Coach’s Corner Blog

10 Ways to Listen Better and Be “Fully Present”

January 4, 2017 by 6 Comments


Tuesday’s with Morrie is a book by Mitch Albom that came out in 1997 and topped the bestsellers list for Non-Fiction and was also made into a movie.

It is about Morrie Schwartz, a former Brandeis University sociology professor who contracted ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and the relationship Albom rekindled with him after seeing a Nightline television news report on how Morrie was dealing with this crippling and fatal disease.

I thought about it recently when I had encountered a couple of situations, both personal and professional, where I was challenged in my own ability to be a good listener.

Albom came to visit Morrie on Tuesdays just to reconnect with his former teacher, who he had not spoken with since graduating sixteen years earlier. Here’s what Albom had to say about a key thing that resonated with him about this connection:

I came to love the way Morrie lit up when I entered the room. He did this for many people, I know, but it was his special talent to make each visitor feel that the smile was unique.

And it didn’t stop with the greeting. When Morrie was with you, he was really with you. He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world.

How much better would people get along if their first encounter each day were like this – instead of a grumble from a waitress or a bus driver or a boss?

In Morrie’s words:

I believe in being fully present. That means you should be with the person you’re with. When I’m talking to you now, Mitch, I try to keep focused only on what is going on between us. I am not thinking about something we said last week. I am not thinking about what’s coming up this Friday. I am not thinking about doing another Koppel show, or about what medications I’m taking. I am talking to you. I am thinking about you.

I remembered how he used to teach this idea on the Group Process class back at Brandeis. I had scoffed back then, thinking this was hardly a lesson plan for a university course. Learning to pay attention? How important could that be?

I now know that it is more important than almost everything they taught us in college.

Sorting Through the Noise

We live in a world where this simple notion of being fully present is often overwhelmed by the cacophony of “noise” and the invited avalanche of bright shiny objects that pop up on our smartphones, computers, tablets and on the TVs that are on everywhere, all the time.

Some of this “noise” can be useful and productive when we can sort out the important from the trivial, but that can be hard to do.

Lost in this tsunami of stimulation is the ability or skill of being at peace long enough to have a meaningful conversation and demonstrate our interest in another person’s worldview or needs.

Listening, really listening, with our whole being, is a skill and one of the most important compliments we can give another human being.

I don’t have a magic prescription for creating a “fully present” connection, but I do have some suggestions for how you can engage in a more productive conversation whether it’s business or personal.

The Top 10 Rules for Effective Listening

  1. Stop Talking! It is difficult to listen and speak at the same time.
  2. Put the other person at ease. Give them space and time and “permission” to speak their piece. How we look at them, how we stand or sit, make a huge difference. Relax, and let them relax as well.
  3. Show the other person that you want to hear them. Look at them. Nod when you can agree, ask them to explain further if you don’t understand. Listen to understand them and their words, rather than just for your turn to respond.
  4. Remove distractions. Good listening means being willing to not answer the phone, close a door, or stop reading your mail. Give the speaker your full attention, and let them know they are getting your full attention. I once experienced a client who was on the office phone with one person, scanning email while she spoke and texting on her cell phone. You can’t do all of those well.
  5. Empathize with the other person. Especially if they are telling you something painful, or something you intensely disagree with, take a moment to stand in their shoes, to look at the situation from their point of view. Empathy is highly correlated to executive success.
  6. Be patient. Some people take longer to find the right word, to make a point or clarify an issue. Give the speaker time to get it all out before you jump in with your reply. Never finish someone else’s statements for them. If you have a time constraint, tell the other person up front but be willing to provide a specific time for a follow-up later.
  7. Watch your own emotions. If what they are saying creates an emotional response in you, be extra vigilant to listen carefully, with attention to the intent and full meaning of their words. When we are angry, frightened or upset, we often miss critical parts of what is being said to us.
  8. Be very slow to disagree, criticize or argue. Even if you disagree, let them have their point of view. If you respond in a way that makes the other person defensive, even if you “win” the argument, you may lose something far more valuable!
  9. Ask lots of questions. Ask the speaker to clarify, to say more, give an example, or explain further. It will help them speak more precisely and it will help you hear and understand them more accurately.
  10. STOP TALKING! This is both the first and the last point, because all other tools depend on it. Nature gave us two ears and only one tongue, which is a gentle hint that we should listen twice as much as we talk.

Ask yourself:

  • Which 3 of these 10 Rules should I focus upon that would have the greatest impact on improving my listening? Try to improve them for the next month and see what happens.
  • How long can I concentrate on just one thing, like counting to 50, that reflects my ability to focus?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments section below.


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    Michael Liang June 19, 2014, 7:13 pm

    Hi, Willy, I particularly enjoyed this article … the references to Tuesdays with Morrie were great. I actually gave that book as a Christmas gift to the entire BVP a few years ago. We can all be better listeners, and me especially. Thanks for putting this together.



    Tim Trapp June 25, 2014, 3:33 pm

    Good stuff. Another one is “seek first to understand then to be understood”.


    Scot Phillips January 6, 2017, 7:54 pm

    Thanks Willy! I always need a reminder, especially at the first of the year, to be a better listener and keep my mouth shut.


      Willy January 11, 2017, 7:22 pm

      That’s why #s 1 and 10 are Stop Talking. A fellow I follow said the following regarding when to decide to involve yourself in a discussion: ” Am I willing, at this time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?” Worth considering. All the best for 2017 for you and yours and thanks for following my work. Willy


    Bryce Edwards January 6, 2017, 8:07 pm

    Willy, these are wonderful lessons to learn and re-learn throughout life. Thank you. I think we have spoken of a corollary to your 10 tips. It had to do with the question: “What is the appropriate ratio of listening to talking in any meeting?” Many people offer responses such as 80% listening/20% talking, but the somewhat “trick” answer is 100%/100% – when listening, do it 100%, when speaking, focus on salient thoughts 100%.


      Willy January 11, 2017, 7:18 pm

      Happy New Year to you and Mary Helen. I love the 100%/100% challenge. Pulling that off would benefit everybody! All the best in 2017! Willy


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