Listening Made Simple Part II: 3 Skills for Listening to Others

Updated: Nov 19, 2020

When we've learned how to listen well to ourselves, we can listen to others from a place of curiosity. We start by listening to our own stories, so that we can set them aside more easily in order to consider other "sides of the beach ball." In other words, listening well to others enables us to understand the bigger picture and make informed and intelligent decisions for ourselves, our families, our teams and our organizations.

These skills take time and energy. In a culture that is biased to advocacy and action, pausing to listen and inquire feels unnatural. In most circumstances, we have the time to listen, but we don't. At the end of this blog, we offer a quick and simple practice activity that will help you make listening a stronger muscle.

Please check out Listening Made Simple Part I: Listening to Ourselves, then return to this blog for more on listening to others.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

You might be familiar with the old fable "The Blind Men and the Elephant." Several blind men are placed near various parts of an elephant, asked to describe what they feel and guess what it is.

  • One feels a sharp, pointed side and says, "It’s a spear!"

  • One feels a rough, leathery part and says, "It’s a wall!"

  • One feels a long, wiggly piece and says, "It's a snake!"

Each is convinced they are correct. They are not wrong, but they are blind to the big picture. We are all blind and grasping at our own parts of the elephant.

Imagine the blind men are placed in a room to discuss their observations and decide what it is they all experienced. They are asked to do three things:

  1. Paraphrase what they hear

  2. Ask questions

  3. Show empathy

Using these skills, they realize that each of their perspectives is part of a larger reality—the reality of THE ELEPHANT.


Everything that we hear, we take in through our own models. We often think we know what someone is feeling or saying, and often, we are incorrect. Our stories get in the way.

Recently, I experienced a conflict with a friend, where I stated, "If we did that idea, I would feel like I had my arm cut off." What my friend heard was, "You are cutting off my arm." My comment was not directed at the friend; it was directed at the idea, but she heard it differently than I meant it.

Nobody can read minds or know what someone is feeling. Bias is natural. And to make sure that we paint a clear picture, we have to make sure we know what is intended by the person who is speaking, not by the voice in our heads.

We do this by paraphrasing what we hear. Paraphrasing enables us to learn through repeating the comment. Then, it enables the other person to understand how well they communicated and have an opportunity to clarify, before both parties walk away with different meanings.

PRO TIP: The technique of paraphrasing is best done verbally, so that you can hear tone. According to Albert Mehrabian, only seven percent of meaning is perceived through words alone, making email and text an ineffective way to practice paraphrasing.

There are several key phrases to use when paraphrasing someone's comments. These simple words make it clear that you own your perceptions and the likelihood that they may not be correct.

  • I heard you say...

  • It sounds like...

  • I notice that...

  • I perceive that... 

For example:

  • I heard you say that you feel like I am cutting off your arm.

If I had received this paraphrasing, I would have likely clarified that my thoughts were aimed at the idea, not the person, hopefully reducing the tension and enabling a more effective dialogue.


In most meetings, we assume that everyone is clear about next steps and then are later confused or frustrated when the actions we thought would occur didn't. Often, this is remedied by including a paraphrasing activity at the end of each meeting.

Use a go-around, and have each person paraphrase the next steps they believe they are responsible for. Capture all next steps in a document or on a flipchart. After everyone has spoken, ask if there are any areas of confusion. Ensure that you have at least 10 minutes to do this, even if it means cutting the discussion short and making it a "next step" to continue the conversation.

Asking Questions

When you get good at paraphrasing, start working on how you ask questions. Asking questions is an art form. A good question is something you want to collect, just like a good book. Become a question librarian.

Powerful questions are simple and open-ended, meaning that they cannot be answered "either/or" and they do not include a disguised solution. If you are someone who likes to "rescue" by swooping in and fixing a problem, watch out. Rescuing makes us feel helpful, but it also creates dependencies and prevents the other person from gaining valuable learning from finding their own way.

Powerful questions also start with "what" and "how," as opposed to "why." Why would I ask a what question? I'm getting defensive just thinking about it. Why questions tend to evoke defensiveness, which stops the conversation short. A simple change from, "Why did you do that?" to, "What caused you to take that step?" is anthropological in nature. In other words, it provokes thought, insight and discovery. Practice changing a "why" question to a "what" question fives times this week and observe what happens.

There are four types of questions:

(1)Harvest questions are used to gather ideas.

  • What's on your mind? <-- Fun fact: This is used by Facebook to prompt posts.

  • What else?

(2)Clarifying questions are used to make sure we understand those ideas.

  • How so?

  • What is working?

