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Hosted by Tom Henschel

A Breakdown of Listening


August 2015

In an attempt to overcome his muddled communication style, a leader asks for a crash course on listening. His coach shares five styles of listening, plus when to use them and how they sound.

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August 2015

A Breakdown of Listening

Tom Henschel

Crossing the conversational bridge

Sergei had told me he wanted our coaching to be a one-man seminar on communication skills. We’d already talked about in sync communications. Now he wanted to learn about listening.

“You should be able to teach me everything I need to know,” he said, approaching the topic like the scientist he was. “You must be the master of listening.”

I laughed and said, “I’m not the master of listening, Sergei. I don’t know anyone who is. Frankly, listening is a bitch.”

“Well, if it’s a bitch for you, for me it’ll be impossible.”

“No, not impossible. It’s a skill you can develop forever. There’s no finish line. You can always get better. I’ve gotten better. I’ve treated listening like a muscle and I’ve worked it hard. I’m a better listener now than when I started coaching.”

“Good! So you can teach me,” he said as a conclusion.

“OK!” I began to mentally sort and label different types of listening skills.

Before I’d created even one label, Sergei asked, “What’s this ‘active listening’ people always talk about? Is that a thing?”

“Oh, yes, indeed! Active listening is a thing. That’s a great place to start because active listening is the foundation for every other type of listening.”

“Good. We start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.”

Only Sergei could quote The Sound of Music in the middle of a discussion about listening.

I said, “The goal of active listening is to constantly confirm your understanding of what’s being said. If I’m practicing active listening, I’ll say things like, ‘So what you’re saying is…’ or ‘If I’m understanding you correctly then…’.”

He eyed me suspiciously and said, “Sounds tedious.”

“I used to worry about that, too” I replied. “But it actually makes conversations lively. There’s a lot more back and forth. While you’re talking, rather than relaxing on my side of the conversational bridge, I have to get at least halfway out on the bridge and really extend myself to be sure I understand what you’re saying. It actually keeps me engaged.”

“Yes, I have done that sometimes. When I am interested.”

“Interest is a choice,” I said.

“Not for me.”

“Let me give you an example,” I said.

A listening hijack

“Suppose you and I are old friends,” I said. “One night we meet for dinner and you tell me about some important event in your life. Because you’re my friend, I’m interested.

“Then, suddenly, while you’re talking, this little movie in my head flips on, replaying something that happened at work this afternoon. As it plays, I have a flood of feelings. Ideas about what I should’ve said flash in my head. Now, I really was interested in what you were telling me. But that movie came on without my consent and hijacked me. It completely blocked you out. I wasn’t listening to you any more and didn’t even know it.”

He nodded gravely. “For me, it’s not movies. For me, it’s framed pictures. Or big block letters. They show up all the time.”

“Like now?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“Not this instant, no. But since we’ve begun talking today, yes.”

“Me, too,” I said. “But when my listening drifted, I didn’t get hijacked. I noticed and came back. I chose to stay interested.”

“That’s what you mean when you say ‘interest is a choice,” he said.

“Yes. To be a good listener‑—no matter what kind of listening you’re doing—you have to be intentional about what you attend to. You have to learn to make distractions wait their turn.”

“People talk like that about meditation,” he said. “Are they the same?”

“Well, active listening and meditation both accept that distractions are inevitable, yes. And both emphasize the practice of dismissing distractions. But their focuses are different. Meditation focuses inward; active listening focuses out.”

“OK. What other kinds of listening are there besides active?”

I said, “I think there are two. They’re both branches off the main road of active listening. I’ll call one critical listening. The other, empathic.”

“I think I’m always critical.” Then, with a laugh, said, “And I know I am not empathic. Everyone tells me so.”

“No, wait, Sergei. Critical listening and empathic listening are just labels for types of listening. Neither one is about being critical or being empathic.”

“Ah! I see. So explain.”

Critical listening

“When I’m practicing critical listening, I imagine I’m standing in a fast-moving river. As you’re talking, a ton of stuff is flowing past me. Water, fish, leaves, stones, branches.”

“You mean my words?”

“Your words, your facts, your ideas, your data, suggestions, protests. Maybe you’re telling me what happened in a meeting. Maybe you’re explaining a concept. It’s all flowing past me. And I have to decide what I’m going to pick up and retain, and what I’m going to let flow by. Does that stone have meaning? What about that drop of water? What about that leaf?”

He nodded in understanding. “You only pick up what you think you need. And to know what you need you have to think critically. That’s why you call it critical listening, right?”

“Right. And it’s not silent. When you are practicing critical listening, you ask clarifying questions because critical listening drives towards meaning.”

