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Listening Like You Mean It

Fireworks happen in great sex and great conversation—if you know how to listen.

Key points

  • Becoming a great listener is the key to those amazing moments when two people connect with open hearts and open minds.
  • Often we don’t listen well because this deeper listening is one of the hardest things we do with and for each other.
  • We can learn to listen so that conversation becomes an exciting adventure—a collaboration of learning.
  • Most importantly, we can learn to listen for emotional connection.

Listening fully will help you to have more of those amazing moments that can happen when two people connect with open hearts and open minds. Yes, this describes good sex, and it’s also possible in conversation when you learn how to really listen.

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Great listening will help you spend less time in conversations that waste your time, and sometimes cause damage, and more time in conversations that leave you feeling good—about yourself, each other, and the relationship.

The kind of listening that enhances your life and your relationships is more than just being quiet and not interrupting, more than a bit of “mm-hmming” and accurate paraphrase. I’m talking here about going beyond that to listening that creates conversations that become adventures that lead to discovery. The kind of conversation that keeps the fire alive.

Far too much of our conversation goes on without listening that connects us to each other and to ourselves. Consider how you feel when you are talking. What we want in every moment of speaking is to be heard and understood. But, how often in the past week did you experience someone truly listening to you? How often did you truly listen to someone?

So if listening is so important, why do we do it so little and so poorly? It turns out that listening well is difficult—perhaps one of the most difficult things you can learn to do. Let’s look at some of the reasons why.

1. You can think faster than the other person can talk.

Yes, and also faster than you can talk. This is true for all of us—in fact, about four times as fast. As we try to listen, our brain races ahead in many directions at once. Not understanding this, we sometimes experience the unwitting assumption that we are smarter than the person speaking.

Think of your thoughts as fast and powerful horses. Very exciting to watch, but runaway horses in a conversation can pull us away from listening. Listening requires a healthy dose of humility and the willingness to manage your horsepower so that you are, as William Isaacs says about dialogue, “thinking together.” [1]

2. Listening requires followership.

Good conversations need good leadership and good followership. In our “look at me” culture, we seem to value leaders more than followers, but these two roles are inseparable. Listening requires us to submit to the pace and pattern of the other person’s speech and thoughts. We corral our runaway horses, our own thoughts, and keep a close eye on them as we ride off in the direction of the speaker and help them pursue their fast and beautiful thoughts. The followership of listening requires humility, patience, self-discipline, and generosity—all qualities that must be actively cultivated if we are to connect in loving and exciting ways.

3. Listening gets harder when we have emotional reactions.

Which, by the way, is a lot of the time. These can be especially intense when we are listening to someone with whom we have a special relationship, our spouse, child, parent—even our boss. Research shows that the difference between seeing pictures of smiling faces and frowning faces impacts processing; our thinking is slowed when we see frowning faces. With negative emotional arousal, our attention is drawn inward, making it harder to hear what is being said. It’s really easy to be emotionally affected in a way that measurably reduces our ability to listen.

Fortunately, we can learn to be better listeners.

It starts with knowing that conversations that enrich your life are possible. Too often we settle for a mere “drag and drop” exchange of information and consider that we’ve done our part to politely listen to the other’s ideas. These exchanges then tend to devolve into agree/disagree, right/wrong. You can learn to listen in a way that creates collaborative exploration and learning—dialogue that enlivens and excites.

1. Listen collaboratively.

Good listeners support and encourage, actively appreciating the contributions of the speaker and inspiring confidence. Speaking well is difficult and involves intricate maneuvers of thinking, feeling, and risk-taking. Any performer will tell you that every performance is a co-production with the audience. The audience can either leave you struggling alone to express yourself or help you to shine.

Another aspect of listening collaboratively is that you go beyond fixed points of view, and the accompanying debate, by actively working with the ideas of the speaker. As you listen, you are noticing what is valuable and interesting in what is being said and helping to further it with your own questions and ideas. In a conversation like this, you are not identified with a point of view, but rather with the skill and fun of “jamming” together.

2. Listen to learn.

This means more than just learning from what the other person knows, as important as that is. In good dialogue, you start out with what each speaker already knows and then work together to discover things that neither of you knew before you talked. Listening to learn means listening to what is said and what is almost said. It means listening to your own curiosity about what you are hearing. Problem-solving of course benefits by listening to learn. But beyond that, you are listening to learn more about the other person and even about yourself.

3. Listen for emotional connection.

Otto Scharmer, MIT lecturer and communications expert, describes empathic listening in which we, “Activate and tune a special instrument: the open heart… If that happens, we feel a profound switch; we forget about our own agenda and begin to see how the world unfolds through someone else’s eyes.” [2]

Opening your own heart and mind as you listen invites the speaker to do the same. When this happens you both become smarter, wiser, more creative. Whether it’s problem-solving with a colleague or the more personal intimacy with a loved one, the way is cleared for a conversation that offers you an encounter with the best of the other person and the best of yourself.


1. Isaacs, W. Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. (1999) Random House, New York, NY.

1. Scharmer, O. Theory U: Learning from the Future as it Emerges. (2006) Berret-Koehler, Oakland CA.

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