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Dr. Ken Druck: Six Ways to Become an Exceptional Listener

reallife rulesThere are very few things in life as powerful as the experience of feeling understood. Looking into someone’s eyes after telling them how we really feel — and seeing that they get it, they really understand, is the basis for trust, caring and respect. It’s also how we get to really know one another.

Successful relationships are those in which people truly listen. The best guidelines for how to listen come from an unlikely source, the “Instructions to the jury” read by judges. The judge instructs jurors to “keep an open mind,” “not form or express an opinion about this case while the trial is going on” and “not decide on a verdict until after you have heard all the evidence and have discussed it thoroughly with your fellow jurors…”

These words also describe what it takes to be a good listener. Good listening has the power of forging bonds between strangers, saving a struggling child, transforming a company, revitalizing stagnant relationships, saving a friendship and even preventing a suicide. Learning to really “be with” another person by listening to them as if our lives depended on it, can and has positively changed the course of a life, family, community and a nation.

What does it take to be an exceptional listener? Here are a few keys:

1. Provide A Safe Environment: At the core of good listening is safety. Good listeners allow others a kind of safe haven — a place where they aren’t judged, but where their thoughts and feelings are welcomed, respected, explored, and understood. People feel safe being who they are and saying what they really feel. Feeling understood allows them to trust you genuinely care.

2. Release All Judgment: Suspending one’s judgment and truly listening to the merits of what somebody is saying in an unbiased way is a profound and powerful way of putting one’s own emotions and reactions on hold and tuning in to the substance of any given conversation. Right now, if I’m listening to you, it’s about you. It’s not about what I feel, what I may think, or whether I agree. It’s not about my personal reaction. All of that can come later — after I have a true understanding of your position. And, if I’ve done a good job demonstrating I care about you by listening well, then you’re more likely to want to listen to me in return.

3. Use Prefacing to Set the Tone and Intention: At the beginning of a conversation, I suggest both parties make a statement of good intention. “What I want from bringing this issue up is …” That conveys good faith. I call this technique “prefacing.” Prefacing means, quite literally, setting a clear and positive tone for the conversation that’s about to take place. In a corporate environment, you might say, “The reason I wanted to talk with you is to __________. I’d like to talk for a few minutes. Then, I’d love to hear your thoughts and brainstorm about how to move forward. I’m hoping we can come out of this with __________ [the desired outcome].”

4. Show Empathy and Compassion: True listening doesn’t mean, “All right, yeah, okay, got it, thanks” or “Yes, but …” These phrases smack of impatience. I’m talking about listening that’s real and authentic. Selfless. Uncontaminated. Patient. Compassionate. Free of projection or unsolicited advice. Empathy and compassion are also reflected in affirming, patient and relaxed body language.

5. Calm Your Thoughts and Impulses: The temptation to speak out, venture an opinion, give unsolicited advice and/or find a solution to the other person’s “problem” can be great. Some of us have great difficulty containing our impulse to say something when the best, most loving and effective thing we can do is simply listen, draw the other person out with open-ended questions, help them explore their options and arrive at sound decisions. If you need to bite your tongue to restrain yourself, that’s OK. The best parents and spouses and executives in the world have scar tissue on their tongues. Take a deep breath and relax. Trust the process!

6. Ask Open-Ended Questions: Becoming a more effective listener requires tuning in and mastering the art of asking open-ended or clarifying questions — talking less and listening more. Here are some sample questions that you could agree to start asking more frequently. 

“I am not sure what you mean? Please explain.”

“What was it like for you when that happened?” 

“What do you think your next step should be?” 

“What are your options?”

“Can you tell me more?”

“When you say [insert what the person has said], what I’m hearing is that [insert your interpretation of what was said]. Is that correct?”

Good listening means being in service to the other person. Showing up. Tuning in. Focusing on them. Our minds are still and calm. We are present. This is not about our thoughts, feelings, needs and/or agenda. We’re are not trying to fix or figure them out, trying to take away their pain or “heal” them. We are there as a caring witness and support, showing empathy and compassion. Listening.  Attentive.  Whether it’s between a parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, friends, family members, business associates, executive management teammates or nations, the willingness to listen and have a real conversation can make all the difference.

Ken Druck, Ph.D., a renowned communications and resilience expert, is the author of The Real Rules of Life (Hay House, May 2013). Visit for a free self-assessment tool, The Listening Report Card, or pick up a copy of The Real Rules of Life for further examples of how good listening can transform your life.