“OK. Understood. Explain empathic.”

Empathic listening

“I don’t see empathic as a river. To me, empathic listening is a warm channel of information that connects from the center of your body to the center of mine. When I’m listening empathically, that channel is open and I’m receiving whatever is coming from your side.”

“Like what?” he asked, as if this sounded a little creepy.

“Whatever is important to you. Feelings. Thoughts. Beliefs. Values. Concerns. Conclusions. When you practice empathic listening you ask open-ended questions – especially about feelings. ‘How was that for you?’ ‘What was that like?’”

“Those are questions my wife wants me to ask. But I don’t.”


“Is that an empathic listening question?”

I laughed. Indeed it was! Sergei was a great student.

I said, “When you share what you’re thinking and feeling with me, we make a connection. And that’s the goal for empathic listening: connection.”

“I don’t think I connect when I hear people’s feelings. I think I listen critically.”

“That makes sense, Sergei. Look what you do for a living. I’m not surprised you prefer critical listening to empathic listening. You’ve probably been like that all your life.”

“I have! When I was four my nickname was ‘Professor’.”

“So you’ve always preferred the critical listening side. And I’ve always preferred empathic.”

He nodded. “Well, look what you do for a living. You listen to people all day. Me, I’d go crazy doing that.” Then, he asked, “Don’t you think critically about what people tell you?”

“Well, sure, I have to make meaning out of what they say. But not in a critical way. In empathic listening, the struggle is to stay neutral about what you hear. Don’t judge. You see, if you share your ideas with me and I judge them, our connection starts to break.”

“And empathic listening drives for connection,” he said as if finishing my thought. “And critical listening drives for meaning. OK. Is that it? One category—active listening—and two sub-sets. Is listening so simple?”

“I wish!” I laughed. “I’ll give you two more. One’s a variation of critical listening…”

“The other is a variation of empathic listening, right?” Sergei was always at least one step ahead of me. I told him, yes, he was right.

Results-oriented & expansive listening

I said, “The variation of critical listening is called results-oriented listening. We do it when we’re negotiating or getting directions or understanding a process. We do it when we want to get things done.”

“I am always asking, ‘What’s the point?’ Is that results-oriented listening?”

“If you’re really listening, yes. But if the only reason you’re asking is so you can have your turn to talk, then, no, it’s not any kind of listening.”

He clutched his chest as if I’d shot him. “You got me!” I laughed. “How does it sound, results-oriented listening?”

“Lots of clarifying questions,” I said. “Questions like ‘How many?’ or ‘How much?’ or ‘How long?’ or ‘What’s next?’ or even ‘Can she really do that?’.”

“Fact finding. Interesting to think that’s listening.” Then he asked, “What’s the variation on empathic listening?”

I took a breath. “I call this expansive listening. We do this with each other when we want to explore a particular avenue of thinking. So the interpersonal connection is still important, but now the goal is exploration.”

“What does it sound like, this expansive listening?”

“You might ask questions like, ’What would that look like?’ ‘How would that change your thinking?’ ‘What would it be like if we…’ That sort of thing.”

“Sounds like brainstorming.”

“Yes, that could be expansive listening,” I agreed.

He frowned a bit as if he was expecting a bad diagnosis. “So how do I begin to build my listening muscle? Are there exercises?”


“Sure. A great starter exercise is parroting.”

“With my children?” he asked.

I laughed. “Not parenting. Parroting. Like the bird. Which is perfect because the goal is to be able to repeat what you hear. Like a parrot.

I went on. “Parroting was the first exercise I did to try to build my listening muscles. I imagined I had a 30-second rolling window that I was responsible for. At any moment in time, I wanted to be able to repeat back, word for word, the last 30 seconds of what we’d said. Your words, my words, anything that’d been said. Then I’d add a new 30 seconds and drop the old ones. Then add another and drop those. And on and on. I just had to capture 30 seconds at a time.”

“I am trying it right now. I can’t pay attention to what you’re saying.”

“Yep! That’s what happens at first. It really is like a parrot. You might capture the words but not the meaning. So don’t do it when the stakes are high. It’s just an exercise meant to build your listening muscles. But it really forces you to pay attention, doesn’t it?”

“Interest is a choice,” he said with an “I told you so” smirk.

Sergei wanted a model of the five types of listening, their goals, and the behaviors that went with them. Together we came up with this:



At our next session, Sergei griped about practicing parroting. He said it made his brain hurt. Over the course of our coaching, as a little test, now and then I would ask, “What did I just say?” Often he could repeat our conversation back fairly accurately. As his listening muscle grew stronger, he was slowly but surely moving towards The Look & Sound of Leadership™.


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