials that sell with celebrities. We may admire a baseball player’s batting average but that doesn’t mean he knows anything about stock dividends or salad dressing.

Masters of persuasion promise to satisfy our most basic human needs as described by Abraham Maslow: bottom line physical needs followed by emotional needs for security and belonging, self-esteem and what Maslow called self-actualization.

Savvy salesmen know how to obscure the facts with appeals to our feelings and deepest needs. Critically listen for peaks of strong feelings or loaded words.

  • Pathos plays on our desires for security or adventure
  • Inspires our urges to create or destroy
  • Offers to fulfill our needs for communal belonging and personal pride
  • Promises pleasure of threatens physical pain

Emotional persuaders invoke images to provoke a sense of power or pity, anger or love, fear or loyalty, reverence or revulsion. If you’d like help in developing your critical listening skills, look no further than your TV set. Television offers 20 – 30 practice opportunities every hour, commercials. Aristotle might call this pathetic persuasion. Pay attention to how these effect you.


Now analyze the Logos of an argument. Evaluative listeners focus on separating fact from opinion and examine conclusions that sound valid to see if they’re really based on true premises.When you listen critically try to discern if the speaker uses logical fallacies. For example,

  • Non sequitur (it doesn’t follow), “All elephants are grey that’s why they all like peanuts.
  • Ad homonym (against the man), assaults an idea by attacking the person who presents it.
  • Ad pabulum (appeal to the people) focuses on the audience instead of the issue by saying it’s true because most people believe it.
  • Ad ignorantium (appeal to ignorance) claims something is true because no one can disprove it. Assumes his point is true unless proven false.
  • Post hoc ergo proctor hoc (after therefore because of), a false cause and effect relationship. “I’ve had lousy luck since I broke that mirror last week.”

Evaluative listening is the opposite of empathetic listening. Instead of withholding judgment, a critical listener judges everything. Don’t get so involved in criticizing that you stop listening. Note your questions and objections but don’t raise them until you’ve heard the speakers whole argument.

1 “Listening to Win,” Audio series, by Leil Lowndes


In a previous post I mentioned the lyrics to a song that talked about hearing and listening called “The Living Years.” The specific line was, “you can listen as well as you hear.” There is another song lyric from 1964 that mentions the same thing. Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” said, “… people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening …” It’s interesting how prominent good listening is in music lyrics. I’m dating myself with the selections I’ve mentioned but there are many. The reason is that good listening is important to any relationship and most music is about relationships.


There is an acronym that can help to remember the key elements or steps to good listening. The acronym is HEAR.

H is for hush. We have two ears and one mouth. But, we often use them in reverse proportion. We often talk more than we listen. The first step in Hearing someone and certainly in listening is to close our mouths. We can’t listen when we’re talking. Hush also refers to quieting some of the internal barriers to listening like prejudice against a person or idea.

E is for Empathize. Put our autobiographical responses on hold until we’ve heard the other person’s story from their point of view. There is a difference between Sympathy – sharing the speaker’s feelings (we’re not trying to do this) and Empathy – understand the speaker’s feelings (we are trying to do this)

A is for Ask. I’ll write more about this in a later post. But, questions are the most useful communication tools we have. The first rule of good listening responses is when in doubt, ask. The presidents association of New York once estimated that good questions increase our comprehension and retention by about 15%.

R is for Reflect. I’ll also devote another post to this. But, good listening responses reflect the speaker’s meaning like a mirror. How? Repeat and rephrase what you hear. It’s the most basic kind of feedback. You’re simply feeding back the speakers words. It is often easier to react than to reflect.

Another “E”

E is for Empathize … in most listening situations. However, there are times when you will need to employ another “E.” In those cases E is for Evaluate. This tool is for those times when you need to listen critically. I don’t mean that you are listening to criticize. That’s different. I’m talking about times when you need to listen objectively to analyze what’s being said in order to form a judgment.

Examples of this might include listening to an employee who is being investigated for a policy violation. It may be when you’re listening to your child explain how the accident happened. Listening to a sales pitch, listening to a political speech or even to a lecture at school are times when you need to evaluate what’s being said

When you listen to evaluate you ask, “How credible is the speaker?” “How logical is the argument?” “How am I being influenced by feelings rather than facts?” In the examples mentioned above, the speakers are usually trying to persuade you to a point of view or to a specific action. The credibility of the speaker, the speaker’s Logic, and the Emotion you feel when they speak are the trifecta of persuasion. Listen critically for each element when someone is trying to persuade you and you will make better decisions.

So, whether you’re “E” is Empathize or Evaluate, good listening begins with Hush, quieting yourself in order to focus on the speaker. Your “E” is always followed by Asking and Reflecting. This is a tidy little acronym. Try putting it into practice and see how your listening improves.

Listening With Your Brain

Not long ago I was having a conversation with someone who said, “I lowered my voice.” What does that phrase mean? I would usually think the person used either a lower pitch or a lower volume when they continued speaking. What if I told you the person’s first language was not English. Does that change the meaning? Not necessarily. What if I told you the context was them talking about a phone conversation they were having and the person on the other end was talking very loudly. That wouldn’t necessarily change the meaning either. Now, what if I told you that when they said, “I lowered my voice” they acted out lowering the volume on their phone. Now what do you think they meant? They were saying they lowered the volume on their phone so others wouldn’t hear the loud person on the other end.

In that true story, the person used an unusual English word to express what they meant. I had to process all the things I mentioned as possible clues to what they were saying in order to understand. That’s called listening with your brain.

What is Language?

Simply put, language is the agreement between people that certain sounds have meaning. As humans, we are able to articulate distinct sounds. We put those sounds together into what we call “words.” By mutual consent we string those words together into meaningful patterns called “sentences” and so on until we are communicating complicated ideas.

