David Caulfield

Listen Effectively


  • Take a deep breath before you walk into a conversation.
  • What is the person leaving out?
  • Paraphrase the other person's concern back to them.

Listen Effectively

Listening is a highly underdeveloped skill that most of us do not use. It is also a very difficult skill to develop. We spend about 50% of our time everyday listening. Despite this, only a tiny minority of us have ever been trained to listen effectively.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the workplace (and the college campus!). Daily conversations and arguments happen over lunch or in meetings that are often dominated by a minority of strong personalities.

As a result of a select few taking over the conversation, the people who are more reserved do not get the chance to make their opinion heard. Furthermore, if the louder person is particularly dismissive, then it is not uncommon that the quieter opinion gets pushed into the margins.

Apart from these cases, the average person can also use their listening skills more effectively with just a few techniques. Use these techniques when you need to clarify someone’s position or gain a greater understanding of a viewpoint.

I use these techniques everyday during meetings or conversations when somebody is explaining their idea. By asking some key questions and listening carefully, I make sure that I understand the message of the other person as well as make them feel comfortable speaking with me. If you are in a leadership position, this is extremely important. A leader who is a poor listener will not progress with their teams.

Take a deep breath

Breathing is a proven effective exercise for calming the mind and relaxing your body. By breathing deeply before having a conversation with a person or walking into a meeting, you de-stress your body so that the conversation is relaxed, friendly and professional.

Before you walk into a meeting or when you queue in the canteen for lunch, take a moment to breathe deeply and slowly. Breath in for 5 seconds, hold it for 5 and breathe out for 5. By doing this, you will relax and enable your brain to go into a conversation clear of distraction.

What is not being said?

Oscar Trimboli has written about the 125/400 rule before. To summarise, most of us speak about 125 words per minute. Moreover, we can process between 400 and 450 words per minute. When we are trying to explain a concept to somebody, our mind outperforms our mouths.

Without first thinking about what we want to say (and let’s face it – who does?), it is easy for our conversation to take tangents. Our mind starts to race ahead of what we are saying and instead of explaining a story with a beginning, middle and end, we jump from the beginning to somewhere else and only sometimes end up at the finish. It is very easy to lose context when we speak, particularly if we are not rehearsed.

To gain a deeper understanding of the person’s narrative, think about what they do not say. Are they missing out on explaining some technical details? Do they make an assumption that does not sound correct?

Of course, you should think about what they are not saying within the confines of the conversation. Don’t ask about the weather if you are talking about a new product feature.

But why Dave?

For example, say Dave wants to talk to you about a new login page for your customers. He explains in great detail what the login page will look like, how the user will use it and so on.

Dave has explained very clearly what his idea is, but he has not explained why he thinks we need a new login page. In fact, it is possible that the why here is much more important than the what. Has Dave identified a user scenario we have missed that requires this page? Does Dave have information about a customer that we have overlooked? Do we need to redesign the current login page?

As you can see, by simply asking Dave “Why do we need a new login page?”, we gain far more knowledge about his idea and the purpose behind it. If we had merely asked him to clarify about his new design for the login page, we would not discover this crucial piece of information.

Ask questions to uncover what was ­­_not­_ said. You will quickly gain insights into your conversations and develop deeper levels of listening and comprehension.

Repeat it back!

Have you ever noticed that it isn’t until you explain a topic to somebody else that you realise how many holes are in your understanding? The purest form of thinking is when we talk to people. By speaking our thoughts aloud, we quickly realise how little we truly know about a subject.

If you don’t believe me, pick a random topic that you know and try talking aloud about it for five minutes. Don’t prepare anything. You are doing very well if you reach the five-minute mark. This is because without preparation, it is very difficult to organise our thoughts enough that they are ready to pour out to somebody else when called upon.

By taking this into account when somebody is speaking with us, we can use this next technique to gain a deeper level of listening.


To make sure that you fully understand the other person’s viewpoint, paraphrase back to them your understanding of the conversation thus far. The other person will either nod their head vigorously, or interrupt you to correct you.

Since we can only process so much meaning in our speech, it is important that you state the other person’s concern or idea back to them so that everyone is on the same page and the conversation can progress.

If you are wondering what ­_not_ to do, have a look at this: "So you're saying..." .

To have a meaningful discussion, it is important that you represent the person’s views fairly. In debates, we call this making a “steal man” of your opponent. It is also the opposite of “straw man”. Although you should not treat conversations as debates, this concept is very important to represent somebody and make sure they are  heard for what they think, not just what they say.


Remember to take a deep breath before you start speaking in a meeting or even in a one-on-one conversation with somebody.

Think about what the other person is not saying. They may leave out key bits of information you need to fully understand what they are talking about.

Ensure that you are on the same page as the person talking by repeating back to them what you understand about their query. They will either confirm your understanding or correct it if you misunderstood something.

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