  • What is not working?

  • What did you mean by that?

  • What might be going on there?

(3)Process questions are used to arrive at deeper understanding.

  • What's most important about that to you?

  • What else might be going on?

  • What are you now aware of?

  • What might be behind that? 

(4)Solution questions are used to forward action.

  • What might you do next?

  • What is a first step?

  • How else might you try to...? 

Take a look at the above lists and answer honestly, what question do you ask the most?

Most people start with solution questions. Solution questions are easy, but they also mean that you're likely solving the wrong problem. A good "question script" might include one question from each category, starting with harvest questions.


HARVEST: What's on your mind?

My boss is giving me too much work. She keeps piling it on, and I have no idea what I should work on first.

CLARIFY: What might be going on there?

I think that she is under a lot of pressure from senior leadership and is unaware of how much work she has tasked me with.

PROCESS: What's most important about that to you?

If I don't know what the priorities are, I can't help her effectively.

SOLUTION: What might you do next?

I'll ask her for a quick tag up to review what I have on my plate and ask for clarification on what would be most helpful to tackle first.

Most conversations are not quite this neat and tidy, but you get the idea.

The book The Coaching Habit, has a wonderful question guide. Grab a copy, or read my summary blog for more.

  1. The Kick Start Question: What’s on your mind?

  2. The AWE Question: And what else?

  3. The Focus Question: What is the real challenge here for you?

  4. The Foundation Question: What do you want?

  5. The Lazy Question: How can I help?

  6. The Strategic Question: If you are saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?

  7. The Learning Question: What was most useful for you? 

Showing Empathy

Imagine that you are sitting with a friend who is upset. She has concerns about her marriage and feels that it will fail. I like to start the conversation about what empathy is by first talking about what empathy is not.

Empathy is NOT... Telling Your Own Story

There is a time and place for story-telling. Stories can create connection, but we often default to talking about ourselves when we are afraid to sit in stillness with someone else. Before you tell a story, consider whether this is the right time. Your story may help them, but someone in distress may not be ready to listen.

We also can't assume that our stories will help. What works for us may not work for someone else, and assuming it will can have dangerous consequences if others follow our path and end up somewhere that isn't right for them.

Instead of...

  • I've been there before...

  • I know exactly how you feel because...

  • Let me tell you..

Ask permission...

I may have experienced something similar. This may or may not be helpful to you. Would it be okay if I share it?

Empathy is NOT... Giving Advice

Yes, things would go a lot faster if we could all just tell others what to do. Giving advice is fine in parenting, mentoring or managing, but if you're aiming for empathy, you need a different muscle.

Empathy is NOT... Offering a Silver Lining

When we tell someone to look at the bright side, we ignore the pain. No one says it better than the shame researcher Brené Brown in this video on empathy versus sympathy.

Painting a silver lining around a painful situation does not make it better. It creates an uneven relationship, where the person in pain is "one-down" from the person "pain-ting." The "one-down" concept comes from Edgar Schein in his book Helping, where Schein discusses the power imbalance that is ignored when providing "help."

Empathy = Equality

As Brown demonstrates, true empathy means being with someone as equals. It is going into the "hole" or sitting in the "fire." It is listening and saying nothing. It is being uncomfortable and being okay with being uncomfortable. It is knowing that you cannot know and being okay with the not knowing. It's knowing that you cannot help and being okay with the fact that you cannot help. It is as simple as not saying anything and knowing that not saying anything is one of the hardest things for you to do.

The actions of empathy:

  • Showing up

  • Silence

  • Eye contact

  • Leaning in

  • When appropriate, physical touch

The words of empathy:

  • I'm here to listen.

  • Tell me more.

  • How can I support you?

Most people in pain just want someone to listen. They want to be acknowledged. Our job in empathy is to fight every urge to fill the silence.

Listening is a service. It takes energy and practice. There is a reason that we pay people to listen to us. Having someone listen to us is healing. It validates our stories and makes it easier for us to listen back.

Try This: A Formula for Listening (30 Seconds)

Combining the skills of paraphrasing and asking questions gives us a ninja listening move, following a paraphrased thought with a question. This skill takes between 30 seconds and a minute to practice. Try it and observe what happens.

Let's apply this to our friend with the marriage concerns.

  • I heard you say you're concerned about your marriage. What did you mean by that?

  • It sounds like you have some fears. What else is coming up?

The simple act of paraphrasing and asking a question gives others the gift of deeper thinking and processing.

The final step is empathy, sitting in the stillness and discomfort without the need to fix, help, rescue or solve.

Just be.

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