Radical Listening – with heart and curiosity

We live in noisy times; a cacophony of music, TV and voices blare in most public places. Flowing Water1People walk around with headphones on, possibly to experience their own choice of music, podcasts, etc., or maybe to tune out the noise around them. Even without headphones we are all skilled at tuning others out and we do so regularly.  With our high stress and fast paced lives, our minds are filled with our own constant barrage of noise; making checklists, thinking about what we want to eat, what someone said to us, what we should say back and blah, blah, blah… 



Very limited quality listening is observable in our world today and the price tag is staggering!  Throughout large and small businesses, hospitals, and in professional practices, this loss of listening results in lawsuits, diminished quality, angry customers and damaged reputations costing billions of dollars each year.  Relationships become fractured and the majority of business executives now remark that listening is the most important skill needed in the workforce today.  It is also true that less than 4% of people have been trained in the art of listening.


Since this doesn’t always happen naturally, we need to know how to encourage discussion. Questions that begin with What, How, When, Where, Tell me more about will open up and encourage others to talk, while questions requiring a “yes/no” answer will typically close discussion down. Even with good questions, we have no guarantee that we actually understand what is being said when another speaks. Most of us misinterpret, misunderstand or change what we hear. The best communicators will ask clarifying question or paraphrase to ensure they have heard correctly. Everyone appreciates being understood and when we get it right we usually hear a very satisfied “Exactly!” If we get it wrong, the speaker will correct us.

Listening to great interviews, it is the quality of questions that allow a guest to open up and speak freely. Terry Gross from NPR and Charlie Rose come to mind as two great examples.  Their conversation style is natural and warm and they build rapport quickly by being prepared and starting with something that their guest enjoys talking about. They seem to sincerely care about their guests and offer thoughtful, inquisitive and sometimes probing questions.  They also do something rather radical; they listen with respect and without interrupting and, we the audience, benefits from their quality questions and generous listening.

Good listeners are often considered to be wise and the best communicators.  Interestingly, they are also the most sought after for their advice.   Instead of impressing others with their wit and intelligence, these good listeners focus primarily on hearing and understanding so that others tend to feel heard and respected.  They also offer the gift of their presence.

The poet Maya Angelou says it beautifully, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said.  People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


We may listen differently depending on our professional role, as well as, our skill level. Some listening is hardly listening at all.  Here are some examples: 

  • The Non-listener makes no effort whatsoever to listen and interrupts constantly.     
  • The Competitive and Combative listener barely waits their turn in order to respond, listening for flaws in the argument. 
  •  The Evaluative listener makes judgments on what they hear and listens selectively; a lawyer may listen primarily for the facts, nurses or physicians may listen for clinical signs, a therapist may listen for emotional content, etc.
  • The Passive listener may be genuinely interested but does not ask questions or validate that what they heard is what the speaker actually meant.
  •  The Active listener is skillful.  Here, the listener uses good communication skills by paraphrasing, summarizing, and clarifying to ensure they have correctly understood the speaker’s meaning.
  • The RADICAL Listener takes it up a few notches.  They listen with a genuine desire to understand and, in addition, they suspend judgment (meaning they put their own thoughts on hold) and listen with heart and curiosity. By the way, this does not mean that they agree or even approve, only that they are wish to understand. 


Become curious and ask, I wonder what they mean. I wonder why they care so much; I wonder why they did this. We try to experience what the speaker might be feeling; as if we could hear through their ears, see through their eyes and feel what they feel. We take a few minutes to walk in their shoes and feel what is going on underneath the surface.  We also listen without our habitual reactions by attempting to empty out our constant internal chatter, memories and judgments.

 We listen with our whole body.   Studies show only 7% of communication is verbal, and with so much to hear, see and understand it really does take our full focus to listen well.  The following are just some of the many things to pay attention to:

  • What is their emotional tone?  Excited? Angry?  Sad?  Fearful? Depressed?
  • How do they tell their story?    Who acts as the victim, rescuer, and persecutor? (In most stories there are these elements.)
  • Where is the focus of their eyes? 
  • What changes in the volume and tone of their voice?? 
  • How are they breathing?  Is it deep, shallow or irregular?
  • How are they sitting?  Are they leaning back, sitting forward? 
  •  When do they go silent?  Where do they become animated?
  • What words do they use, what are they omitting? 
  • What matters most to them?

It takes presence, openness and motivation to listen in this way. The best way to become good at Radical Listening is to practice it.  With someone close to you or with someone you have just met, practice Radical Listening today using the following tips:

  • Soften your gaze and observe the speaker (see above)
  • Avoid distractions (turn off your phone)
  • Experience what it might be like to be in their shoes
  • Allow your ears to become larger that your mouth
  • Refrain from telling your story (no “I” statements here)
  • No interrupting
  • When appropriate, ask questions, reflect back what you heard

This is not a passive sport. It is active, focused and engaged. Take note how your listening changes the quality and tone of your interaction.  Give this gift of listening to someone today.


Please contact Denise@riverlogicpartners for Radical Listening Skills training and coaching programs for your organization.



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