Larry thought he was a great listener. That morning while drinking his coffee his wife was complaining about the kids. “They never pay attention to anything I say.” She went on to list all the mundane mishaps of each child. Larry tuned her out. He heard little after the first sentence. Finally, he said, “Why don’t you send the kids to your mom’s this weekend? Give yourself a break.” She stared at him and said nothing.

That evening Larry came home to a quiet house. He searched for his wife. Instead he found a note that read, “Maybe what we all need is time away from you.” He wondered what in the world he’d said to cause this response.

Will Larry ever know what he said? Not unless his wife returns, is willing to tell him, and he listens. How many of us are guilty of “listening” but not hearing? How many of us end such fake listening with a broad-brush solution really designed to shut the other person up?

One exercise I do while teaching listening skills requires groups of three to practice really listening to each other. One person presents a problem, the other person listens, and the third person observes and gives feedback. The rounds last 3 minutes. During that 3-minute round, nearly all “listeners,” say things like, “Have you tried. . .” or “If I were you, I’d try. . .” or “Why don’t you do. . .” These are all solution driven responses which are not “listening.” Can we not listen to one another for just 3 short minutes?

The reality is there is no way you can solve someone else’s problem if you haven’t heard it. Furthermore, if that person has been struggling with the problem over a period of time, what makes you think you have the perfect solution? (But, we all do, right?).

Here are some listening tips:

1. When your head is busy thinking up solutions, stop yourself. Instead ask yourself, what is this person’s voice telling me? Does your speaker sound angry, sad, disappointed? What facial expressions do you see? Is your speaker, frowning, looking from side to side?

2. If someone says to you, “What should I do?” be careful! Rather than begin your litany of answers, respond with, “You’ve described a tough challenge. Tell me what you’ve tried?” or “I’m wondering what the real problem is here? Before I jump in with ideas, tell me what is really going on?” or “How about we brainstorm together some possible ideas.”

3. Remember people do not always tell you things so you’ll solve their problems. Sometimes they simply want you to listen and be there for them. Be sure the person wants to hear an idea, suggestion or different point of view before you share it. Ask permission. For example, “I have an idea. I may be all off base, but would you like me to share it?” Or “May I make a suggestion? You can always take or leave it.”
Larry learned the hard way how not listening can destroy a relationship. He thought he was a good listener. But when he had the opportunity to really hear his wife, he failed.
Next time someone says, “Do you have a minute?” Why not give them 3 minutes? Why not settle in and really give the gift of listening?

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Author's Bio: 

Joan Curtis is the CEO for Total Communications Coach. She has done leadership training and consulting for over 20 years. Her new book, Managing Sticky Situations at Work, will be released in May, 2009. In it she creates a new model of communication called the Say It Just Right Model. Check out her website at