The art of listening

“Big egos have little ears.” (Robert Schuller)

Listening Habits

Healthy business partnerships are built around good listening habits. Conversations about important business issues will come to nothing (at best), if partners are not listening to one another.

Often, as Robert Schuller reminds us, it is those who speak the loudest and most often who have trouble understanding what others have to say. This can be frustrating if they do not actively listen to those around them, and it can be the source of misunderstandings, lack of teamwork and wasted time. As Albert Guinon states: “There are people who, instead of listening to what is being said to them, are already listening to what they are going to say themselves.” Does this ring a bell?

So, how do we distinguish between poor and good listeners?

Poor Listener

  • Is easily distracted
  • Finishes the other person’s sentences
  • Judges before understanding is reached
  • Provides cues suggesting disinterest (e.g., yawning, lack of energy)
  • Provides cues suggesting she or he is thinking of what to say next (Guinon’s quote)
  • Changes topic without having explored current one

Good Listener

  • Suspends all other activities and pays attention
  • Listens for central ideas
  • Lets the other person finish each major point that she or he wants to make; does not interrupt
  • Provides proof of understanding by occasionally restating key points or asking suitable questions
  • Provides non-verbal responses, such as nods and other forms of interest
  • Speaks about the same speed as the other person
  • Maintains eye contact
  • Withholds judgement (if any) until understanding is reached

In their best-selling book, Getting to Yes, Fisher and Ury (1987) summarised good listening as follows: “Standard techniques of good listening are to pay close attention to what is said, to ask the other party to spell out carefully and clearly exactly what they mean, and to request that ideas be repeated if there is any ambiguity or uncertainty. Make it your task while listening not to phrase a response, but to understand them as they see themselves.” (p. 35)

Partners’ Meetings

A good place to start practising good listening is at your regular partners’ meetings. If you are not in the habit of having such meetings, now is an excellent time to start.

It is very important that you and your partner set aside time for regular meetings, preferably once a week, to help ensure there is transparency in what each of you are doing and that there is a degree of consultation. Not having a regular forum for structured communications is a recipe for future disputation.

To get the most from partners’ meetings, the following guidelines are recommended as a minimum:

  • Meetings need to be held without distractions, including distractions from phones and emails; after normal business hours may be the best time to schedule meetings
  • Meetings need to be held at a specified agreed time each week or fortnight so that habits can be reinforced; changes to the time or date should be the exception
  • Meetings need to be structured with a simple standard agenda covering key issues since the last meeting, and anticipated and planned actions up to the next meeting
  • Notes covering key issues need to be recorded in point form and available for future reference
  • Practise active listening skills

Most people will see the merit of having regular partners’ meetings but will fail to execute this practice in a disciplined way. They may have one or two meetings and then meetings will be postponed, and before long the default habit (of no regular meetings) will return.

With a few exceptions, recording key issues and actions is also likely to be an early casualty.

Changing habits is one of the most difficult changes to implement and where external professional assistance is likely to be invaluable.


  • Fisher, Roger & Ury, William (1987) Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, London: Arrow Books
  • Ury, William (1993) Getting Past No: Negotiating Your Way From Confrontation to Cooperation, New York: Bantam Books

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