In an ideal listening situation we only need to pay attention and focus our bonus brain time on the matter at hand to listen fairly well. What about less than ideal situations? What about when the person speaking has a very heavy accent that is different from yours? Or, what about when you’re in a noisy place trying to listen to someone? Try combining those two factors, accent and background noise, and you’ve got a very difficult situation. It’s in those contexts that the power of listening with your brain comes into play.

Like in the story I told at the beginning of this post, often you will have to draw on cues and clues other than just the words or even body language to understand what’s being communicated. You will rely on your knowledge of the person, or the topic, or the context, and process all that together to fill in what’s missing in the language.

Negotiation for Meaning

The reality of listening with our brains became vivid for me when my family moved to China for two years. When we arrived in Yunnan Province I knew 11 words in Mandarin. I could count to ten and say, “ni hao” (hello).

After a month or so I had learned a few more words (our work was done in English so we learned Mandarin slowly). We invited some friends over for dinner and wanted to have roasted chicken. That meant I had to go to the little meat shop in our neighborhood the day before and order two chickens to be sure they would have them. We also wanted to be sure we let them know we didn’t want the heads and feet (usually in tact when you purchase chicken) lt took me over half and hour using a few Mandarin words, hand motions, pointing, and charades (you can imagine!) to communicate what I wanted. A friend of mine who teaches English to non-English speakers told me that’s called negotiating for meaning.

That negotiation required both the shop owner and me to listen with our brains. It was accompanied by many smiles, sheepish looks, and nods but I got my two headless, footless chickens the next day (although she weighed them and charged me before removing the unwanted parts). Overall it was a success!

Imagine how powerful our listening would be if we used our brains in “easier” listening situations like we do when it’s more difficult.

Metacognition and Listening to our Listening

In a previous post I mentioned the word “Metacognition.” Here comes the word nerd in me, again. The word comes from the Greek prefix μετά meaning “after,” “beside,” “with,” or “among” and the Latin cognoscere which means “get to know.” It’s use has grown over the last half century in the fields of psychology and education. It means

“. . . put simply, thinking about one’s thinking. More precisely, it refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. Metacognition includes a critical awareness of a) one’s thinking and learning and b) oneself as a thinker and learner.” 1

Many have come to use a similar term in the study of listening, meta-listening. We could say, “Listening to our listening.” In the post about “Barriers to Good Listening,” I wrote about “Bonus Brain Time.” That’s the time created by the difference between the speed of speech and the speed of thought. It is within that time that the difference is made between not listening and super-power listening.

Try an exercise. This is the “planning” phase from the definition above. During your next conversation, practice being aware of how you are listening. This is the monitoring phase. Pay attention to your own posture and attention. Are you giving eye contact? Are you listening to what is being said or are you planning what you will say next? Then pay attention to the person talking. What words are they using? What are their body language and facial expressions saying to you?

After the conversation is over, make some notes. This is the assessment phase from the metacognition definition. How did you do? What did you learn about the person who was talking? Even more, what did you learn about your listening? Yourself as a listener? Practice that same process over and over. It will be very useful as you develop your listening skills.

1 “Metacognition,” by Nancy Chick, Center for Learning online article at cft.vanderbilt.edu.

Listening With Your Eyes

In a previous post, I wrote that Listening is a “Full Contact Sport.” I said that listening involves more body parts than just our ears. In last week’s post I wrote about listening specifically with our ears. This week we begin a journey into less intuitive body parts that are equally essential to good listening.

I See What You Mean

That’s an interesting phrase when you break it down. Isn’t it? We use the word “see” to mean understand because you can’t literally “see” an idea, thought, or meaning. Typically we think of ideas and meanings as being received and processed through the ears,

Did you know, however, that only 11% of the information we gather comes through our ears? Regarding listening specifically, 10% of that meaning comes from words but more than 30% comes from tone of voice. On the other hand, 80% of the information we gather comes through our eyes. Regarding listening specifically, 60% of the meaning comes through facial expression and body language.

Here’s An Example

My wife and I love the 1992 Thriller/Drama “Shining Through.” It’s a great story about a female American spy during WWII. Watch the trailer below for a great example of someone who “listened” with her eyes.

Linda Voss demonstrated a keen ability to observe. She had learned a lot about the two men in the room and about the situation before she sat down. And, it was all done with her eyes.

Facial Expression

In addition to what we can learn about a person or situation by observing the surroundings, we receive most of our clues to a person’s meaning from their facial expressions and body language.

Our oldest son has this T-Shirt. We got it for him on a trip to Disneyland a few years ago. I’ve seen a similar one with Garfield the Cat. We loved the point of this shirt because it fits our son. He’s got a pretty stoic face unless there is something that seems really funny to him.

Most people, though, are more like this fellow. One look at each face and you have a pretty good idea what he’s thinking or how he’s feeling. That becomes important information when you “listen” to what he’s saying. You learn something if the words and the facial expression match. You also learn something important if they don’t.

Body Language

Facial expression is a form of body language but it’s pretty specific so I treat it separately. What about the rest of the body? People communicate by their posture, the placement of their hands, arms, and legs. They “tell” you a lot by the space they place between you and them when talking. What do you think you are “hearing” from the various poses represented in this picture?

If you’re in a conversation with someone and they are sitting with their arms and legs crossed, their body slightly turned away from you and their head tilted just enough so they are looking at you through the top corner of their eyes, what is their body language saying to you? Do you think they are very receptive to the conversation? Now add that their eyes are slightly squinted and their lips are pursed. What are they saying to you without even using words? See how we can listen with our eyes?

It’s helpful to know this when we’re the one doing the talking, too. Be aware of your face and body when you communicate. The other person is listening with their eyes as well, whether they know it or not.